Green groups press for progressive upset in Texas House race

The Hill, Greg Nash/AP, Eric Gay

Progressives and environmental groups hope to make Jessica Cisneros’s primary rematch with Rep. Henry Cuellar (Texas) a referendum on the nine-term House Democrat’s fossil-fuel industry ties and what they view as lackluster support for the party’s broader climate agenda.

Cisneros, an immigration attorney and onetime intern in Cuellar’s office, lost to him by fewer than 3,000 votes in 2020. But green groups are bullish on her chances in the upcoming March 1 contest for Texas’s 28th District, citing dynamics that didn’t exist in the previous race.

While progressives have long been critical of Cuellar for his ties to the oil industry, dubbing him “Big Oil’s favorite Democrat,” they are also now focusing on last year’s winter storms in Texas as well as President Biden’s stalled climate agenda to go after the House Democrat.

“We’re a year into a Democratic trifecta in which one of the biggest threats to the success of the Biden presidency has been folks with a ‘D’ next to their name who are not actually prepared to advance the Democratic agenda, and Rep. Cuellar is one of those folks,” argued Leah Greenberg, executive director at the progressive organization Indivisible.

While climatologists have tied climate change to more intense storms like the one last year that knocked out power to millions of homes and businesses in the Lone Star State, environmental groups have also focused on such storms to highlight concerns about the energy grid and advocate for alternative energy sources.

The 2021 power outages in Texas have been attributed to failure to winterize the state’s self-contained power grid, and nearly twice as much oil, gas and nuclear energy generation went offline during the storm as renewable energy, according to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. 

Greenberg argued the freeze illustrated the dangers of over-reliance on fossil fuels, saying the storm “fundamentally … refocuses us on the urgency of how we need to be identifying alternate power solutions and actively working to meet people’s needs” in the event of such extreme weather events.

“For the first time, voters [are] feeling the climate crisis in a really personal way,” Ellen Sciales, communications director for the progressive environmental group Sunrise Movement, told The Hill.

“The climate crisis is shaping the voting patterns and what people are looking for in campaigns in Texas,” she said.

Advocates are quick to highlight Cuellar’s energy ties: In this election cycle, he has received a total of $151,500 in contributions from the oil and gas industry, according to data from OpenSecrets. Cisneros, in contrast, backs a Green New Deal, saying “the way we address climate change needs to be as aggressive as the threat it poses.”

Environmentalists are also dissatisfied with Cuellar’s record on the Biden administration’s climate agenda, Sciales said. Cuellar was one of nine centrist House Democrats who pushed Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to introduce the since-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill before the larger reconciliation measure. The more ambitious Build Back Better package has since stalled in the Senate, and some progressives have blamed the decision to pass the bills separately for the impasse.

Another factor that was not present in the 2020 primary is the January FBI raid on Cuellar’s home and campaign office in Laredo, reportedly in connection with a federal probe relating to Azerbaijan. Cuellar has denied any wrongdoing and told ABC News through an aide that he will fully cooperate with any investigation.

Cisneros has already received the endorsement of several national progressive figures for her 2022 bid, including from Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), all of whom arrived in Congress after defeating longtime Democratic incumbents.

And, like Reps. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) and Marie Newman (D-Ill.), she’s hoping to succeed on her second try after Cuellar narrowly won in the previous cycle. On Monday, Cisneros also secured the endorsement of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who endorsed her in 2020 as well.

Still, progressives face an uphill climb in their bid to unseat Cuellar. The Democratic lawmaker won his 2020 general election by about 20 points and has defended his environmental policies as reflecting his constituents and projecting jobs in his district, which is the sixth-largest oil producer in the state.

Cisneros differs from members like Ocasio-Cortez, Bush, Bowman and Pressley in one key respect: All of them were elected to solidly Democratic districts and, with the exception of Bush, in reliably blue states. In contrast, Biden won Texas’s 28th District by only about 4 points in 2020, a 6-point rightward shift from 2016. Under its recently redrawn lines, Biden would have won 53 percent to 46 percent, but it remains among the most purple districts where such a high-profile contest has emerged.

Cuellar has rebuked many of the progressive policies associated with the “Squad” of progressive representatives even before Cisneros’s challenge, claiming in 2019 that the Green New Deal would cost thousands of jobs in Texas’s Webb County.

A Cuellar staffer pointed to the 40,000 oil- and gas-related jobs in the 28th District, as well as the billions in income taxes the industry contributes to the district’s infrastructure and economy.

The staffer called the idea that the congressman is beholden to the oil lobby “ridiculous” and noted his 97 percent voting record in alignment with the Biden administration.

“I don’t know anybody who’s in the pocket of Big Oil who would have that type of voting record,” he said.

The staffer also highlighted Cuellar’s record on environmental and energy issues such as combating algae blooms and cleanup of brownfields and Superfund sites, saying the congressman has a history of substantive solutions in contrast to Cisneros.

“Her plan is pro-Green New Deal … a congressional resolution that’s a wish list that’s going to cost over $100 million,” the staffer said.

Cisneros, meanwhile, has argued progressive environmental policies need not be a non-starter even in a more moderate district.

“I can’t go to someone’s door and ask them, ‘What do you think about the Green New Deal?’ because they have no frame of reference as to what that means,” she said in 2020. “We’re unpacking what it means: investment in solar and wind and infrastructure more than anything, and what jobs that could create for the people here. Jobs are what excites people.”

And since then, advocates argue that events like last year’s have convinced voters that climate and the environment are not left or right issues.

“Climate crises and climate disasters like this is … they happen to everyone,” said Paris Moran, digital director for Sunrise and a native of the San Antonio area.

“When you have those more personal issues hitting home for Texans, that’s what they’re going to come out to vote for,” added Sciales.

The Cisneros campaign did not respond to a request for comment from The Hill.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Ayanna Pressley Bernie Sanders Cori Bush Henry Cuellar Jessica Cisneros Joe Biden Nancy Pelosi Texas House Race Texas winter storms
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