In South Texas, Henry Cuellar’s Case Stirs an Old Feeling: Distrust

In Texas’ 28th Congressional District, which stretches from Laredo and the southern U.S. border to the eastern suburbs of San Antonio, tensions are brewing as Representative Henry Cuellar, a centrist Democrat, faces federal bribery charges.

So far, Democratic elected officials, members of Congress and party leaders at home and in Washington have refrained from calling for his resignation. Donald J. Trump has defended him, and even one of Mr. Cuellar’s potential Republican opponents has said Mr. Cuellar is innocent until proven guilty. Many voters don’t believe he will lose his re-election bid.

Yet some local Democrats worry that his case could have consequences up and down the ballot in November. They fear his legal troubles could dampen Democratic turnout in the historically blue, majority-Hispanic counties that have seen a surprising rightward shift in recent years.

Voter apathy and institutional distrust run deep in South Texas. The list of indicted area elected officials, past and present, is long: One study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago ranked the South Texas region 11th in the nation in public-corruption convictions — there were 873 cases from 1976 to 2021.

Mr. Cuellar’s indictment may reinforce the distrust of public officials, local Democrats said, at a time when the party is seeking to engage the larger Hispanic electorate nationwide.

Sylvia Bruní, the chairwoman of the Webb County Democratic Party in Laredo, Mr. Cuellar’s hometown, put it this way: “The most common refrain we hear from people who have not registered or have not voted is ‘De que sirve? Todos están comprados.’” Translation: “What’s the use of voting? Politicians — they’re all bought.”

Mr. Cuellar, 68, has declared his innocence and pledged to maintain his focus on his re-election in the fall. Eric Reed, one of his lawyers, rejected the notion that the disclosure of the allegations would shatter the faith that the people of his district had in him.

“Congressman Cuellar appreciates the confidence of his constituents and others who truly know,” Mr. Reed said, citing Mr. Cuellar’s humble origins as the son of migrant workers.

Federal court records paint a more cynical image of Mr. Cuellar, whom many consider a South Texas institution: He and his wife, Imelda Cuellar, are accused of accepting at least $598,000 in bribes, over seven years, from a Mexican bank and an oil company owned by the government of Azerbaijan. Prosecutors believe Mr. Cuellar received the payments to, among other things, influence legislation in favor of Azerbaijan, a former Soviet nation.

Three people — his former campaign manager, a consultant and the president of a Houston nonprofit — have pleaded guilty in the case. Mr. Cuellar’s indictment represents only the second time in modern history that a sitting member of Congress has been charged with acting as a foreign agent. The first, Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, has pleaded not guilty and is on trial this week.

In interviews with more than two dozen voters in his South Texas district, many said they were opting to reserve judgment until Mr. Cuellar has had his day in court. Some who had voted for him in the past believed they might do so again. And yet, beneath the deliberations lurked an undercurrent of disillusionment with the political establishment and a hardened distrust of those in power.

Democrats debated the veracity of the charges, saying they did not believe Mr. Cuellar would stoop so low, or contending that, if he had, his behavior had not been out of step with other elected officials in Washington.

“I think it’s probably just to get him out of a position or something,” said Marcy Cruz, 35, a Democrat and a parent tutor at a school district in the small border city of Roma.

To several Republicans and right-leaning independents, Mr. Cuellar had likely become a political target because he had been a vocal critic of the Biden administration on immigration. “He’s a conservative — that’s why I think they’re after him,” said Joe Falcon, 69, a retired teacher, as he walked from a Mexican restaurant in nearby Rio Grande City.

Outside a discount market in Zapata, Selma and Avalino Jasso, independents who tend to vote Republican, summed up the prevailing sentiment. “I don’t know if that’s true or not,” Ms. Jasso said of the case against Mr. Cuellar. “But I can tell you, in this area, he’s not the only one.”

In Mr. Cuellar’s district, home to some 767,000 people, the median household income is roughly $60,000, and only about 22 percent of the population has earned a bachelor’s degree or above.

The district runs from the eastern outskirts of San Antonio, across miles of farm and ranch land, to the western slope of the Rio Grande, where American patriotism and Tejano pride converge. Many residents identify strongly with both their Mexican and their American roots, and have long pushed back against political narratives that define their region solely in terms of national battles over immigration or perceptions of corruption.

To his longtime supporters, the charges against Mr. Cuellar and his wife have been a shock. They had seen Mr. Cuellar as an exception to those negative portrayals, the rare politician who remembered where he had come from and returned to his hometown to give back. To his detractors, Mr. Cuellar had come to represent everything they see as wrong with politics, a world of entrenched political and corporate interests that have left the majority of the community behind.

Since 1987, Mr. Cuellar, a lawyer and former licensed customs broker, has represented his region as a state lawmaker, state secretary and congressman. He has cultivated a blue-collar image and a reputation for pragmatism. The lone anti-abortion Democrat in Congress and at times a sharp critic of the Biden administration, he has forged powerful relationships with both Democrats and Republicans, though his voting record shows that he sides with President Biden nearly 96 percent of the time.

Signs that the political ground was shifting under Mr. Cuellar drew national attention in 2020. Donald Trump reversed years of electoral history in South Texas that presidential election year, riding a wave of anger over a struggling economy and growing dissatisfaction among Hispanic voters with an old guard of Democratic leadership.

Mr. Cuellar’s district was a focal point: In Webb County, which includes Laredo, Republicans doubled their usual turnout. Just to the south, Mr. Trump flipped Zapata County for the first time in a century. Texas Monthly described Starr County, further south, as the place that had experienced the largest rightward turn of any county nationwide; Hillary Clinton had clinched victory there by a margin of 60 percentage points in 2016, but Mr. Biden claimed it by only 5.

The challenges were coming not only from the right. In 2020 and 2022, Jessica Cisneros, a young immigration lawyer and progressive Democrat, sought to oust Mr. Cuellar. She lost twice but had come close; her second loss came within a single percentage point.

In her most recent primary campaign, she and her supporters seized on Mr. Cuellar’s relationship with Azerbaijani interests and wealthy American donors to suggest that he had lost touch with the district. News that federal agents had raided Mr. Cuellar’s home and office appeared to boost her chances.

“We need someone who works for us, not themselves,” declared a TV ad from Justice Democrats, the progressive group that had bolstered her campaign.

Mr. Cuellar’s ability to survive, bruised but victorious, has since fueled a belief in his district, even among his critics, that he is likely to stay in office, regardless of the way the case plays out. In the 2022 general election he beat his Republican opponent, Cassy Garcia, by more than 13 percentage points, though she and her supporters had cast him as corrupt.

Some Latino voter advocates point to broader feelings of cynicism and disillusionment pervading the Hispanic electorate, elsewhere in Texas and around the country.

Latinos now make up the largest and one of the fastest-growing segments of minority voters in the nation, yet have the lowest levels of civic engagement and participation at the ballot box. There has been much debate about what has driven those trends.

Some scholars blame high poverty and low education levels. Others suggest that the nation’s two major parties have not spent enough time and resources on Hispanic outreach. Still others point to increased distrust among many Latinos in the political system.

What’s not under debate, voters and strategists said, is one potential solution to the distrust and skepticism: Maintaining their faith and confidence in those Hispanic community leaders who anonymously abide by the law and their duty to the public. The cases against Mr. Cuellar and Mr. Menendez, both of whom happen to be Latino, severely undermine that faith and trust, said Mike Madrid, an author and longtime Hispanic Republican strategist.

“For Latinos, they reinforce the idea that these representatives are not out for the community, and for the broader society, they reinforce a stereotype,” Mr. Madrid said.

In South Texas, the campaign arm of the House Republicans has called for Mr. Cuellar’s resignation. Some local Republican leaders and volunteers believe the charges have helped strengthen their argument to Hispanic voters that it was time for new leadership, in Mr. Cuellar’s race and in heated House contests nearby.

“It is another very blatant example of Democrats not prioritizing Americans,” said Deborah Bell, the incoming head of the Cameron County Republican Party in Brownsville.

Democrats argue that Republican criticisms fall flat, as Mr. Trump himself is on trial over allegations that he falsified business records, and has called Mr. Cuellar a target of the Biden administration. Few Republican candidates have publicly commented on the case.

In Laredo, Kristine Reyna, who backed Mr. Cuellar’s Democratic challenger, Ms. Cisneros, said she was considering leaving her ballot blank for Mr. Cuellar in November. She doubted that other Democrats would vote Republican, but believed her party would probably have to work harder to get them to vote at all.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if this year we had a record low turnout because of this,” she said of Mr. Cuellar’s case. “The sentiment now is, ‘What’s the point? Everyone is crooked.’”

Kenneth P. Vogel contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett contributed research.