Jessica Cisneros discusses her grassroots-powered run for Congress

by | Oct 29, 2021 | Politics, Signal Q&A

The Signal recently spoke with Jessica Cisneros, an immigration and human rights attorney running for Congress in Texas’ 28th congressional district. 

In 2020, Cisneros made headlines when she came within less than 2,700 votes of defeating Rep. Henry Cuellar, a conservative Democrat who has held the seat since 2005. 

Cisneros is running on a progressive platform that includes supporting a federal $15 an hour minimum wage, single-payer Medicare for All, and tuition-free public college and trade school. 

Here’s what she had to say about her grassroots campaign, important issues in her district, and negotiations in Congress over Biden’s Build it Back Better Act:

What issue do you find voters in your district care about the most? 

I think the two issues that come up anywhere in the district — obviously the map look a little bit different from last time, but most of the district is still the same and we’ve already been doing field outreach and we’ve been doing phonebanks, we actually had one yesterday — the same issues that we kept hearing last time and this cycle tend to be healthcare and jobs.

Jobs generally, increasing the minimum wage, job diversity since there are limited pathways to the middle class here in the district, and job creation of course. Healthcare in terms of a lot of people having to go to  Mexico to get the care they need or wait until their 65 to be able to apply for Medicare. Those are predominantly the issues that we hear not just in Laredo, but also in San Antonio and the Rio Grande Valley as well.

I wanted to get your opinion on negotiations in Congress over the Build it Back Better Act and the infrastructure bill. I’m curious if you were in Henry Cuellar’s position how you would be handling this.

There’s been polling done in the district that shows that it’s overwhelmingly popular, the provisions from the original Build it Back Better Act that did include Medicare expansion, and child care, and tuition-free community college. 

They’re very popular provisions and I think it demonstrated that this is what people want and that’s why people like Cuellar are at risk of losing their seat because instead of actually listening to people and voting the way that the district wants them to vote, he’s out there catering to his corporate and Republican donors.

The poll showed he had a low favorability in terms of re-election and it’s really easy to see the connection there, the fact that there’s a very really popular budget proposal and he’s not voting for it so therefore it makes him very unpopular. 

I mean, he’s basically doing the Republican work in terms of watering down the provisions of the bill instead of passing the strongest version of it possible. He’s either pretending to be naive or thinks that the electorate in our district is dumb because he knows the compromise was that the infrastructure bill was going to pass at the same time as the budget — that was the compromise.

Instead, he’s doing everything in his power to undermine the part of this bill package that were the promises that Democrats ran on and won. He’s doing what he always does, he’s just obstructing investment in South Texas.

The most insulting part is that he’s trying to take credit for the wins that Democrats do manage to win.

You’re running a campaign that doesn’t take corporate PAC money or money from lobbyists. Can you talk to me about that? 

Of course, I think part of the reason why there’s so much excitement this time around — more than there was last time — is because, and I say this to folks all the time, we’re asking people to imagine almost the impossible, that it is possible to run a campaign that doesn’t take that kind of money, that doesn’t take corporate PAC money or lobbyist money and is grassroots in a district like Texas 28 that is pretty big, it runs from San Antonio down to Laredo and then down to the RGV, its a lot of ground to cover.

Especially going up against someone like Henry Cuellar who has a pretty significant war chest, obviously funded by big oil and the private prison industry and the Koch network, etc. — and we were 2,700 votes away from defeating him. A lot of that was because we were doing the ground-game work, that this was an inspiring campaign for so many people and they saw themselves reflected in the campaign, and they got excited for politics. 

A lot of people told us that, you know, “I’ve never really been involved in a campaign or volunteered, but I really like what you’re doing and what you’re standing up for and I wanted to support you.”

This time around the enthusiasm is so much stronger because we did come very close to defeating him and now people know, yes he is vulnerable and this time we’re not just gonna get close we’re actually gonna win. 

And that’s what we’ve been hearing on the phones, yesterday we were able to recruit new volunteers and entire families saying, we supported you last time we’re absolutely going to come out for you this time around. There are actually new voters, people that turned 18 who are registered to vote now that said they would come out and support our campaign.

It feels pretty great that people haven’t forgotten the work that went into all of this two years ago, so I think victory is going to taste that much sweeter this time.

Can you talk to me more about that volunteer base and how it’s changed since 2020?

We’re still barely beginning, part of that was because we didn’t know what the district was going to look like until this week, and we’re still waiting to get our voter files updated. 

We already have over 100 volunteers signed up, probably closer to 120 maybe 150. We’re starting to build out that volunteer base that we need because we already are 18 weeks from election day since it’s set for March 1. 

We’ve got folks doing all kinds of work, even basically reusing the stuff that we had from last time and updating because we are a grassroots campaign and we’re always trying to save every penny possible and make sure that if we can recycle something we absolutely will. So, like changing dates on things  — obviously, we’re still running on the same platform, I’m not running on things just because the polling looks good or whatever, we’re running on this because these are my values and these are my morals, my messaging hasn’t really changed we saw how powerful it resonated with people. 

We’re putting our volunteers to work, anything they can do for the campaign we will absolutely take it.

That’s pretty funny, can you give me an example of something y’all have been recycling to save dollars? 

Yeah, for example, my dad and volunteers from last time went around town in the district and went to go pick up 4×8 signs that campaigns usually have.

Some people decided to keep them and there’s still some up from last cycle, but other folks were like, no take it and save it and if Jesicca’s going to run again please feel free to use it. So they gave it back to the campaign and we’ve been storing them.

Now they’re being updated to reflect the early voting period that starts on February 14 and election day on March 1. So they’ve been painting over that, making sure it matches our iconic magenta campaign color and putting on the numbers, and it’s been stuff like that. Our door hangers, again, reflect the right information now that we know it’s going to be a March 1 primary date. 

Is there anything you’d like to talk about that I didn’t ask? 

In terms of our strategy and outreach, it’s going to be a little bit different this time since we are counting on a few new counties that are a part of our district now. We’re pretty pumped that we have a bigger chunk of San Antonio which is an area that we love to be in and campaign in and also where we did really well. 

We won by a lot here in San Antonio (we’re actually in San Antonio visiting today) and it’s exciting that the district did become bluer, so I think it increases our chances of being able to win, and I think its a matter of being able to count on the resources and volunteer power. 

We had a great first quarter, we announced in August so we actually were only able to count on two months of fundraising, and I am also working full time. So I’m doing the campaign full-time, I’m working full-time, and we were able to raise over $450,000 on grassroots contributions, which is awesome. I think we tripled the amount that we raised in our first quarter last time around. So it just goes to show how much stronger we are this time. And again I attribute our successful launch and how well things have gone in the campaign to all the work everyone put in a couple of years ago. 

fernando@texassignal.com | + posts

Fernando covers Texas politics and government at the Texas Signal. Before joining the Signal, Fernando spent two years at the Houston Chronicle and previously interned at Houston’s NPR station News 88.7. He is a graduate of the University of Houston, Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, and enjoys reading, highlighting things, and arguing on social media. You can follow him on Twitter at @fernramirez93 or email at fernando@texassignal.com

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