Jessica Cisneros is not done: How taking on a political machine transformed South Texas

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Four months after running for Congress, Jessica Cisneros has settled into a different routine. Instead of knocking doors, she is drafting motions and affidavits as an immigration attorney. Instead of dialing voters, she is on the phone with clients and other attorneys to discuss strategy. Instead of organizing a listening tour across her district, she is helping design plans to improve Census outreach in South Texas.

Though her setting has shifted from the campaign trail to a virtual courtroom, Cisneros’ goal remains the same: deliver justice and hope to her community.

A 26-year-old Latina from the border — a fronteriza — Cisneros was never supposed to challenge a 15-year incumbent. She was not meant to come shockingly close to ousting one of the most conservative Democrats in the U.S. House — that’s not the political playbook authored by the Democratic establishment. And yet, Jessica Cisneros, a human rights attorney and daughter of Mexican immigrants, came within 3,000 votes of becoming the youngest woman elected to Congress in American history.

The incumbent, Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar, has represented a significant portion of South Texas — a sweeping district running from south San Antonio to his hometown of Laredo to Mission along the U.S.-Mexico border — since 2005 without any serious challenges before Cisneros. A self-proclaimed conservative in a Democratic stronghold, Cuellar once advocated that more Democrats embrace moderate conservatism, and consistently voted with President Donald Trump nearly 70 percent of the time in a district that Trump lost by almost 20 points — signifying a misalignment between Cuellar’s voting record and the values of the district. Before Cuellar, parts of South Texas and Laredo were represented by Republican Rep. Henry Bonilla since 1997. 

That is to say, much of South Texas has not seen progressive representation in a generation.

In mounting a serious challenge to take on an entrenched political machine, Cisneros did something in South Texas that has not happened in more than two decades: inspire hope that fundamental change is within striking distance. Cisneros’ campaign invited thousands of South Texans into the fight for social, racial, economic, and environmental justice, and built the progressive organizing infrastructure that the community will leverage to demand nothing short of transformation from its representatives far beyond the 2020 election.

“A lot of the reasons people were showing up was because of their own pain; their own story; their own struggles,” said Cisneros, who would open volunteer events by asking for the stories of why people were volunteering in the first place. “Why I feel so hopeful after the campaign is that we made a lot of connections within our community.”

Cisneros was asked to run for Congress by her community.

She was first nominated to run by her former high school teacher. The daughter of a truck driver and a stay-at-home mom, Cisneros grew up in a working-class Mexican immigrant family in Laredo who, fittingly, knew that education would be a gamechanger. Cisneros finished first in her class in high school, and then went to college and law school at the University of Texas, incurring six-figure debt from school loans.

Not dissimilar to many of the working families of South Texas, which has nearly double the poverty rate of the rest of the U.S., Cisneros’ family story is rooted in economic struggle. She grew up in a community that had commonly resorted to lotería fundraisers, chicken plate sales at roadsides, and GoFundMe pages to cover medical expenses.

“You [saw] an entire community behind [Cisneros] because you know that these stories are not just for one person,” said Alejandro Garcia, a Laredo native who joined the campaign as a field organizer after consistently volunteering for two months, about the shared stories of Cisneros’ supporters. “Because you, yourself, have experienced growing up and being around the people she was fighting for.”

Understanding the struggle of working people firsthand, Cisneros ran on an unabashedly bold platform to deliver Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, a $15 minimum wage, and comprehensive immigration reform to South Texas — all while rejecting corporate PAC money. 

“The absence of [these policies] created stories like mine,” Cisneros said about the roots of her progressive platform, which was formed in part by her upbringing. “We didn’t just talk about the policy, we talked about how it would actually impact us on a day-to-day.”

True to the people that these policies would lift up the most, Cisneros focused her campaign on reaching and listening to working-class and marginalized voters in the district. She spent time in colonias — low-income border communities that often lack basic public service infrastructure such as potable water, electricity, waste management, and drainage systems — that have long been neglected by Cuellar, such as La Presa. The residents of La Presa, who lack access to water and paved roads, had not seen a congressional candidate in more than 20 years. 

Cisneros not only engaged people for the first time in a generation. She asked for their vote and she asked them to join the campaign by volunteering. This outreach mobilized both young and old volunteers — affectionately named “mothers of the movement” by the campaign — to knock doors, make phone calls, send texts, and ask their friends and family to vote for Cisneros. She represented the change they had long hoped for.

“What the campaign built is going to be something that lasts. People have been waiting for this, and have been waiting a long time,” said Garcia, the field organizer from Laredo who never intended to join a campaign and whose family phone banked for the first time for Cisneros. “I wanted to wake up [election day] knowing that I did everything I could in order to help my family and my friends, and the people who essentially made the person who Jessica is.”

In addressing the daily struggle of the community, Cisneros successfully created a tight-knit connected network of volunteers, friends, and organizers who stand ready to continue demanding change from people in power like Cuellar.

Jessica Cisneros, an immigration attorney who ran for Congress, canvassing in La Presa, a colonia long neglected by the incumbent. | Photo courtesy of Jessica Cisneros 

The resiliency of the progressive community and organizing infrastructure that Cisneros inspired and connected was quickly evident following the end of the campaign. A group of campaign volunteers, activists, and healthcare workers quickly organized a public health campaign around COVID-19 to prevent the spread of the virus in South Texas, combat disinformation, and educate the community. 

Younger volunteers across South Texas have recently gotten involved in local Democratic party politics in an effort to push for change from within. 

Further bridging the Rio Grande Valley, Laredo, and South Texas, many volunteers, staff, and advocacy groups who backed Cisneros have coalesced to elect Sara Stapleton-Barrera, a constitutional attorney who is challenging a longtime conservative incumbent similar to Cuellar, in a runoff election for state senate in the Valley.

“We were able to train our organizers and equip them with skills that weren’t just going to be helpful during the campaign, but even after,” Cisneros said about her volunteers and staff. “The thing that I’m most proud of is seeing how they’re continuing to do the work, and taking what they learned from the campaign and putting it toward another effort helpful for the community.”

Given the historic nature of the race, South Texas also received an unprecedented level of national attention and organizing resources. South Texas, a region that has been largely neglected by both the state and the country, became the epicenter of political change because of Cisneros’ race. That moment has endured through the current sweep of protests against racial injustice and police murders of Black people. 

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a national movement reach Laredo [before now],” Garcia said of the district, which has held multiple protests with many of Cisneros’ volunteers as active participants. “The community now feels part of something bigger.”

“This is literally just the beginning”

Cisneros laid the groundwork for tested progressives across South Texas to continue flexing their political strength; however, their federal representation — Cuellar — remains unchanged.

Cisneros once worked for Cuellar. It’s part of why she challenged him.

In 2014, Cisneros wanted to learn about the legislative process and spent most of her internship answering phones and handling constituent requests at Cuellar’s office in Washington, D.C. There, she recognized his veneered record on women’s rights, poverty, and healthcare. Because Cuellar had not faced a primary challenge since 2006, his voting record — which has been called anti-abortion, pro-gun, anti-immigrant, and more loyal to corporations than his constituents — had never been scrutinized in full.

“Unfortunately, politicians take advantage of the fact that people here are living paycheck-to-paycheck, and don’t have the opportunity to go out and vote, and don’t have the time to be activists,” Garcia said about his community. “If [my mother] would have had the opportunity to be an activist when she was younger, she would have. But at 16 [years old], she had to already start working. Those are the types of situations that politicians here take advantage of.”

The race to represent South Texas, in many ways, became one of salient contrasts. 

While Cisneros took on a career as an immigration attorney to represent people in immigration court as they faced deportation proceedings while detained, Cuellar took money from immigrant detention centers and private prisons, and has twice voted to fund Trump’s border wall construction. While Cisneros advocated for gun safety laws and carried the endorsements of NARAL and Planned Parenthood, Cuellar touted an “A” rating by the National Rifle Association — one of just three House Democrats in the country — and co-sponsored anti-abortion legislation.

In contrast to Cuellar’s stream of big money from Americans for Prosperity Action, a conservative super PAC founded and funded by the Koch brothers, Cisneros carried the endorsements and support of progressive heavyweights on the national stage like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Sec. Julián Castro, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as well as a coalition of labor unions and progressive groups like the Texas AFL-CIO, SEIU, CWA, Working Families Party, Texas Organizing Project, and Justice Democrats. 

Jessica Cisneros at a rally in Austin with Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Cisneros also carried the backing of progressives Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sec. Julián Castro, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. | Photo courtesy of Jessica Cisneros

“This is literally just the beginning,” said Garcia, who has continued his involvement as a communications officer with Planned Parenthood Texas Votes, the Texas political arm of Planned Parenthood, which Cuellar voted to defund. “Incumbents aren’t immortal.”

Cisneros has now returned to her career as an immigration attorney, but she is far from done. The campaign was never about just her as a candidate. She helped strangers across the border and South Texas become friends and allies in the long struggle for justice and better representation. Cisneros has no plans to leave the fight.

“One of the reasons why everyday people make great leaders, whether it be in the halls of Congress or in other positions, is because they have everyday experiences that remind them of the urgency of why the policy they are fighting for is needed,” Cisneros noted of the continued struggle. “I never want to forget that because seeing the pain and suffering that my clients are going through reminds me why I decided to run for Congress in the first place. Because they need a solution now, and they can’t wait.”

“We have to be each other’s hope,” she added.
Jessica Cisneros, with a community of neighbors, volunteers, and supporters behind her, proved that you can take on an entire political machine. While she didn’t win, she paved the way for thousands of other fronterizas to dare to hope that South Texas deserves more.

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