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Could criminal charges hurt Rep. Cuellar’s reelection? Constituents say not in Texas

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, questions U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas as he testifies before a House Appropriations Subcommittee on April 27, 2022 in Washington, D.C.<br/>
Kevin Dietsch
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U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, questions U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas as he testifies before a House Appropriations Subcommittee on April 27, 2022 in Washington, D.C.

LAREDO, TEXAS -- When a particular polling site in Laredo, Texas lights up, it could easily be mistaken for a block party.

The administrative building for the Laredo Fire Department hosts long lines of voters and competing political candidates blare Tejano music on large stereos nearby while drivers honk and wave support.

During the state’s most recent primary runoff elections, Texas Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar was not on the ballot because he did not have a challenger this year. However, he remains top of mind for this shell-shocked community.

In May, Cuellar and his wife, Imelda, were indicted on 14 federal criminal charges, including conspiracy, bribery and money laundering. He has denied the allegations.

Political watchers say it could threaten Cuellar’s reelection bid this year -- a key seat in Democrats' aims to flip control of the U.S. House. But constituents say that kind of thinking does not hold up in Texas.

A long family history in Laredo

“Known the family all my life,” said Democrat Rolé San Miguel, a former Laredo police officer who went on to win his primary for constable of a local precinct.

San Miguel spent his career in law enforcement but even that isn't stopping him or his family from backing Cuellar. His brother, Charlie, a former Laredo City Council member, explains further.

“He's Laredo's son. I mean, I've seen him, you know, fight for us. I've seen him in Washington, D.C., fighting for us,” he said, while campaigning for his brother at the same polling site.

Like the Cuellar family, the San Miguels are also well known here, led by their late patriarch who was a popular preacher at a local church.

Cuellar is considered by many to be the most powerful Democrat in Texas. He fended off a progressive Democratic primary challenger last election to win his tenth term in Congress representing the state’s 28th congressional district that stretches from Laredo to the outskirts of San Antonio.

He has built up a long list of honors here, including an elementary school that carries his name. And his siblings have served in elected roles.

Many in this district were angry when they learned Cuellar was in the center of a public corruption case that has so far drawn three guilty pleas from other key witnesses.

Some, like Democrat Azucena Garcia-Palacios say anger and frustration won't keep her from backing Cuellar.

“I’m gonna vote for Cuellar, as much as I may not like it," she told NPR in an interview at her home around the corner from the polling site.

In 2022, Garcia-Palacios voted reluctantly for Cuellar — she wanted a more left leaning Democrat.

Now, she thinks he’s guilty, but she’s voting for him again.

Doubts about his guilt and love for his contributions

And many Cuellar supporters say they don't believe the allegations against him.

“Come on. People aren't dumb. We see what's going on. Everybody knows what's going on. We can see it,” said Charlie San Miguel, 56, adding in Spanish, “we aren’t idiots.”

He thinks Cuellar was targeted by President Biden and other Democrats for speaking out against their border policies -- a popular claim here, even if it's lacking in evidence. They highlight Cuellar’s fight for more support along the border and complaints that key administration officials, including Vice President Kamala Harris, have not made good on addressing the crisis.

Charlie San Miguel's son, Roberto, adds that what makes Cuellar hated by Democrats -- his conservative stances on the border and other issues such as limits on abortion access -- are what make him an enduring political figure here.

“Before we claim our political parties, we're primarily conservative,” said Roberto San Miguel, 34, a local firefighter.

Roberto San Miguel adds that Cuellar will come out on top because he's done a lot for the community as a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

“I appreciate what he's done, what his family's done. They all bring millions - tens of millions of dollars to this town,” he said. “And, you know, government jobs here in Laredo are real big.”

Split-ticket appeal

It's also part of what makes Cuellar draw split voters like the San Miguels and others who vote Republican for the president and Democrat for their Congressmen.

Former President Donald Trump is also facing charges in multiple states and was recently convicted of fraud in New York.

And here, voters are also familiar with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. The state's top law enforcement officer kept his job even as he faced state securities fraud charges for nearly a decade. In March, Paxton agreed to pay restitution and perform community service to close the case.

Cuellar’s criminal trial is now set to begin next year. He says he has no plans to resign.

“My wife and I are innocent, and we'll have our day in court,” he recently told NPR in a conversation on Capitol Hill when Congress was in session.

But the allegations have given hope to his GOP challenger, Navy veteran Jay Furman, for a potential upset. Cuellar, for his part, continues to campaign in his district, highlighting wins for Laredo in this year's government funding plan.

“I'm doing my work. You know, we've been voting,” he said. “We passed one of the appropriation bills today. I'm delivering to the district. So I'm going to continue working, representing the district.”

Within days of his indictment, Cuellar got a key endorsement. Trump broke with his party to defend the Democrat against the criminal allegations, calling him a respected congressman who would not play Biden's “border game."

The San Miguels and others say that will be a boost to Cuellar’s campaign.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Corrected: June 22, 2024 at 1:03 PM CDT
A previous version of this story mistakenly included a photo of a political billboard for Martin Cuellar, incorrectly identified as his brother, Congressman Henry Cuellar.
Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.