AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Henry Cuellar and the Art of the Deal

The Laredo congressman publicly opposes the border wall, but keeps voting to fund it in his own district. Is he a savvy compromiser, or is he compromised?


Above: Representative Henry Cuellar speaks in front of the West Wing after a meeting with President Donald Trump in 2017.

Three things are true. Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, does not like the border wall. Congressman Henry Cuellar has voted twice to fund the border wall in his own district. Congressman Henry Cuellar thinks his constituents should see that as a victory.

An old-school Blue Dog Democrat first elected in 2004, Cuellar represents a district that’s anchored in Laredo but meanders north to San Antonio and southeast to Mission. Over the years, Cuellar has taken flak for backing Republican candidates, supporting anti-abortion legislation and taking gobs of private-prison cash. But he’s well-settled in his district: His most recent primary challenger pulled in only 10 percent of the vote. In the Trump era, Cuellar has carved out a role for himself as a border wall deal-maker, standing somewhere between his fellow border Democrats, who tend to oppose all wall funding, and his coastal party bosses, who tend to view the particulars of the border as parochial issues.

Existing concrete levee-wall with steel bollards on top in Hidalgo County.  Gus Bova

In March 2018, Cuellar voted to fund 33 miles of new border wall — much of it in his district in Starr and Hidalgo counties — after helping win protection for the federal Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. (Then-congressman Beto O’Rourke joined him in that vote.) In February, Cuellar helped negotiate a deal to avert a government shutdown that included $1.375 billion for another 55 miles of wall — most of it slated for his district in Starr County. Cuellar touted the deal as a win for the borderlands because the legislation included new exemptions for four sites — a state park, the La Lomita chapel, the National Butterfly Center and Elon Musk’s SpaceX test site — as well as a requirement that Customs and Border Protection consult with certain local officials about the location of the wall. Cuellar was the only border representative to serve on the negotiating group, and the only Texas border Democrat to vote for it. Even as Cuellar celebrated by holding a press conference with Nancy Pelosi in Laredo, which had been spared the newly funded wall, some Valley activists were livid.

“Cuellar’s track record on the border wall is abysmal,” said Scott Nicol, a McAllen-based Sierra Club activist and member of the No Border Wall coalition. Nicol noted that in the 2019 negotiations, Cuellar was working to save sites he himself had previously voted to wall off. “It doesn’t seem like being in the room has brought any benefits,” Nicol said. “We need members of Congress to speak out more forcefully against walls, and basically eliminate them from the public discourse.”

Inherent to Cuellar’s deals is that somebody gets screwed. Take Nayda Alvarez, a schoolteacher and Cuellar constituent who lives next to the river in unincorporated Starr County. The February funding deal means a wall is headed for her backyard. Alvarez, who got a personal call from Cuellar around the time of the deal, said she doesn’t feel well-represented. “He says he’s trying, and he blames it on Trump and the Republicans, but you don’t just jump on the bandwagon with everybody else because there’s more of them,” she said. “I honestly think he sold Starr County out.”

Protesters at demonstration against the border wall in McAllen in 2018.  Gus Bova

But Cuellar thinks his critics are being unrealistic. “Bottom line: If I had the little red button, we would have no wall,” he told the Observer, noting that his deals occurred with Republicans dominant in Washington, D.C. “If you don’t have the votes, then you try to work out a compromise that’s in the best interest of your district.”

Cuellar said striking the February deal was no small task, requiring support from Pelosi and the White House, with a government shutdown looming. Asked to respond to constituents like Alvarez, he said: “I tried the best I could to prevent as much fencing as possible … Any person should realize we don’t control the White House.” And to those who question why he didn’t vote with his border colleagues, he added: “Even though there are some things I don’t like, I don’t vote to shut down the government.”

At a point, the debate comes down to counterfactuals. If Cuellar hadn’t been at the table, would the deal have been even worse for South Texans? If Cuellar had stood firm, might Trump’s wall in Texas have been stopped altogether? Those questions could figure prominently in 2020, as the progressive Justice Democrats PAC has promised to back a primary challenge to Cuellar. Such a contest should reveal whether the district’s voters hunger for a more strident progressive, or if they appreciate the art of the deal.