A Democratic Dogfight

Ciro Rodriguez
District 28: survival of the richest

As the poll returns came in on the Election Night 2002, it looked like Democratic challenger Henry Cuellar might upend GOP incumbent and mainstay Henry Bonilla in the race for Congressional District 23.

Well into the night, the results came in from the last county - Bexar County - tipping the election hand towards Bonilla, who won by a 52-47 margin.

Two years later, after Congressional redistricting carved up Texas with the finesse of a chainsaw massacre, Cuellar faces incumbent Ciro Rodriguez in the Democratic primary.

"I didn't go looking for Ciro," says Cuellar, who served as Secretary of State under Republican Governor Rick Perry.

Regardless, Cuellar's found him, as the District 28 race has turned ugly, with verbal barbs flying from both sides. Although it is legal for a candidate or Congressperson to live outside their Congressional district, Rodriguez is taking Cuellar to task for living in District 23, which means the challenger can't vote for himself. (Who will Cuellar vote for in his district? Only the ballot box knows: "The only question I will answer is about the 28th District," he says.)

Meanwhile, Cuellar had to loan himself $239,000 to run his campaign. While legal, that assertion sounds disingenuous against Cuellar's statement that he "outraised the incumbent."

According to the Federal Election Commission, Cuellar has raised $543,000, which includes his loan to himself, and spent $484,000.

Rodriguez has raised $478,000, much of it from labor unions' political action committees; he has spent $452,000.

But on to the issues.

The Patriot Act:

In the Texas House, Cuellar authored a bill that allowed public school students to be searched if they were on probation, parole, or released under supervision. As for the Patriot Act, Cuellar says, "I'm very pro-law enforcement. We should give them the tools to do the job. But it has to be balanced with civil liberties; we should look at it provision by provision."

Rodriguez voted for the Patriot Act in October 2001. "We voted for it knowing it would be sunsetted," says Rodriguez. (Although in his State of the Union Address, President Bush asked Congress to make it permanent.) Some things needed to happen, such as allowing wiretaps on cell phones `if a warrant has been approved for a land line`. But it has gone overboard on some things."


"What is the exit strategy?" asks Cuellar. "Is the military doing nation-building? We should have made that $87 billion a loan, not a grant, and Iraq should have to pay it back through oil reserves. We could use that money for domestic programs."

Henry Cuellar
Rodriguez voted against the use of force in Iraq, but voted for the $87 billion to help rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan. (Eight million dollars also went to fight FTAA protesters in Miami.)

"There is no evidence tying 9-11 to Sadaam Hussein," Rodriguez says. "It was the Saudis, but we're still doing business with the same people."

Health care:

Cuellar, who pushed for the children's health program, CHIP, in the statehouse, is emphasizing cheaper prescription drugs, particularly for senior citizens. Rodriguez agrees that Congress has not "come to grips with prescription drug coverage."


With Laredo in his district, Rodriguez supported the North American Free Trade Agreement, but acknowledges the 10-year-old accord has failed small businesses. "Corporate America benefits at the expense of small businesses. We haven't developed a program for them. The small guy has a rough time in the global economy."

Roads, development, and water issues continue to be the issues on the border," says Rodriguez. "We need to look at an assessment of rail and the lack of infrastructure in the colonias."

Rodriguez notes that free trade should be fair. "You don't use prison and child labor. You look at the environmental impacts on the workers," he says. "I never voted for fast track `which gave Bush unilateral authority to negotiate trade agreements` because the House has a role to play in treaties.

Job creation along the border is paramount for Cuellar, who adds that educating the workforce through junior college training programs is the one way to convince companies to provide higher-paying jobs there. "We need just new jobs, but we need to be helping existing businesses," he says.


Rodriguez opposes Bush's proposed amnesty plan that would allow undocumented Mexican Nationals in the U.S. to register and work in the U.S. for three years. Eventually, they could apply for citizenship, but that, says Rodriguez, is a big if. "We don't need another bracero program," he says, referring to the U.S. policy in the '40s that legally imported thousands of Mexican agricultural workers - many never received the wages due them. "It creates a second tier of people who are discriminated against." Rodriguez says employers could keep wages artificially low for Mexicans who would work for substandard wages to qualify for amnesty. "It hurts the American and Mexican worker. The immigrants who are here, we need to identify them and pay them fair wages."

Cuellar, whose father was born in Mexico and became a naturalized citizen, says his priority is to fund the Immigration and Naturalization Service to minimize long delays for Mexicans who want to become U.S. citizens.

Rodriguez, who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, says it has been difficult to work with President Bush on Latino issues, and that he could get along with any Democrat who wins the presidential nomination. "We've only met with Bush once. We've met with `Mexican` President Vicente Fox more than our own president. Clinton knew about the issues, but Bush is not prepared and doesn't care." •


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