Stimulus Check Up | Apr 8, 2022 | 0
Analysis: Why the FBI searched the home of a Texas Democratic congressman
But, why? That’s the $25,000 question — and one I put to the Houston Chronicle’s Ben Wermund, who has been reporting on the story of late.
Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.
Cillizza: Prior to the FBI coming to Cuellar’s house and campaign HQ last week, did we have any sense that Cuellar was on the radar of the Justice Department?
Wermund: No, the searches last week were seemingly out of nowhere, and everyone I have talked to while reporting on this was surprised by the news.
Cuellar is a big figure in Texas, and in DC. He’s one of the most senior members of the Texas delegation, now in his 17th year in Congress. He has a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee and serves as a chief deputy whip, as well.
Wermund: The investigation Cuellar is tied up in is reportedly connected to a wide-ranging federal probe relating to Azerbaijan, a former Soviet state in eastern Europe, and several US businessmen.
Few details are known about the ongoing FBI investigation, but Cuellar has long ties to Kemal Oksuz, a former Houston-based businessman who was convicted of lying to Congress about Azerbaijan’s role in funding a 2013 trip to the Eastern European nation for 10 lawmakers (Cuellar was not one of them).
Cillizza: What has Cuellar said about all of this? Or is he not talking?
Wermund: Cuellar has mostly been quiet since the FBI searches last Wednesday. His office issued a statement that night saying he was fully cooperating with the investigation. They have not responded to other requests since.
Cuellar made his first public appearance since the searches on Friday. He appeared via Zoom to accept an award from Democrats for Life of America. He did not talk about the FBI case during the appearance.
Cillizza: What impact — if any — has this controversy had on Cuellar’s reelection prospects this November?
Wermund: The FBI investigation comes just as Cuellar’s reelection campaign was heating up, with early voting set to start in just a few weeks in a Democratic primary rematch with Jessica Cisneros, a progressive immigration attorney who came within 3 percentage points of unseating Cuellar in 2020. Tannya Benavides, a former teacher and political organizer based in Laredo, has joined this year’s primary race, as well, inspired in part by the success Cisneros saw in 2020.
Cisneros has so far opted to not use the FBI investigation against Cuellar, only issuing a statement last week that she is watching it closely. Her campaign made a bigger deal about Cuellar appearing at [an] anti-abortion rally on Friday.
Benavides issued a similar statement last week, saying, “We have an opportunity with this election to start a new chapter for South Texas.”
Cuellar’s campaign, meanwhile, launched a new TV ad over the weekend depicting Cuellar’s roots as one of eight children working alongside their parents in ‘las piscas,’ or the fields.
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “In January 2023, the member of Congress representing Laredo will be ____________.” Now, explain.
Wermund: At this point, the March 1 primary is the race to watch.
The district has long been solidly blue — Cuellar won the 2020 general election by nearly 20 points — and it was just redrawn to be a bit more Democratic.
That said, Cuellar — one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress — has argued that it’s actually more of a swing district and has stayed blue because of his moderate politics.
The GOP is also set to compete there in a way they haven’t in the past after Republicans made some surprising gains in South Texas during the 2020 elections. Seven Republicans are vying to take on Cuellar in the Republican primary, and the National Republican Congressional Committee has targeted him.