Rodriguez Runs for Political Life

Cuellar In Aggressive Primary Bid

Posted February 10, 2004 at 6:22pm

Texas Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D) is bracing for the toughest race of his Congressional career after a Republican-led redistricting added significant new territory to his San Antonio-based district.

In an odd twist of fate, Republicans took portions of the Laredo area in Webb County out of Rep. Henry Bonilla’s (R) 23rd district to shore him up following a closer-than-expected race against former state Rep. Henry Cuellar (D) in 2002.

That area of Webb County was added to the 28th district, which led Cuellar to launch a primary challenge this year against Rodriguez, who was a major advocate on his behalf last cycle. Cuellar’s primary residence is still in Bonilla’s 23rd district, however.

The two will face off in a March 2 primary.

Cuellar is running an aggressive campaign; he is already up with television and radio commercials and is touting a December poll that showed Rodriguez holding a 42 percent to 30 percent edge.

That survey, conducted by Global Strategy Group, showed that Cuellar and Bonilla had similar name identification scores and favorable/unfavorable ratios.

Rodriguez, who has not yet begun advertising on television for the primary, said he was unconcerned about Cuellar’s level of activity.

“If the election were held right now I would win pretty handily,” he predicted.

The new 28th district stretches across eastern and southern Bexar County in the San Antonio area, then dives south, encompassing all or part of five other counties including Webb.

Using a strong base in San Antonio and solid support from labor, Rodriguez won an April 1997 special election to replace Rep. Frank Tejeda (D). He has not been seriously challenged since then.

Cuellar’s campaign is seeking to make Rodriguez’s San Antonio base a major issue in the campaign.

“San Antonio has four Congressmen,” said Cuellar campaign manager Colin Strother. “Henry thinks border and rural areas should have one of their own.”

Rodriguez said that during his 11 years in the state Legislature prior to being elected to Congress, he had represented all but Hays and Webb counties.

The Laredo area is the “only area where I am not doing well,” said Rodriguez, adding: “[Cuellar] has been working hard and we have been at it.”

Both campaigns agreed that roughly one-third of the vote will come from Bexar County, one-third from Webb County and the remaining one-third from the more rural counties joining the two.

In his 2002 race against Bonilla, Cuellar carried Webb County 84 percent to 15 percent thanks in part to the backing of Laredo Mayor Betty Flores. Flores has endorsed Rodriguez in this race.

Despite his strong showing in Webb, Cuellar was soundly beaten in Bexar County 75 percent to 24 percent and lost districtwide to Bonilla 52 percent to 47 percent.

Cuellar ran what has been widely acknowledged in Democratic circles as a terrible race, spending only one-quarter of the $1 million he raised on television advertising. Bonilla raised and spent nearly $2.5 million.

Seeking to correct the mistakes of his last race, Cuellar is taking the fight early to Rodriguez, with ads running districtwide on radio and television introducing him to voters.

“I grew up in Laredo in a family of eight children where my parents worked as migrant workers,” Cuellar says in the TV spot. He goes on to tout his time in the state Legislature as well as his service as Texas secretary of state.

Rodriguez’s camp argued that Cuellar is placing all his hopes on that one ad, noting that he had just $50,000 in the bank at year’s end. Rodriguez had $177,000 in his campaign coffers at that time.

Cuellar did outraise Rodriguez by $20,000 in the final three months of 2003, however. Cuellar’s total included a $17,000 personal contribution to the campaign.

Seeking to turn the ad against Cuellar, Rodriguez said the former state legislator’s decision to challenge him was “really hard hitting because of the fact he had been appointed by [Republican Gov.] Rick Perry as secretary of state.”

Although Cuellar stayed in the job only 10 months, his decision to accept it coupled with his endorsement of then-Gov. George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election made some Democrats leery of supporting Cuellar even during his campaign against Bonilla.

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, the highest-ranking Democrat in Laredo, said publicly at the time that she did not believe Cuellar could defeat Bonilla.

Rodriguez said that despite Cuellar’s past flirtations with Republicans he was “the first one to welcome [Cuellar] back and embrace him and support him.”

Cuellar’s campaign dismissed the impact of his past ties to Republicans.

“Democrats in Texas are a different animal,” said Strother, the campaign manager. “Henry has always worked with whomever it took to get the job done.”

Strother quickly pivoted, calling Rodriguez an “extremist” and a “bomb thrower” who has accomplished little for the district during his tenure.

“The saying on the south side of San Antonio is ‘Ciro has done zero,’” Strother said.

Rodriguez replied that Toyota is bringing a plant to Bexar County, a major boost for the local economy, and that he has regularly worked on border issues regarding customs.

“We are real optimistic and real positive,” he said.