South Texas House Race Still in Limbo

Posted May 21, 2004 at 6:43pm

More than two months after the conclusion of the state’s Congressional primaries, former Texas Secretary of State Henry Cuellar and Rep. Ciro Rodriguez continue to fight over who is the rightful Democratic nominee in the 28th district.

Both men are continuing to raise money and are reaching out to Members of Congress for financial and moral support.

After two recounts and a court challenge, Cuellar leads Rodriguez by 58 votes out of more than 48,000 cast. But the four-term incumbent has refused to concede defeat, choosing instead to file an appeal to an unfavorable May 12 decision by a state district court judge.

John Puder, Rodriguez’s campaign manager, said that by disallowing evidence of alleged vote tampering in Cuellar’s Webb County base, Judge Joe Hart set the stage for an appeal.

“Once we are able to present the evidence we are in great shape,” Puder maintained. He added that Rodriguez’s Congressional colleagues are supportive of his legal appeals.

“They have been telling the Congressman to fight back,” Puder said.

Even as Rodriguez fights for his political life, Cuellar has largely turned his attention to November where he is a strong favorite against Republican nominee Jim Hopson.

“We won the race and we won the court challenge,” said Cuellar spokesman Colin Strother, who said his boss is “100 percent” focused on the general election.

He characterized Rodriguez’s latest appeal as “just Ciro trying to remain relevant.”

The drama in this majority-Hispanic, South Texas district began late last year when the Republican-controlled state Legislature drew Webb County, which is dominated by the city of Laredo, into the previously San Antonio-based 28th district.

Cuellar, who had nearly upset Rep. Henry Bonilla (R) when Laredo was in the 23rd district last cycle, quickly announced he would challenge Rodriguez.

In a race funded primarily from his own pocket, Cuellar outspent Rodriguez, as both men concentrated on turning out their geographic bases. In the March 9 primary, Rodriguez appeared to win by less than 150 votes.

A subsequent recount of the district’s 11 counties turned up more than 400 untabulated votes in Webb and Zapata counties, both of which went overwhelmingly for Cuellar in the primary. After those votes were included, Cuellar led by 203.

Rodriguez filed suit, demanding a second recount in Webb and Zapata counties as well as an opportunity to invalidate allegedly illegal votes cast in those areas.

Hart, the district judge, threw out the latter request since Rodriguez’s lawyers had missed the deadline to present that evidence.

After the second recount in Webb, Cuellar’s districtwide margin slipped to just 58 votes.

“The Webb County miracle disappeared,” said Puder of the re-recount results, adding that the votes covered in fraud allegations are “well in excess of 58 votes.”

Rodriguez’s legal team filed briefs to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday; Cuellar now has a week to respond with a brief defending the district judge’s decision.

The appeals court can either rule based on the briefs or remand the case back to Judge Hart. A decision is expected within the month.

Amid these legal machinations, Strother said Cuellar has run into few protests either from Rodriguez’s Congressional colleagues or voters in the district as he touts himself as the party’s nominee.

Strother said that Cuellar has been in touch with the Texas Congressional delegation and that he “looks forward to working with them.”

“A few Congressmen said, ‘We have to let this play out, but if you win we are going to work together with you,’” Strother added.

Rodriguez too is being encouraged by his colleagues, Puder said.

“We have received overwhelming support from Democratic Members,” he said. “That has come through contributions and moral support.”

At this point, both men are continuing to try to raise money despite the limbo in which they find themselves. Through March 31, Cuellar had $94,000 in the bank and Rodriguez had $18,000. Despite that funding disparity, Puder said Rodriguez is “still raising money every single day.”

“We have the ability to keep raising money to fund this fight,” he added.

Strother said that a number of people in Washington, D.C., have offered to help raise money for Cuellar. “The fundraising is tremendous,” he said.