Skip to Content

In The News

Houston Chronicle: Cuellar: from migrant family to increasing clout in Congress

Cuellar: from migrant family to increasing clout in Congress

By David McCumber
September 28, 2014 | Updated: September 28, 2014 10:35pm


It's a humble little white house perched on one of the hills that give Laredo's Las Lomas neighborhood its name.

From the crest of that little hill on Reynolds Street, you can see a world of opportunity.

Martín and Odilia Cuellar raised eight children in this house. Three are in law enforcement; two are lawyers. Of those, one is a Laredo municipal judge; one is the Webb County sheriff.

Their eldest, Henry Roberto Cuellar, looked out from the hill and saw the farthest.

His vista extended to five college degrees. A law practice and customs brokerage. Fourteen years in the Texas Legislature. A year as Texas secretary of state, and another decade as the U.S. representative from the 28th District of Texas.

In the crucible of this year's immigration crisis, which has thrown a spotlight on the polarization and dysfunction of Congress, Cuellar has remained firmly on middle ground - irritating many other Democrats but surprising no one who knows him well. He was the only Democrat to vote for a House bill that would have made it easier to deport unaccompanied minors from Central America.

"We have to send a signal," he said.

For the brother of a sheriff, that "signal" is letting the citizens of other countries know that the rule of law means something here. At the same time, when the surge threatened to overwhelm Border Patrol and ICE resources, he was the first to call for a FEMA-like humanitarian response. And he remains firmly in favor of comprehensive immigration reform.

Suddenly this summer, Cuellar was a media must-have. One day he did nine national interviews. He will remain a go-to voice on immigration policy. For some, it's just another issue. For Cuellar, it's literally where he lives.

Cuellar is a conservative Democrat. These days in Congress, conservative Democrats are like whooping cranes.

Cuellar is not shy about reminding his colleagues about this. In a recent Democratic strategy session, he raised a hand and said, "So, let's focus on all the remaining liberal districts out there that we can win to regain the majority." After the ensuing uncomfortable silence, an aide confides: "When you raise your hand at these things, I wince."

Creating a work ethic

Odilia and Martín traveled as far north as Idaho each year, working the harvests. By the time Henry was 3, Odilia said, they decided the migrant life was too tough on the family, and they settled in Laredo, where Martín found work as a gardener and ranch manager.

As a kid, Henry "always had his nose in a book," said his brother Martín, the Webb County sheriff. "The opposite of me." Now, the sheriff says, he tells his kids, "Be like your uncle, not like me. Read."

Odilia and Martín did not speak English, so they couldn't help the kids directly with their homework. But they helped in other ways.

"Work was what my dad knew and what he cared about," Cuellar says. "Other kids got up on Saturday and watched the cartoons. My dad told us, 'You finish your work first.' So we would be out at the crack of dawn, mowing and raking, so we could watch the Jetsons."

Martín also taught his children self-reliance.

"He doesn't like debt," Cuellar says, "and he doesn't trust lawyers. When I became one, he said, 'At least you'll be my lawyer.' "

"My mom," he adds, "was all about studying. 'Study, study, study.' She would make sure we sat down to do our homework right away and didn't get up until it was done."

Henry graduated from Nixon High School and enrolled at Laredo Community College, where he would graduate summa cum laude.

Then he went to Georgetown University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in foreign service, again with honors. After that came a master's in international trade at Texas A&M International University in Laredo, followed by both a law degree and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas.

In a town that is all about striving for a better life, Henry Cuellar is perhaps the biggest striver of all.

A Texas legacy

"This was my first campaign headquarters," Cuellar says, pulling up to a tiny, bedraggled building on Clark Street now serving as Alondra's Beauty Salon. "I was in my early 30s, but my nickname was 'grandfather' because all of my campaign workers were high school and college kids."

From the beginning as a state representative in 1987, Cuellar was laser-focused on improving educational opportunity. He was a key player in enabling the Texas Grant program, which guarantees college funding for needy students with strong academic records.

"Whatever else he does, that's a huge part of his legacy in Texas," said Juan Maldonado, president of Laredo Community College.

Ray Keck, president of Cuellar's other hometown alma mater, Texas A&M International University, says, "Henry … has been vital to the growth of this institution."

Cuellar is proud as he drives past TAMIU's sparkling campus, past the Dr. Henry Cuellar Elementary School, past the airport.

"We've gotten $100 million for this airport in the last 10 years," he says. "I'm about to announce $5 million more."

In 2002, Cuellar's political ambition aimed him toward Washington. He took on popular five-term incumbent Republican Rep. Henry Bonilla of San Antonio, and lost - though only by about 2 percentage points. Cuellar and Bonilla braced for a rematch.

But a GOP-led redistricting in 2003 split the city of Laredo, making Bonilla's seat safer and pushing much of Laredo into the 28th District, held by San Antonio Democrat Ciro Rodriguez.

"I didn't go looking for a fight with Ciro," Cuellar said, "but that's the way it worked out."

The primary was bitterly fought. After the initial tally, Rodriguez led by a scant 145 votes, but a recount flipped the result, giving Cuellar a 58-vote margin.

District 28 would be changed again after a court challenge, and it became largely Laredo, solidifying Cuellar's power base. He now receives only token opposition.

In January 2005, Cuellar flew his parents to Washington for his swearing-in. It was the first time Odilia and Martín had been on a plane. They didn't understand all the words that were being spoken as they watched the ceremony. But they certainly understood that their eldest son was now also their congressman.

Now, Odilia is 86 and Martín is 88. "We are blessed," Odilia says simply. "Blessed with good children."

Raising funds

Cuellar's reception from his own party in Washington was decidedly frosty. He had endorsed fellow Texan George W. Bush for president in 2000, and he had beaten a popular Democrat.

But in time, tensions within the caucus eased. Cuellar's skill at relationship-building helped - and so did his talent at fundraising.

He is always among the first in each Congress to give his "tithe" to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. And he raises much more for other Democrats, in a variety of ways.

Cuellar came out early and strong for Hillary Clinton in 2007, hosting a fundraiser for her that raised more than $200,000.

He has major fundraisers every year in Washington and Houston as well as in his district. His annual Washington event last week featured cooks imported from Laredo's celebrated Palenque Grill. It drew a significant number of Republicans as well as the traditional Democratic crowd. But the money all goes to Democrats.

Cuellar views his prodigious fundraising as a "pass" for voting flexibility.

"I'm for my district, for Texas, for America, and then for my party," he says.

Webb County GOP Chairman Randy Blair of Laredo admits it's hard to run anybody against Cuellar.

"He's reaching across the aisle, working with Republicans like Sen. (John) Cornyn, and he's even standing up to President Obama a lot of the time," he says.

Blair was critical of Cuellar for supporting Obamacare but admitted, "He's been in office a long time and he's popular."

"Am I a good Democrat? Check out the DCCC totals," Cuellar says. "Some of the Democrats who talk the loudest don't put up the money when it counts."

Strong ties in Mexico

Cuellar is enormously well-connected in Mexico. He befriended Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto while the Mexican politician was still governor of the state of Mexico. Cuellar was with the charismatic young leader in Mexico City on the night he was elected president.

Last year, Cuellar was mortified when Pena Nieto came to Washington before being sworn in, and he was given the cold shoulder by some. Cuellar said House Speaker John Boehner declined to see Pena Nieto, referring Cuellar instead to then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor. After waiting for 10 minutes outside Cantor's office, Pena Nieto left.

Cuellar is equally critical of the White House for lack of engagement with Mexico.

A counterpart in Mexico's equivalent of the House, Diputado Marco Gonzalez of Nuevo Leon, said Cuellar "is one of the best promoters of the U.S.-Mexico relationship in Washington. We need more congressmen to see Mexico as a friend, not a troublemaker."

'I love Texas'

What's next for Cuellar politically?

As Texas turns purple and then blue, Cuellar may be the kind of Democrat - a moderate Latino gun-rights supporter - who would do well in a statewide race. He thinks 2018 might be the time when a Democrat could win statewide. There's both the governorship and a Senate seat that year.

"I love Texas, and someday I'd like to go home and run statewide," Cuellar said. But for now, he is enjoying the clout his increasing seniority, added visibility and safe seat give him. "I still have work to do here," he said, which sounds a lot like something his father would say.