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Congressional Progressives Try Playing Ball With The Establishment-- & Get Crushed For Their Efforts



Henry Cuellar, once widely known as Bush's favorite Democrat, represents a deep blue (D+9) district in South Texas (TX-28) stretching from the suburbs east of San Antonio down to the Mexico border at Laredo and southeast to McAllen. All 9 counties-- Webb, Bexar and Hidalgo having most of the voters-- in this low turnout district are blue and Cuellar routinely beats his Republican challengers, when he even has one. In 2018 he didn't and scored 84.4% against a Libertarian. (He's so far to the right that Gov. Rick Perry appointed him Texas Secretary of State and two years ago he raised money for a very right-wing Republican congressman, John Carter, against a Democratic challenger. He's disliked by many Democrats in Congress.) This cycle a Republican ran, Sandra Whitten, and she managed to score 39.8%. Cuellar's problem, though, wasn't really Whitten. It was his first credible primary challenger since he first won the seat in 2004 (with the backing of the Webb County Republican Party chairman)-- first-time candidate Jessica Cisneros, a committed progressive. He narrowly escaped with his life-- 38,834 (51.8%) to 36,144 (48.2%). This is how much the three candidates spent:

  • Cuellar- 3,590,778

  • Cisneros- 1,936,138

  • Whitten- $26,143

Several progressive incumbents endorsed Cisneros against Cuellar, including AOC. This week Cuellar got his revenge. The two members couldn't be more unalike. AOC has an "A" rating from ProgressivePunch and Cuellar, a corrupt, always for-sale Blue Dog has one of the lowest "F" ratings of any Democrat in Congress. Of the 8 Democrats with worse voting records, 4-- possibly 5 (Brindisi's race is still undecided but his opponent leads)-- were kicked out by the voters: Collin Peterson (Blue Dog-MN), Kendra Horn (Blue Dog-OK), Ben McAdams (Blue Dog-UT) and Joe Cunningham (Blue Dog-SC).

A couple of weeks ago, one of AOC's colleagues mentioned in passing that she was running for the open seat on the super-powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee that is reserved for a New Yorker. He told me that every New York member had endorsed AOC for the position. Then largely disliked Long Island New Dem, Kathleen Rice, jumped into the race. Several conservative members made dual endorsements but many didn't and AOC was the clear choice of the delegation. This week, the Pelosi-controlled Steering Committee decided to give the position to Rice. I'm told that there were 4 factors:

  • intense jealousy of AOC's popularity

  • Rice's threat to once again vote against Pelosi as Speaker

  • a secret ballot

  • Cuellar's hysterical campaign against AOC, which was backed by Hakeem Jeffries

Jeffries became prospective "the next Speaker" after AOC defeated Joe Crowley and he is eager to do all he can to limit her rise inside the Democratic Conference. Representing a D+36 Brooklyn district, he is careful to keep up a pretense of being a progressive, while working behind the scenes against the progressive agenda. Two other Pelosi pawns on the Steering Committee, Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and Diana DeGette (D-CO), also ambushed AOC at the last minute. Rice wound up with a shocking win-- 46-13. As Alexander Sammon of the American Prospect pointed out yesterday, "Many of the representatives that came out most forcefully against Ocasio-Cortez have close ties to oil and gas, especially Cuellar. But perhaps more important was Cuellar’s personal opposition to AOC, as evidenced by his statement... According to multiple people familiar with the proceedings, Ocasio-Cortez’s recent interview with The Intercept, where she said Speaker Pelosi needed to go, though there was no one to replace her, loomed over the proceedings."


A similar situation existed with the Energy and Commerce Committee seat vacated by incoming New Mexico Senator Ben Ray Lujan. That seat was expected to go to progressive Texan Sylvia Garcia, but was contested by her moderate colleague from Texas, Lizzie Fletcher. Garcia, the other priority for progressives in Energy and Commerce, was left off the slate without even a vote. Fletcher, who has a troubling track record on unions, got endorsed by Pelosi. The Texas AFL-CIO famously opposed Fletcher’s candidacy for Congress, even against a Republican incumbent.
The result is both a resounding and surprising defeat for progressives, who just days ago had no reason to believe both Ocasio-Cortez and Garcia would be left off the committee, or even that this would be settled this week.
...[T]he treatment of AOC and Garcia looks like a shot across the bow that will have progressives on high alert. If other committee assignments go this way, it will become an open question as to whether a newly united progressive bloc will oppose Pelosi’s speakership come January 3.

I asked a dozen House Democrats, both and and off the Steering Committee. They all had the same comment: "No comment." Except one optimistic soul who always wants to see things in the best possible light: "This is off the record. I’m not sure what the equities were regarding the Garcia candidacy. But I do know that Kathleen Rice called virtually every single Steering and Policy Member. I’m not sure AOC called Members. Also Rep Rice was the most senior Member of any candidate running for E&C. The vote was overwhelming and I don’t think it’s accurate to frame this particular race as a conservative versus progressive thing. I believe seniority and making the effort to contact Members mattered far more."


He could be right. He knows these people a lot better than I ever will.


Pelosi handed out committee assignments for freshmen this week. These are the freshmen and their assignments:

  • Jamaal Bowman (NY)- Education and Labor

  • Cori Bush (MO)- Judiciary

  • Teresa Leggier Fernandez (NM)- Education and Labor, Natural Resources

  • Mondaire Jones (NY)- Judiciary

  • Kai Kahele (HI)- Transportation and Infrastructure

  • Marie Newman (IL)- Transportation and Infrastructure

  • Ritchie Torres (NY)- Financial Services

  • Nikema Williams (GA)- Transportation and Infrastructure

Although none were put on Appropriations or Energy and Commerce, Transportation and Infrastructure is a big deal-- especially this year. Marie Newman told her constituents that the appointment will put her office "in the best possible position to serve my constituents and effectively represent the Third District’s unique and historic transportation footprint. While these transportation systems are a source of great pride, they also face significant challenges that are my top legislative priority to address in the next Congress. After years of disinvestment and a lack of collaboration between local, state, and federal transportation agencies, short- and long-term planning has failed to meet the needs of Illinois’ Third District. I will use my role on the Committee to advocate for critical investments to modernize existing assets and plan for new, clean multimodal transportation systems whose construction will bring much-needed economic development to my District. We are at a pivotal moment in American history and our ability to right the ship will be defined, in part, by critical legislation in front of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. In addition to a surface transportation reauthorization bill, necessary to maintain funding for ongoing maintenance and future capital investments, I believe it is absolutely essential that we pass a massive infrastructure stimulus package to jumpstart our economy and create good-paying American jobs that will put people back to work. I look forward to working with my colleagues on the Committee as well as Transportation Secretary Designee Buttigieg and the incoming Biden Administration to build a new future for my District and our country."

Mondaire Jones was pretty excited about his assignment on Judiciary, which, he told his constituents, will allow him to bring his "lived experiences" to the committee where he can do some good. "As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I know how it feels to spend every June waiting to see whether the Supreme Court will undermine my rights. As a Black man in America, the fight for racial justice in policing, and within our broader criminal legal system, is literally a matter of life or death for people like me. Our democracy is broken, and I’m honored to join members of the House Judiciary Committee in their fight to fix it."