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The Cuellar Problem

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Mainstream Dems went all in for Henry Cuellar, working hard to defeat progressive challengers to him. He’s repaid them by being the right-wing corrupt asshole that he obviously always was.

When Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) faced a primary challenge two years ago from progressive Jessica Cisneros, the Democratic leadership closed ranks. They held fundraisers for Cuellar, recorded robocalls for him, appeared at rallies in his district, and took every possible opportunity to nudge Cuellar, a Blue Dog who voted against Democratic priorities on several occasions, across the finish line. After a recount, he ended up winning by only 289 votes. It’s plausible that the establishment money and support made the difference.

The leadership justified standing behind the only anti-abortion Democrat in Congress by saying that only he could win that district in South Texas, which Joe Biden took in 2020 by seven points. A progressive would be too risky in TX-28, at a time when the House majority would come down to just a few seats.

The thought of risk never came up in reference to Cuellar, even though, just a few months before that 2022 primary, the FBI raided his house as part of a corruption investigation involving business ties to Azerbaijan. At the time, The Intercept did a long report on Cuellar’s ties to Azerbaijani oil executives.

Cuellar and his attorney insisted there were no legs to the investigation, and that he was innocent. And the House leadership backed him up, dismissing any possible legal jeopardy.

Cuellar has now been indicted on 14 counts by the Justice Department, along with his wife, for taking $600,000 in bribes, one from a state-owned oil and gas company in Azerbaijan. (The other bribe came from a Mexico-based bank.) In exchange, Cuellar allegedly agreed to use his powers as a member of Congress to influence foreign policy involving Azerbaijan, as well as pressure bank regulators for favorable policy toward the Mexican bank. The couple is also accused of laundering the bribe payments through shell companies owned by Imelda Cuellar. They face up to 204 years in prison if they get the maximum sentence on all counts.

After appearing in federal court in Houston today, Cuellar maintained his innocence. “Before I took any action, I proactively sought legal advice from the House Ethics Committee, who gave me more than one written opinion, along with an additional opinion from a national law firm,” he said, adding that his actions were “consistent with the actions of many of my colleagues and in the interest of the American people.”

The court case will play out over years; the court of public opinion is another matter. Cuellar has already won the Democratic nomination for Texas’s 28th Congressional District; this year he ran unopposed. Candidates can withdraw from elections in Texas in a timely manner, but with Cuellar pronouncing himself innocent, and with his seat in Congress a potential bargaining chip for any settlement, it’s unclear whether he would withdraw.

Like Bob Menendez, there’s no way Cuellar is going to withdraw. He will happily pull the entire Democratic Party with him to save himself. There’s a lesson here about Democratic incumbents not going all-in to protect the most revanchist and corrupt members of their caucus, but they will never learn it.

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