With Abortion Rights Under Attack, Nancy Pelosi Is Siding With an Antiabortion Democrat

Liza Featherstone / Jacobin
With Abortion Rights Under Attack, Nancy Pelosi Is Siding With an Antiabortion Democrat No matter how much of a liability antiabortion congressman Henry Cuellar becomes, establishment Democrats seem determined to stick with him. (photo: Matthew Busch/Getty)

Even in the wake of news that Roe v. Wade may be overturned, the Democratic leadership is backing right-wing Texas representative Henry Cuellar against his primary opponent, Jessica Cisneros, a Berniecrat who favors abortion rights.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is still inexplicably standing by Henry Cuellar, the House’s most antiabortion democrat, even after the recent evidence that the Supreme Court might overturn Roe v. Wade — which would leave it up to Congress to protect the right to abortion nationwide.

Cuellar faces a primary challenge from Jessica Cisneros, a twenty-eight-year-old left-wing Democrat and human rights lawyer who has been endorsed by Bernie Sanders, Justice Democrats, and AOC. The March 1 primary was so close — he came out ahead by a point and a half — that Cisneros and Cuellar are heading into a runoff on May 24.

Pelosi is not alone in this madness. No matter how much of a liability Cuellar becomes, establishment Democrats seem determined to stick with him. House majority whip Jim Clyburn, too, travelled to South Texas’s Twenty-Eighth Congressional District to appear at a rally for Cuellar the day after the news about the Supreme Court leaked to Politico, and dismissed the idea that Democrats should not support an abortion opponent right now as “pretty sophomoric.” House majority leader Steny Hoyer, too, has been sticking by Cuellar. The American Prospect reports that at least three Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee–approved consulting firms are working on helping Cuellar against Cisneros.

Democratic leadership’s continued support for Cuellar is appalling, as it suggests that it doesn’t understand the urgency of the abortion fight — nor any of the other pressing issues of our time, for that matter.

There are times when it may be justified to support an antiabortion candidate who’s progressive on other issues that are matters of life and death for women and the working class. There aren’t many examples of this, but it happens: the late Senator Harris Wofford, for example, a liberal Democrat and Catholic convert (who married his much younger male lover at the age of ninety), waffled on abortion but famously won a tough general election fight in heavily Catholic Pennsylvania in 1991 by advocating single-payer health care, and championed that idea throughout his career.

But with the Right spoiling for a civil war to maintain traditional gender hierarchies — and making alarming progress — these are not ordinary times, and supporting an antiabortion Congressional candidate against a progressive challenger is tone-deaf and politically suicidal for the Democrats this year. Cuellar received an award in January for his antiabortion efforts. And he’d earned it: last year, Cuellar voted against a House bill that would have made the right to abortion the law of the land. (It later failed in the Senate.) He was the only Democrat to do so. The Democrats have been vowing to fight for abortion rights – even fundraising off such promises all week — but to meaningfully defend the right to choose, they need unity in Congress.

Not only is this a high-stakes moment for women’s reproductive rights, but Henry Cuellar is also no Harris Wofford. An FBI raid on his home in January, over his business ties in Azerbaijan, has cast doubts about his honesty and, of course, about his electability in November. Politically, it is hard to distinguish him from a Republican. He supported Rick Perry for energy secretary in 2017. He has been called “Big Oil’s favorite Democrat” and frequently votes with Republicans on energy and climate issues, even voting against protecting the Arctic oil refuge in 2019. He’s such a loyal towel boy of the fossil fuel industry that the American Petroleum Institute spent $1.3 million on his 2020 reelection campaign, and Republican colleagues who also depend on fossil fuel money have been donating heavily to help him survive Cisneros’s challenge this year. In 2020, he became the first Democrat ever to win the Koch network’s endorsement. He voted against the PRO Act, which would make it much easier for workers to organize unions, galvanizing an unusual number of Texas unions to campaign against him in this primary. (Unions usually back Democratic incumbents, but unlike the Democratic leadership, they do have issues that are important to them.)

Pelosi’s support for Cuellar might be understandable if he didn’t have a great primary opponent. But Jessica Cisneros is exactly the kind of person Nancy Pelosi should be trying to bring to Congress. She is a young, impassioned first-generation Mexican American whose parents were farmworkers. In addition to reproductive rights, her platform includes Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, immigration reform, and the Green New Deal. She has been highlighting her opponents’ coziness with corporate interests, contrasting his lifestyle of riding with donors on private jets with the struggles of his working-class constituents.

It’s an awkward time for the party leadership to make clear that keeping Berniecrats out of Congress is more important to them than women’s reproductive freedom and lives.

Cisneros has been — especially over the past week — campaigning aggressively on Cuellar’s abortion opposition, as she should. NARAL Pro-Choice America is running ads in the district supporting her. It’s not too late for the Democratic Party leadership to ditch Cuellar and join the pro-choice movement. Many observers expect the abortion issue to help Cisneros by motivating voters who are angry at the prospect of losing abortion rights.

Joe Biden said on Tuesday that it will “fall to voters to elect pro-choice officials this November.” Someone should let the president know that his own party’s leadership is doing its best to ensure voters in South Texas won’t have such choices.

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