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Henry Cuellar
Even before his indictment was officially announced, Rep. Henry Cuellar vowed to stay in the race. Mark Schiefelbein/AP

Henry Cuellar’s Indictment Creates a Mess for Democrats in Texas

The Texas Democrat vowed to continue his bid for reelection despite a federal indictment, and it could cost his party the seat.

Rep. Henry Cuellar’s federal indictment puts Texas Democrats in a serious bind.

Cuellar is not beloved by much of his party as one of the most conservative House Democrats and the only one to oppose abortion access. However, his indictment on corruption and bribery charges brings a new complication in the extremely tight race for control of the House of Representatives.

Cuellar already declared that he has no intention of backing away from his reelection campaign.

“Let me be clear, I’m running for reelection and will win this November,” he said.

It’s murky if the party would, or could, be able to field another candidate. The Texas Democratic Party declined to comment on the charges.

“The only position that we can take is that we wait to see what happens,” said Sylvia Bruni, Webb County chair of the Texas Democratic Party. “He intends to continue to run for office, and we’re going to have to hold it up.”

Under the state’s election code, if a candidate comes off the ballot or is deemed ineligible to run, the County Executive Committee in each county of the congressional district would come together to appoint a new nominee, explained Jen Ramos, a Laredo native who serves on the State Democratic Committee for the Texas Democratic Party.

Cuellar was unopposed in the primary this year, though he faced a significant challenge from a progressive candidate in 2022.

“Henry has lost his way, so it’s not a surprise to me that there will be an indictment. The surprise is that it’s taken this long,” Ramos said.

Cuellar and his wife, Imelda Cuellar, face charges related to $600,000 in alleged bribes from two foreign entities; one is connected to the Azerbaijan government, and the other is a Mexican bank. Cuellar’s home was raided in 2022 as part of an investigation related to Azerbaijan, but his lawyer said at the time that he was not the subject of the probe.

“The bribe payments were allegedly laundered, pursuant to sham consulting contracts, through a series of front companies and middlemen into shell companies owned by Imelda Cuellar, who performed little to no legitimate work under the contracts,” the Department of Justice said in a press release on Friday.

Cuellar defended his wife in a statement, saying, “The allegation that she is anything but qualified and hardworking is both wrong and offensive.”

His district has been a target for Republicans in past cycles, and the 2022 race between him and Cassy Garcia drew significant investment, though his victory was decisive.

Now, however, the balance of the race may change. He will go up against either Jay Furman or Lazaro Garza in November, depending on who wins a Republican primary runoff later this month.

“Republican primary voters tend to distrust authorities when they’re persecuting the Republicans,” said Poncho Nevárez, who used to represent Eagle Pass in the state Legislature before his own legal scandal caused him to opt out of running for reelection. “I think Democrats are more exposed to an erosion of their base when these things happen.”

He said Republicans, including Attorney General Ken Paxton, can bounce back from such allegations more easily than Democrats. However, he thinks Cuellar might still win again, given the House member’s deep roots in Laredo.

Cuellar and his family have become a political dynasty in Laredo. His sister, Rosie Cuellar, has held several public positions and is running for a state House seat, and his brother, Martin Cuellar, is Webb County sheriff. As a result, Cuellar is sometimes referred to as the “King of Laredo.”

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Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries released a statement that for the time being, Cuellar will step down as ranking member of his subcommittee on appropriations, but is otherwise presumed innocent.

“Henry Cuellar has admirably devoted his career to public service and is a valued Member of the House Democratic Caucus. Like any American, Congressman Cuellar is entitled to his day in court,” Jeffries said in the statement.

Casey Murray and Ryan Hernández are NOTUS reporters and Allbritton Journalism Institute fellows.