Conservative Democrat Gets $100k From Oil and Gas PACs in Bid to Fend Off Surging Progressive

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Sludge produces investigative journalism on lobbying and money in politics. The American Prospect is republishing this article.

One of the most conservative Democrats in the House has a primary challenger, and the contrast couldn’t be more stark.

Rep. Henry Cuellar, an eight-term representative from southern Texas and a member of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition, has an A rating from the National Rifle Association, holds anti-abortion views, and has, like President Donald Trump, associated undocumented immigrants with rapists and murderers

He’s been dubbed “Big Oil’s favorite Democrat,” and the nickname fits: Not only has Cuellar consistently voted for the oil and gas industry’s interests, but the PACs of oil and gas corporations have showered his campaigns with money.

In the first nine months of this year, Cuellar’s campaign received over $100,000 from 28 corporate PACs in the oil and gas industry, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics, making Cuellar the House’s biggest recipient of oil and gas PAC donations in the 2020 election cycle, even above Republican reps from his oil-rich state of Texas. Only two members of Congress—both senators—have received more oil and gas PAC money than Cuellar in 2019. In the 2018 cycle, Cuellar took in $183,000 from corporate PACs in the energy and natural resources sector, including $143,500 from oil and gas.

Cuellar’s 2019 donors include the PAC of Koch Industries, which, along with its billionaire CEO Charles Koch, tends to finance climate change-denying Republicans as opposed to Democrats. Cuellar is a regular recipient of Koch Industries’ PAC money. Anadarko Petroleum PAC and Valero Energy PAC have both already maxed out to Cuellar for the primary and general elections, each giving his campaign $10,000.

Texas’ 28th Congressional District is solidly blue, having gone for Hillary Clinton by 20 points in 2016, and is not considered a competitive general election race in 2020 by the Cook Political Report.

‘A Rising Generation of Leadership’

Cuellar has faced only one primary opponent since becoming a member of Congress in 2005. His current challenger, 26-year-old immigration and human rights attorney Jessica Cisneros, is a leftist who supports Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and a $15 minimum wage. Her platform has earned her a number of endorsements from key progressive groups such as MoveOn, the League of Conservation Voters Action Fund, Planned Parenthood Action, and the Working Families Party, as well as from newer leftist organizations Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement. In addition, Cisneros has scored endorsements from progressive stars Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.)

Cisneros “represents the voices we so desperately need in Congress right now—millennial, working-class, Latina, first-generation immigrant, and a bold champion for a progressive agenda,” Alexandra Rojas, executive director of Justice Democrats, told Sludge. “We need Democrats who fight for the party’s voters, not big corporate and Republican donors. Cuellar is exactly what’s wrong with our party, and [Cisneros] represents the hope of what it can be. She’s part of a rising generation of leadership who is dedicated to fighting for solutions as big as the problems we face.”

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“We endorsed Jessica because Henry Cuellar represents all that’s wrong with Washington,” Stephen O’Hanlon, communications director of the Sunrise Movement, told Sludge. “Jessica Cisneros, on the other hand, is ready to fight for the Green New Deal and isn’t taking a cent of corporate PAC or lobbyist money.”

‘Fully Harnessing America’s Natural Resources’

Perhaps most illustrative of the vast chasm between the two candidates are their campaign finances. Cuellar has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from corporate PACs with almost no small donations of $200 or less from individuals, while Cisneros rejects all corporate PAC money, and her 2019 haul is reliant on small contributions.

Cisneros, who launched her campaign in June, raised $465,000 through September, almost all of it coming from individual donations. Fifty-four percent of the money she raised from individuals came in the form of small donations of $200 or less. For Cuellar, just 1.4% of his $514,000 worth of individual donations came in small form, while 56%, or nearly $290,000, came from contributions of $2,000 or more.

“We represent a very poor, impoverished district,” Cuellar campaign spokesperson Colin Strother told Sludge. “We don’t ask them for money because if they’ve got an extra 10 bucks laying around [they have other things to spend it on].” 

The congressman has received 66 individual donations of $2,800, the maximum allowed amount per election.

Individual Cuellar donors include oil and gas developer Thomas Gates, who gave $2,800; David Killum, Jr., managing partner at Killum Oil Company ($2,600); Alfonso Arguindegui, CEO of AOC Holding Company, which owns Arguindegui Oil Companies ($1,000); ConocoPhillips lobbying manager Kevin Avery, who recommended a colleague for a job in Scott Pruitt’s Environmental Protection Agency ($500) as it took apart Obama-era regulations; and Bill Skeen, a real estate manager at Fasken Oil and Ranch ($500).

Strother says Cuellar gets about one-quarter of his campaign funding from in-district sources and claims that Cisneros gets most of her contributions from outside the district. Through September, Cuellar had roughly 330 itemized individual donors—those whose identifying information is disclosed—and 15 unitemized donations of $200 or less via online fundraising platform ActBlue. Cisneros had about 230 itemized individual donors and 332 unitemized donations through ActBlue, meaning she likely had many more unique individual donors than Cuellar.

Like many other Democrats, Cisneros has pledged to reject money from corporate PACs, which executives and other highly-paid employees of the companies tend to fund. Valero Energy PAC, for example, has raised 87% of its 2019 funds so far (nearly $500,000) from employees who listed their occupations as CEO, vice president, executive vice president, attorney, counsel, executive director, director, general manager, manager, superintendent, or supervisor.

Cisneros signed the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, which requires her to reject large contributions from fossil fuel PACs, top executives, and lobbyists. Environmental advocacy group 350 Action supports the pledge and endorsed Cisneros. She appears to have one donor in the fossil fuel industry, a tax manager at electric and natural gas utility Direct Energy, who gave $500 total. Her only contribution from a non-individual thus far came from the Justice Democrats PAC ($5,000).

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“We’re committed to running a campaign grounded in our values and funded by grassroots individuals fighting for true representation for South Texas,” Cisneros told Sludge. “Voters in Texas’ 28th district have a clear choice between a true people-powered candidate versus a corporate-backed incumbent who isn’t serving the needs of his constituents. Just take a look at the thousands of dollars in corporate PAC contributions my opponent received last quarter—you’ll see who he’s working for.”

Cuellar’s record on the environment matches his industry support. His votes in favor of oil and gas industry priorities have earned him a 42% lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters, lower than the score received by several House Republicans.

In 2015, the congressman played a critical role in getting the ban on crude oil exports lifted. Working with former Republican Rep. Joe Barton, also of Texas, Cuellar convinced the Democratic House leadership to remain neutral on a bill to repeal the ban, not requiring their caucus members to vote no. “It would not have happened without Cuellar’s active leadership,” wrote Barton.

Cuellar was one of the first representatives to join the Congressional Oil and Gas Caucus, which fellow Blue Dog Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas) founded in 2017. Vela and the caucus “advocate the benefits of fully harnessing America’s natural resources” and “assure that there is support on this side of the aisle for the oil and gas industry.”

Meanwhile, U.S. oilnatural gas, and petroleum products exports continue to increase, and climate predictions get more dire.

“Things are getting worse,” said Petteri Taalas, Secretary General of the World Meteorological Organization. “It’s more urgent than ever to proceed with mitigation…The only solution is to get rid of fossil fuels in power production, industry and transportation.”

“It’s simple: If people like Cuellar keep calling the shots on climate policy, it’s a death sentence for millions of people in the U.S. and around the world,” said O’Hanlon. “The latest UN climate reports are clear—to stop the worst of climate change, we need to stop expanding fossil fuel infrastructure immediately, but Cuellar continues to push for the exact opposite at the behest of his big donors. 

The Green New Deal resolution from Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), which Cisneros supports, is designed to create millions of jobs in the energy sector. It establishes a federal job guarantee and “high-quality union jobs that pay prevailing wages, hires local workers, offers training and advancement opportunities, and guarantees wage and benefit parity for workers affected by the transition.” Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (D-Vt.) Green New Deal plan claims it will create 20 million jobs through a “just transition” for fossil fuel workers that will “guarantee five years of a worker’s current salary, housing assistance, job training, health care, pension support, and priority job placement for any displaced worker, as well as early retirement support for those who choose it or can no longer work.”

Still, Cuellar campaign spokesperson Colin Strother calls the Green New Deal “a farce and a fairy tale,” emphasizing that oil and gas jobs in the 28th District, which sits atop a major shale gas formation, are essential. “For us it’s a really, really different calculus when so many jobs are on the line,” he told Sludge.

“We tend to be more focused on the environment versus the climate,” Strother said, meaning Cuellar is more concerned with clean rivers, air, and wildlife than with preventing more greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere. 

Strother told Sludge that Cuellar believes “110%” that humans cause climate change and the oil and gas industry is worsening it. Cuellar has supported some wind and solar projects but takes an “all-of-the-above” approach to energy, entertaining modest climate remedies favored by some Republicans, such as carbon capture technology, that don’t restrain oil and gas production and combustion. Strother said “the energy companies need to spend [more] on getting better at how they explore and how they remediate and how they protect the environment in the process of their delivery.”

Strother claims that eliminating fossil fuel jobs would “take that money away from schools.” But he said that he and Cuellar have never discussed the potential costs of mounting climate change, which will include remediating devastating environmental destruction, treating people’s increased health problems, and massive infrastructure spending. One peer-reviewed analysis predicts that climate change could end up costing the U.S. economy hundreds of billions of dollars per year.

Asked if there would ever come a time when climate destruction in his district could prompt Cuellar to acknowledge the need to prevent more carbon and methane from entering the atmosphere, Strother said, “I don’t know. It’s not a topic that he’s an expert in.” 

“Cuellar and politicians like him on both sides of the aisle aren’t just deeply out of touch with Democrats, they’re deeply out of touch with the reality of the crisis,” said Rojas, who, like Cisneros, is in her mid-twenties and is one of many young progressives who look into the future and feel the urgency of the present. “Corporate and fossil fuel lobby money has corrupted our political system and endangered the health and safety of our communities and planet.”

A Private Prison Favorite

While Cuellar is a magnet for fossil fuel donations, his biggest donor this cycle isn’t in the energy business. Executives and the PAC of private prison giant GEO Group have combined to give over $46,000 to Cuellar’s campaign and leadership PAC this year. Few donors have given to the leadership PAC, Texas First PAC, this year, but those who have include GEO Group CEO George Zoley, the GEO Group PAC, and an executive of Killam Oil Company, which is based in Cuellar’s district.

As with the oil and gas industry contributions, the Cuellar campaign’s $36,200 from the GEO Group PAC and employees this cycle makes Cuellar the biggest recipient of GEO Group donations in the House.

GEO Group operates at least one facility in Texas’ 28th Congressional District, which contains nearly 300 miles of land bordering Mexico: the Rio Grande Processing Center in Laredo. The company’s Central Regional Office is located in San Antonio, some of which is part of the district. 

CoreCivic, a GEO Group competitor, operates its Webb County Detention Center and Laredo Processing Center in Cuellar’s district as well. The Tennessee-based company had not donated to Cuellar’s 2020 campaign as of Sept. 30 of this year, but it has consistently done so in past election cycles.

Cuellar has defended his GEO Group donations and offered support for the private prison industry. “Because ICE does not own detention centers, they rely upon private contracted facilities to accommodate the large population of adult criminal aliens,” he told this author last year for TYT. “Without them, rapists, murderers, and other offenders would not be incarcerated and instead present a clear threat to our communities.”

The Cuellar campaign website promotes his role in securing additional funding for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, often the first government agency that undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers encounter, which will pay for 600 new officers, “innovative non-intrusive imaging equipment and additional canine teams.”

Cisneros has called on her opponent to donate the money his campaign has received from private prison PACs to organizations that help immigrant communities.

In addition to fossil fuel and private prison donations, the Cuellar campaign received numerous contributions from the PACs of companies in an array of industries, including the automotive, defense, finance, fast food, health insurance, payday lending, pharmaceuticals, and tobacco industries.

Establishment Sticks With Cuellar

“Nothing has been more wholesome for the politics and the government of our country than the increased participation of women,” wrote House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in her 2008 book, “Know Your Power: A Message to America’s Daughters.”

Despite Cuellar’s policy positions that disgust much of the Democratic coalition, Pelosi, Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which Bustos leads, are sticking with him. The establishment is backing all incumbent Democrats, also including another conservative abortion opponent, Illinois Rep. Dan Lipinski, who also has a progressive woman challenger.

The DCCC’s own fundraising disclosures reveal that it relies on many of the same corporate interests that have helped Cuellar amass a more than $3.2 million campaign warchest. Sludge and Maplight have reported on the numerous corporate lobbyist bundlers who represent health care and fossil fuel companies and provide the organization with tens of thousands of dollars worth of checks each month.

The DCCC is so committed to supporting incumbents that in March it established a blacklist policy for political consultants. Any consultant or firm that contracts with an incumbent representative’s primary challenger will be cut off from party-directed business.

The policy has hurt progressive challengers, often women, and taken business away from sympathetic consultants.

“Cuellar votes like a Republican. He takes fossil fuel PAC money like a Republican. It’s absurd that Democratic leaders are standing by Cuellar when there is a clear alternative: a young woman of color running on progressive values,” said O’Hanlon. “It gets to the root of why the Democratic establishment has failed our generation: They are more concerned with making big donors comfortable than helping out working people who are struggling.”

The DCCC’s support for incumbents such as Cuellar and Lipinski “says that we have a long way to go in ridding the Democratic Party of the influence of corporate money in our democracy,” said Rojas. “It also says that Democratic leadership is deeply out of touch with what the base of the party actually wants—which are solutions that match the scale, scope, and urgency of the crisis facing us.”

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