Austin American-Statesman: In state politics, his star is rising; dad taught solicitor general value of America’s system
By Mark Lisheron
Ted Cruz had never really thought about when, exactly, he first took an interest in politics.
But his wife, Heidi, knew. Cruz, the state attorney general’s top appellate lawyer, had grown up at his family’s table. Heidi married into it. Cruz had always said his parents were never active in politics. What Heidi saw at dinner was that the Cruzes lived politics.
At 14, Cruz’s father, Rafael, had fought alongside Fidel Castro and been beaten nearly to death for it. He fled Fulgencio Battista’s Cuba with $100 sewn into his underwear and watched from the University of Texas as one dictatorship was succeeded by a more repressive one.
Dinner debate at the Cruzes was driven by all that had been risked and left behind. What Ted Cruz took from the table, to Princeton University and Harvard Law School, to Washington and, now, to the office of the state solicitor general, is that the obligation to use the political process to fulfill America’s promise is his.
“One of the most wonderful gifts a child can be given is to be the child of an immigrant,” Cruz said. “You have a profound appreciation for the miracle of opportunity in this country.”
It would be difficult to find a more potent demonstration of the miracle. At 35, Cruz is one of the nation’s formidable young conservative legal minds. A law clerk for the late U.S. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Cruz counts Rehnquist’s successor, John Roberts, among his mentors and friends.
His legal defense of George W. Bush’s electoral win in 2000 in Florida led to a succession of jobs with the Bush administration and the attention of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who hired Cruz to be his solicitor general, representing the state in all matters before the Texas and U.S. Supreme Courts.
Chuck Cooper, former head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, who hired both Judge Samuel Alito, Bush’s most recent Supreme Court nominee, and Cruz early in their careers, said Cruz’s potential is limitless.
“In the fullness of time, my plan for Ted would be for him to be the governor of Texas,” Cooper said by telephone this week during a break in the Alito confirmation hearing. “I believe his political skills, his personality and his interest in public policy are too abundant not to be devoted to public service.”
In March, Cruz will represent Texas before the U.S. Supreme Court, defending the state’s congressional map. A Republican majority of the Legislature in 2003 pushed passage of the map at the urging of U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, to further GOP opportunities in Congress.
Also, if the Legislature meets its state Supreme Court-ordered June 1 deadline and changes how public education is paid for, Cruz will defend the new plan to Texas’ highest civil court.
Gerry Hebert, who will represent Democrats in the redistricting case, said it’s sometimes hard for lawyers to separate their personal views in such cases.
“With a case like this that reeks of politics,” he said, “you become part of the political process whether you like it or not.”
Cruz disagrees. He offered a glimpse into just how he would like to be judged in an essay he wrote last year endorsing John Roberts for the Supreme Court. Roberts was a “lawyer’s lawyer,” Cruz wrote, a master of dispassion with an effortless ability to set aside “his own personal policy views for the clear dictates of law.”
Ralph Nader is Cruz’s proof that he thinks he can do the same. In 2004, the independent presidential candidate sued Texas to force the state to set aside requirements to get his name on the November ballot. Some conservatives thought having Nader’s name on the ballot in all 50 states would help President Bush by dividing the opposition.
The Nader campaign faced the solicitor general and lost.
Richard Garnett, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Notre Dame, has watched Cruz balance his legal and political selves for a decade. Garnett’s first memory of his fellow Rehnquist clerk was watching Cruz’s enthusiasm for sharing his political ideas with the Chief.
Cruz has written and spoken passionately in favor of school choice, offering public money for students and their families to choose private schools as an alternative to public education. And he has more than once carried his position on the issue to the enemy, Garnett said, once debating school choice before the annual convention of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“When he spoke about the issue, he was deeply emotional, passionate and compassionate,” Garnett said. “He sincerely argues from the position that school choice is good for underprivileged children.”
His heroic father and his Chief
Cruz argues his positions on education and many other issues from the point of view of an immigrant’s son.
He has embraced his ethnicity, helping found the Harvard Latino Law Review and currently serving as the state chairman for the Hispanic Alliance for Progress. Cruz is an eloquent voice for the success Hispanics are having through traditional American values, said Robert Aguirre, a San Antonio native who founded the conservative national Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options in Washington.
“The past two generations have been so focused on our quote/unquote problems,” Aguirre said. “Hispanics of Ted’s generation are focused on the opportunities.”
All Hispanics are bound by a shared history and culture based on faith and family, an immigrant’s natural desire to sacrifice to improve the lot of his children, Cruz said.
Cruz’s father rarely spoke of his sacrifice. Cruz learned of it in bits and pieces from his grandparents, aunts and uncles. Rafael Cruz loathed oppression and was willing to die to end it. “He was a guerrilla, throwing Molotov cocktails and blowing up buildings.”
Battista’s soldiers beat the elder Cruz in prison, and only his own father’s bribe freed him in 1957. While earning a degree in mathematics at UT, Cruz spoke to Austin business groups, lauding Castro’s revolution. After the victory in 1959, hearing from relatives what Castro was doing, Cruz returned to those same business groups to apologize, Ted Cruz said.
“My father has been my hero my whole life,” he said.
At Second Baptist High School in Houston, Cruz told classmates he would attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one day put robotics to use in medicine. Cruz’s father told him he was deluding himself. “He told me all I ever talked about was politics and the law,” Cruz said.
In many ways, Rehnquist was the perfect mentor for Cruz. He said Rehnquist was not, as some of his eulogizers contend, a conservative firebrand who matured into moderation, but a patient jurist whose conservative dissents emerged in later cases as court majorities.
The Chief was real. His most frequent, favorite lunch was a cheeseburger washed down with a Miller Lite followed by one and only one cigarette.
This everyman quality was important to Cruz, who prefers his suit coat off, his sleeves rolled up and his feet on the coffee table when he is in the office.
When Rehnquist died this year, Cruz was a pallbearer.
“To carry the Chief down the aisle of the church was overwhelming,” Cruz said. “He had a clear vision of the court and of the law. He was a wonderful teacher.”
The route back to Texas
It was the Chief who helped steer Cruz to Cooper in 1997 when he was starting his own law firm in Washington, one that would take on the federal government on behalf of private clients and states.I
While working for Cooper, Cruz began collecting political donations for George W. Bush’s first presidential run. At a Bush fundraiser in 1999, he met Bush aide Joshua Bolten.
“He asked me what this campaign needed a lawyer for, and I started listing all of these policy concerns,” Cruz said. “The next thing I know, he asked me to join the campaign.”
The campaign needed him particularly after Democrats challenged the results of the 2000 vote in Florida. Bush asked Cruz to help assemble and direct strategy for a team of lawyers who made the case that Bush’s win was legitimate.
The Bush administration rewarded Cruz, naming him an associate deputy attorney general and later director of the Office of Policy Planning for the Federal Trade Commission.
After Abbott was elected Texas attorney general in 2002, he looked for his own appointee to direct a staff of about a dozen attorneys.
“I could basically only dream of having an attorney of Ted Cruz’s background and credentials,” Abbott said. “What he brings to the office of solicitor general is a keen application of the law in a way that is flawlessly logical and easy to understand.”
Cruz has also been clear during the debate on school finance that he opposes judicial activism. Although outspoken about vouchers and finance reform, Cruz has argued that the state’s judicial branch has no business formulating and codifying tax plans.
“I am a strong believer in judicial restraint,” Cruz said. “If you want to change public policy, run for president, run for governor, run for Congress.”
For more than a year, Cruz and his wife, Heidi, a Washington investment banker he met on the Bush campaign, carried on a long-distance marriage. Not long ago, Heidi’s job transferred to Houston, making their shortened-distance relationship less stressful. With Abbott running again this year, Cruz said he is staying put. For how long, Cruz will not say.
“I’m having so much fun. It’s hard to think of a more challenging and rewarding career than representing the State of Texas,” he said. “In the long term, I believe that politics, that political involvement, makes a real difference in people’s lives.”