A gentler side emerges in Cruz
Senator rolls up sleeves, lends a shoulder in hometown
DICKINSON — Ted Cruz leaned into a refrigerator and, with an aide and three other volunteers, wrestled it the curb. They dumped a waterlogged buffet, too, and a dining room table.
It was a bit symbolic. But the gesture was meaningful to Timothy Moss, 61, as he cleared debris from his dad’s house. From a driveway strewn with broken glass and warped vinyl records, Moss picked up a photo of his grandparents and showed it to the senator.
“Texas took a hard, hard hit,” Cruz said, but “we’re going to come back even stronger than we were before.”
The floodwaters that swept away lives and homes also exposed some unexpected layers of the state’s most polarizing political figure.
Known in Washington for his ambition, for rankling his own party’s leaders and alienating lots of others, for crusading against Obamacare and big government and bringing the federal machinery to a screeching
halt, Cruz is now channeling his considerable energy into storm recovery — tending to raw emotions and pushing for federal largesse on an unprecedented scale.
If you thought he was cold and aloof, you haven’t spent a day watching him comfort Texans coping with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. If you thought he hated government, you haven’t heard him promising homeowners that help is on the way and will be for years to come.
The fact that he’s up for re-election next year is coincidental. But the vigor Cruz has trained on this crisis probably won’t hurt when voters decide whether to grant him a second term.
“The people who are hurting are the people I am fighting for every day,” he said in nearby League City after unloading bananas and toilet paper in a cavernous warehouse, an old Kroger repurposed to provide supplies to the area’s many storm victims. “The grassroots activists who elected me are the people working in these relief centers, are the people I fight for every day — the working men and women of Texas.”
Attention turns home
There are lots of ways to be a senator. There are grandstanders and workhorses, dealmakers and wonks and firebrands. Those in their first term usually keep a low profile as they learn the ropes, build relationships and tend to the tangible needs of constituents.
Cruz was always a man in a hurry, with a penchant for big fights.
Eight months into the job, he staged a 21-hour overnight talkathon and engineered a government shutdown in a bid to derail Obamacare. It wasn’t long before he was angling for a shot at the White House. That pursuit consumed 15 months, and Iowans saw a lot more of him than Texans for much of that time.
He’s often packed his August recess with travel across Texas. But in four years and eight months as a senator, he had not devoted such direct, prolonged attention back home — until now.
In Dickinson, near the Johnson Space Center south of Houston, volunteers from churches in California and Louisiana were helping Jerry Collins rip out the soggy guts of his home of five decades when Cruz arrived.
“God brought all these people to me,” Collins, 66, told him.
Harvey forced him to move his mom to a nursing home for the first time in her 99 years. They’d been rescued when a boat pulled up to their front door.
“She’s never been alone,”
Collins told the senator, tearing up.
Cruz listened intently and leaned in for quiet words.
The out-of-state volunteers smiled broadly. He talked with them about their churches and obliged them with photos before moving to other houses along the street, each with its own pile of ruined furniture and flooring.
Collins, who retired last year from the city attorney’s office in Alvin, voted against Cruz in 2012. He’s a Democrat. Next year? “It’s a possibility,” he said.
Cruz is not campaigning. If anything, the storm delayed a formal re-election launch.
But good government is good politics, and Cruz’s personal interests happen to align neatly with the staggering needs of his constituents.
And witnessing the devastation gives him political cover to demand generous outlays from Washington, despite a long record of fiscal conservatism and advocacy for a shrunken role for the central government.
“A picture is worth a thousand words, and him being here is worth 10,000 words. He can go back and say, ‘I’ve seen this. I’ve seen this 6-foot pile of debris, street after street after street,’” said Mark Henry, the Galveston County judge, as Cruz worked his way from house to house. “He appreciates the magnitude of the disaster. He understands the federal government can help.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is about the only person grumbling at the senator’s visibility through the storm and its aftermath.
A rival for the GOP presidential nomination, Christie called it “disgusting” to see Cruz feeding evacuees and rallying support for massive federal spending after voting — along with all but one Texas Republican in Congress at the time — against a $50 billion relief bill for victims of Superstorm Sandy in 2013.
Cruz defends that vote, insisting that two-thirds of the Sandy measure had nothing to do with immediate storm recovery. Fact-checkers have largely debunked such claims, which Christie called “reprehensible lies.”
In any case, Cruz said, disaster response has always been a legitimate federal role.
“A person of good faith and good conscience can believe that massive government regulations and taxes and debt are bad for our country, and still believe that there is a vital role for government, whether it is defending our nation and rebuilding our military or whether it is the longstanding role of the federal government to provide assistance in the wake of massive national disasters,” he said.
Role of government
Congress was on recess when the storm hit, and Cruz spent much of August hopscotching the state, holding town halls, touring the border and meeting with local officials. The storm cut a two-week “Ted works for Texas” tour by half, and with Congress back at work, Cruz can spend only weekends along the Gulf Coast, meeting with emergency personnel and storm victims.
He assigned a top aide full time to coordinate storm response and ordered his entire staff to pitch in. “Every one of us is a Harvey responder,” said chief of staff David Polyansky.
On Friday, Cruz toured parts of Houston, and also traveled to Port Arthur and Rockport.
It’s an especially personal disaster for Cruz. His own home in Houston escaped flooding, but 8 feet of water covered his old neighborhood. He toured it by airboat.
“Clay Road Baptist Church is where my dad became a Christian. It’s where I became a Christian. To see Clay Road underwater — that is powerful and real and personal,” Cruz said. “Houston’s my home. It’s where I grew up. … It’s where my kids go to school. It’s where we go to church.”
In northeast Houston’s Kingwood neighborhood, a tea party stronghold, Cruz supporters have also grappled with the tension between an anti-government philosophy and the overwhelming need for federal aid.
Smaller government would be preferable, said Robin Lennon, president and co-founder of the Kingwood tea party, the first in the state to endorse Cruz’s bid for Senate in 2012. “But what we don’t want to do is leave a whole lot of people without a safety net.”
Lennon and her husband, wearing a tea party cap, were waiting as Cruz arrived at a community center. Volunteers were handing out clothing, toiletries, cleaning supplies, water and huge bags of cat litter — good for soaking up moisture.
“People don’t give him enough credit,” Lennon said. “He’s intelligent enough and nerdy enough that it is not always apparent that he really does have the heart.”
‘He’s here now’
Major parts of Kingwood flooded a few days after the storm. Residents blame a dam release from Lake Conroe, though the river authority rejects that, noting how far they live downstream.
“I haven’t cried. I’m not going to,” a stoic Cecily Ryan told Cruz in the driveway of her home, drywall piled high on the front lawn with other detritus.
She’s 66 and a homemaker. Her husband, Barney Ryan, is 72 and a retired project manager. They’ve been Texans for two decades but retain the brogues of their native Ireland, and Cruz lit up as they spoke.
“I’m half Irish,” he told them. “Are you really? Really?” she asked.
“I am,” Cruz insisted. “Cuban, Irish and a little bit Italian.”
“And a bit Canadian,” said Barney Ryan, referring to the land of the senator’s birth.
Cruz let it pass — “I was born there,” he said — and turned the conversation to their ordeal. He quickly learned of their frustrations finding a hotel room that accepted FEMA vouchers, and assured them he’d pressed the FEMA director on that topic already.
They blame the flood on silt buildup in the nearby bayous and inlets, along with the dam release. There will be time to assess and learn the lessons of Harvey, Cruz assured them before he moved on.
“It’s very important he came,” Cecily Ryan said. “He’s trying.”
Said her husband, “It makes the government human.”
A few houses away, Cruz greeted Denise and Pete Garcia.
“How you holding up?” he asked.
They lost two cars in the flood. Their yard looked like a rummage sale, rows of shoes drying in the sun, a mattress leaned against a tree. Inside, industrial fans ran loud and the walls were stripped to the framing.
“It’s a beautiful home. Nice open space,” Cruz joked.
Outside, he nudged them for their Harvey story: going to bed unaware of an impending flood, water topping the sofa within a few hours, a rescue at dawn. An elderly woman down the street died two hours after Pete helped evacuate her.
At least they have power, and insurance, and friends with a home where they can stay for a while.
Did you manage to save the family photos? Cruz asked. Denise Garcia quickly choked up.
“Don’t go there,” she said. Cruz put a hand on her arm. “You know what, you still have family,” he said quietly, swallowing his own emotion. “You’re being lifted up in prayer by millions of people in Texas and the country.”
State Rep. Dan Huberty, a Republican from nearby Humble, was among the local officials leading Cruz around the area. Had Cruz been this visible before the disaster?
“He’s here now,” Huberty said. “And I’m happy that he’s here.”
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (left) comforts longtime Dickinson resident Travis Moss, who became emotional after finding some personal photos. Volunteers, including the Texas Republican and his aides, helped remove soggy debris left in Moss’ home from Harvey flooding.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (right) moved furniture to the curb with Larry Taylor (left) as they helped the Moss family clear out their flooded home in Dickinson.
Jennifer Nixon wiped away a tear as she talked with Cruz during his tour of the evacuation center at NRG Center on Sept. 4 in Houston.