Ted Cruz must long for the day when his three-word memory could suitably summarize his time as a tot in Canada: “It was cold.” He wouldn’t remember, but it was forecast as snowy at -9° C the day he was born, according to the Barometer Betty cartoon on the front of the Calgary Herald for Dec. 22, 1970. Woodward’s and Eaton’s stores were open late for Christmas shoppers. The federal Progressive Conservative leader wanted Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to slash income taxes to help stimulate a sluggish economy. Local sports fans were mourning the sudden demise of the Stampeders of the Alberta Hockey League. And at a government-funded hospital in northwest Calgary, a future Texas senator was about to emerge, along with a controversy to blossom 45 years later.
U.S. presidential candidate Ted Cruz spent weeks with a tidy poll lead ahead of this year’s Iowa Republican caucuses on Feb. 1, the first state contest of party nomination season. Then Donald Trump piped up, threatening to derail or distract, as he is wont to do. The Donald rehashed the fact that Cruz let out his first cry at a Canadian hospital. While most legal experts say that won’t violate the “natural born citizen” rules for the United States presidency, the “birtherism” issue has become catnip for some of the conservative voters coveted by both Trump and Cruz.
So the Cruz campaign treads lightly over the first four years of the Ted Cruz story, although it’s a key part of his family’s rags-to-riches arc—the American Dream, just not all in America—complete with a jarring twist and redemption. Long before the Tea Party and filibusters against Obamacare, there were the Cuban pig roasts in a riverside Calgary backyard, with drinking and revelry that would go on long past bedtime for little “Felito,” born into Canada’s new national system of socialized medicare.
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Rafael Bienvenido Cruz and Eleanor Darragh had lived in the “Houston of Canada” for three years by the time they had Rafael Edward Cruz, the only child they would have together (both had children from previous marriages back stateside). He was a mathematics graduate from Cuba and she was a computer programmer from Delaware, and after work in New Orleans and Texas they’d decided there was better money to be made doing geophysics work for Canadian oil companies. Specifically, processing seismic exploration data to give firms a sense of what their drilling prospects were, whether underneath Alberta fields or in Canada’s Arctic, using computers the size of living rooms and about as powerful as today’s laptops. They worked in the late 1960s for a company named Digitech, before striking out on their own with R.B. Cruz and Associates, says Bob Gaede, who worked for both companies.
“Rafael, he was sort of the ideas guy, very technical. Eleanor was a good programmer,” recalls Mike Galbraith, who got a programming job almost instantly with Cruz’s company when he arrived from England. “She was my boss, and he was the manager of the whole outfit.”
Back then, Calgary was on the edge of another oil boom, about to firmly root itself as one of Canada’s power cities. The population was 385,000 the year Cruz was born, less than one-third Calgary’s present size. The Flames pro hockey team wouldn’t arrive for a decade; nor would the Winter Olympics, though Calgary boosters were trying. The 36-year-old Social Credit government was living out its final days; the 1971 election ushered in the fresh, new Progressive Conservative regime. Oil wells dotted the province, and the first major “tar sands” plant was producing up in Fort McMurray, then a tiny town with big long-term potential.
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For two working parents, it was convenient to live where Rafael and Eleanor did: in a rented new house with Spanish colonial flourishes in the fledgling middle-class community of St. Andrews Heights, directly across the street from Foothills General Hospital, government-built in 1966, and part of what in July 1969 had become Alberta’s federally supported single-payer medical system.
“They called him Felito, in those days, like little Rafael,” says Galbraith. In Cruz’s autobiography, he said classmates would later dub him “Dorito.” At 13, Rafael Edward changed his name to Ted.
Gillian Steward recalls sharing drinks on the arch-supported main floor of the candidate’s birth home with the Cruzes and her then-husband, who worked for Dome Petroleum. “Eleanor was quiet and restrained, compared to Rafael, who was much more outgoing,” Steward, then a Calgary Albertan journalist, recalls. “She seemed really smart but not somebody that talked about how smart she was. She held her own.”
The would-be president’s father was one of the city’s few Latinos, the lone Cruz in the 1970 phone book. Mom was a rarity too, as a woman in computers. The younger Cruz once told a crowd his mother refused to learn typing, so that if male colleagues gave her their notes, she could reply: “I would love to help you out, but I don’t know how to type. I guess you’re going to have to use me as a computer programmer instead,” according to the National Journal.
Rafael was no technical slouch himself, Galbraith says. He taught courses, and edited the journal for the exploration geophysicist society. “There were no books on it, and he was one of the few people in Calgary who understood it,” Galbraith says.
“He had this famous saying, and he would say it all the time: ‘In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.’ He was quite open about the fact he didn’t know everything about geophysics, but he knew enough that he was king.” (Rafael Cruz declined an interview request from Maclean’s.)
There was a handful of other Calgary geophysics firms at the time, but Cruz and Associates had some proprietary stuff. It served many of the oil patch giants of the day, names that no longer exist: Dome, Amoco, PanArctic Oils. The father’s sales savvy rivalled his technical know-how and he loved schmoozing with clients—including at Caesar’s Steakhouse, the fabled industry mecca that remains downtown.
“Rafael, you’d have lunch with him at Caesar’s, and he’d be scouting around the room to see who he needed to talk to about a better deal. His radar screen was always live, his antenna was always up,” says Easton Wren, an Amoco geophysicist who collaborated with Cruz on technical papers. The flamboyant executive stood out, a “striking” man, tall and slim with a jet-black moustache, and heavily accented English, Wren says. Once, he noticed a young boy milling about the R.B. Cruz offices. It dawns on him now that was probably Ted. Gaede recalls holding the tyke, and seeing him at the office. Cruz, he says, was doted on more by his mother than his “workaholic” dad. “It was ironic to hear he was in Texas and a senator, because I knew I’d held that kid,” he says.
For a while, Rafael was a nearly daily customer at Primo’s, the only Mexican restaurant in Calgary at the time. It was next door to R.B. Cruz and Associates’ downtown office. He was a good customer—“top of the line,” says Edward Grijalva Jr., who was then a teenager bussing tables at his dad’s restaurant. “He was sometimes egotistical,” he says. “He would want to be the centre of attention, walking around with his Cuban cigars, buying drinks for everybody.”
The charm work paid off. Before Ted turned three, the Cruzes moved into a 3,400-sq.-foot house on Riverdale Avenue—right along the Elbow River. This two-storey home where Ted toddled about still stands on this street of million-dollar executive homes (though many were hit hard by the 2013 flood). The Cruzes hadn’t just established themselves; they were elbowing their way into the Calgary establishment. This man who had immigrated from Cuba in 1957 with $100 sewn into his underwear was living on the same riverside block as the provincial industry minister. The Ford dealership owner and a prominent lawyer with an Olympic rowing medal were neighbours.
“He would do his famous Cuban pig roast every year. He would dig a pit,” says Galbraith, who worked his way up to become the firm’s processing manager. “It took him two days to prepare it, and there would be 100 people or more, all his family and clients.”
Rafael Cruz became a Canadian citizen in 1973, something he hadn’t yet done south of the border. While he seldom discussed politics or life with Wren, the colleague figures he was happy in Canada. “His business prospered, and he was well recognized in the industry. These are things that make you feel at home,” Wren says. Ted Cruz may have grown up a hockey-playing Canadian, were it not for how his parents’ love of entertaining caught up with them in 1974.
This is part of the narrative Ted Cruz does tell. “They are both drinking far too much. They are living a fast life,” he told Liberty University at his campaign launch speech last March. “When I was three, my father decided to leave my mother and me . . . he got on a plane and he flew back to Texas, and he decided he didn’t want to be married anymore and he didn’t want to be a father to his three-year-old son.” The departure caught Wren by surprise: “I had no farewell. It seemed to me that he just disappeared.” The collapse had been a time coming, Gaede says, with Rafael’s habit of being at the bar with a particular work pal. He was fond of Cuba Libre (rum, cola, lime), and tequila in salt-rimmed margaritas. “They almost lived in bars downtown. On paydays, I’d have to go find him in the bar to get my paycheque from him,” Gaede says. Soon after, he left the Cruz company.
What was Eleanor to do, suddenly on her own in Alberta? She kept up her computer programming work for several months. The 1975 city phone directory lists the Cruzes decamping to a large townhouse complex in Calgary’s southeast suburbs, a brick-and-siding number less than half the size of the Riverdale home. (The Cruz campaign did not reply to a request to confirm this.) This situation didn’t last long. Before 1974 was out, a Baptist Bible study forged Rafael’s love of Jesus Christ, and he brought his family back to Houston. The couple sold their company shares to a man who would rebrand the firm Veritas, and grow it exponentially. “If he stayed there, I think he could have become that multimillionaire,” Gaede says of Rafael. Even on the patriarch’s return visit, his devotion to work continued—while he was either giving a geology talk or attending to some business matter, it fell to Gaede to drive Eleanor, the nearly four-year-old boy and their luggage to the Calgary airport. That was probably the last Felito would see of his original home and native land.
Rafael would go on to become a firebrand pastor. Felito became Ted, Ted became immersed in free-market philosophy, and the trajectory would go on: U.S. debate championships, Harvard Law School, the George W. Bush campaign, Texas solicitor general, U.S. senator for Texas.
The Canadian roots have served as a nagging speed bump, though never one Cruz has been publicly worried about. He shrugs it all off as “fevered swamp theories.” His mother, now in her 80s and living in Houston, was always and is a United States citizen, so he should be just fine. (She has never spoken publicly about her time in Calgary.) When the Dallas Morning News pointed out in 2013 that Cruz had Canadian citizenship as well by birthright, he swiftly began the process of renouncing that right. A Harvard Law Review article last year by top lawyers for both the Obama and Bush administrations said someone born abroad to a U.S. citizen is clearly eligible. Many constitutional experts agree, though the Supreme Court hasn’t settled it—the point Trump and other critics hang on.
Cruz’s birthplace has triggered some teasing in the campaign, the sort of childish pranksterism that social media has established as part of the process of selecting Earth’s most important politician. Last October, the Democrats’ official Twitter account wished Cruz a happy Canadian Thanksgiving. In an America’s Liberty PAC ad last May, a monster truck announcer growls about a match-up pitting a hulking, bare-chested Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul against the “capitulating Canadian”—Cruz, putting his dukes up in red-and-white shorts. His apparent corner man is a moose, nibbling on some shrubbery.
Republicans don’t like to believe a beloved conservative son comes from away. In a poll of the party’s primary voters last summer, 40 per cent said Cruz was born in the United States, compared to 29 per cent who correctly said the same thing about Barack Obama, who ultimately hauled out his long-form birth certificate in 2011 to prove he is, indeed, Hawaii’s favourite son.
“Birtherism” predates Obama. It is as old as the American republic. It is precisely the tool that the country’s founding fathers concocted to try to bar alien usurpers—a dashing young prince of Mecklenburg, say—who might be able to seduce Americans into reinstating a monarchy. (Even George Washington rejected the proffered title of king.)
One of the framers credited with writing the clause, Alexander Hamilton, was born on the British-held Caribbean island of Nevis. But Hamilton was shot and killed in a duel—by the sitting U.S. vice-president, no less—before he had the chance to run for the not-yet-Oval Office and suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous birtherism.
In 1881, Chester Alan Arthur became the 21st president when James Garfield succumbed to an assassin’s bullet and 11 weeks of bungled medical care. The only thing certain about Arthur’s antecedents was that they had lived for various periods on both sides of the unfortified Quebec-Vermont boundary before the invention of NEXUS cards and drones. In 1884, when it seemed like Arthur, a Republican, might run for a second term in his own right, a Democratic Party operative compiled—or contrived—a volume entitled How a British Subject Became President of the United States that “proved” the president’s extraterritorial naissance. The disinformation campaign proved moot; Arthur failed to win the Republican nomination anyway and faded from the scene.
Faint stirrings of birtherism continued through the 20th century, enfolding such notables as Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jr., who was born to future first lady Eleanor on Campobello Island, N.B., and even Barry Goldwater, the arch-conservative who was was the Republican Party nominee in 1964, and the subject of a nuisance lawsuit claiming that he was ineligible because he was born when Arizona still was a territory, not a state.
Then came 2008 (and 2009 and 2010) and the rampant insinuations and imprecations against Barack Hussein Obama; namely, that he had been born in Nairobi, or Yogyakarta, or anywhere but Hawaii, U.S.A.
In 2016, leading this kerfuffle against Cruz are a loose collection of congressional Democrats, Republican senator and former presidential nominee John McCain (himself born in the Panama Canal Zone, a former U.S. territory), the Donald—“There is a doubt; we can’t have a doubt”—and a computer-systems designer in Florida who calls himself “Teo Bear.”
Bear, who declines to have his real name published “because too many people are doing this for their own publicity,” is behind a web site called Birthers.org. He describes himself as “more of a constitutionalist than a conservative,” and his argument against Cruz’s eligibility is based on parsing paragraphs from a 229-year-old parchment, not on personal enmity.
Bear reports with dismay that website traffic on Birthers.org has yet to be inundated with strict legalists eager to do away with Ted Cruz ipso facto. “I’m hearing from some people who don’t like Obama, and they were all over his being born in Kenya, but now they say, ‘Yeah, Cruz is an American.’ We need to get this done once and for all so we can move on,” says Bear. “I sure don’t want to help Hillary,” says Teo Bear. “Trust me on this.”
Neither, presumably, does John McCain, who has gleefully been doubling down on his claims that Cruz might have been born as an extraterritorial.
All this birtherism is as mother’s milk to Sarah Helene Duggin, a professor of law and a constitutional scholar at the Catholic University of America in Washington. Duggin has researched and written extensively on the subject of eligibility for the presidency. Also, her husband’s family comes from Montreal. “I don’t think it is settled law because the Supreme Court has never dealt with it and it’s not clear exactly what the framers of the Constitution meant,” says Duggin. “For example, did they intend that their own children who might be born overseas during a diplomatic assignment would not be eligible for the presidency?”
“It’s one the worst provisions in our Constitution—to use place of birth as a surrogate for loyalty. It is clear that, in the 18th century, Britain was willing to accept foreign-born monarchs from Germany, but the framers of the Constitution were quite clearly not willing to accept foreign-born presidents.”
Duggin would prefer that citizens such as Cruz—or even the Austrian-born Arnold Schwarzenegger—be accepted as legitimate presidential timber even if they weren’t citizens from the instant of their birth. “The best solution would be a constitutional amendment. But since the last one took about 200 years to be ratified, I’m not optimistic.”
Cruz has less than 20 days before Iowa and the state primaries. In another country, or perhaps with another party, his family’s Canadian saga would be a compelling bit of narrative. Instead, the Calgary-bred conservative found himself by mid-January having to release his mom’s Delaware birth certificate to right-wing news site Breitbart.com, and Cruz’s poll lead in Iowa nearly evaporated. That Canadian chill may be Ted Cruz’s lone stated memory, but it could also be an enduring impression.
This story has been updated to include comment from Bob Gaede, a former R.B. Cruz and Associates employee