Meet Rafael Cruz: Ted Cruz’s secret evangelical weapon

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·National Correspondent
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  • Ted Cruz
    Ted Cruz
    United States Senator from Texas
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Rafael Cruz speaks at the Family Leadership Summit in Iowa last year. (Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP)

WASHINGTON, Iowa — The chapel doors were firmly closed, but the shouts could be heard on the empty streets outside Marion Avenue Baptist Church here on a recent Sunday evening. “Amen!” someone cried out. “Tell it!” another yelled.

Inside, practically every pew was filled. A few hundred people were there — many of them visitors from nearby towns in this heavily rural part of the state. They sat in rapt attention as a man in a dark suit dramatically paced back and forth in front of the pulpit, speaking with the passionate air of someone determined to save every last sinner from the fiery pits of hell.

“We as a church need to get on our faces before God in repentance,” the man declared, jabbing his finger in the air. “It’s our fault what’s happening in our nation, because we have failed to assume our responsibility.… We have been hiding under the pew. We have believed that the Bible and politics are two things that should not be mixed.”

Grabbing his well-worn Bible, the man thrust it in the air. “Let me tell you,” he said, “this book talks a lot about politics.”

“Yes!” someone called out.

It wasn’t the church’s pastor who was firing up the faithful that night on Marion Avenue. The speaker was Rafael Cruz, the 76-year-old father of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. A Cuban immigrant turned traveling minister, the elder Cruz has been a central figure in his son’s rise on the national political scene. His personal story of religious rebirth and pursuit of the American dream has been the emotional and inspirational backbone of Ted Cruz’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination. And it’s made Rafael Cruz a rock star in his own right among many religious conservatives, who are vital to his son’s White House aspirations.

A tea party favorite who has made religious liberty a central plank of his campaign, Ted Cruz has underperformed in the polls in recent months. But in a move that could pay off as voters begin to pay more attention to the race, he’s positioned himself to be the alternative to other leading candidates, including Donald Trump and Ben Carson — who sit atop most early GOP primary polls in part because of their antiestablishment fervor.

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Ted Cruz and his father, Rafael, in Houston in March. (Photo: Michael Stravato/Polaris)

At the same time, his father could prove to be an important secret weapon in one of the fiercest battles inside the GOP nomination contest: the fight to win over the religious right, which is currently split among Cruz and several other contenders in the race, including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher, and Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who is staunchly anti-abortion.

Perhaps nowhere is that voting bloc more important than Iowa, where social conservatives account for roughly half of Republican caucusgoers. The early voting state’s importance is not lost on the Cruz campaign, which is looking for a win there to gain momentum going into other key primaries. Though the Texas senator has spent far less time campaigning in Iowa than many of his opponents, the elder Cruz has quietly stepped up in his son’s absence, a stand-in many in the state believe is almost as good as having the candidate there himself.

In a schedule that is rarely advertised by his son’s campaign, Rafael Cruz has been a near-constant presence in Iowa over the last several months, preaching at churches, addressing religious groups and doing general outreach for the campaign. One of his son’s closest advisers and confidants, Cruz is a tireless surrogate, according to those who know him, a one-man turnout machine who devotes most of his waking hours to trying to help his son get to the White House.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had dinner with Rafael,” says Bob Vander Plaats, an influential social conservative whose endorsement is among the most coveted in Iowa. “He is really working this state unlike anyone else.”

Like his son, Rafael Cruz is a smooth and well-practiced speaker who regularly brings audiences to their feet with his Bible-laced speeches about his love for America and passion for the Constitution. But he often takes it a step further than his son — threading his remarks with provocative statements that might not play well with the more mainstream voters Sen. Cruz will need to secure the nomination and ultimately the presidency.

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Pastors have had a tricky history when getting involved in campaigns. In 2008, after months of courting his support, John McCain was forced to rescind the endorsement of the Rev. John Hagee, an influential San Antonio megachurch pastor, after a series of controversial statements and sermons came to light. In one, Hagee had suggested New Orleans had suffered “God’s judgment” through Hurricane Katrina because of its “level of sin.” And few have forgotten President Barack Obama’s ties to his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose inflammatory sermons about race and faith nearly derailed Obama’s 2008 Democratic primary bid.

Rafael Cruz has a penchant for incendiary comments. He likens Obama to Fidel Castro and has suggested that “social justice” is nothing more than a form of Marxism. Last month, he made headlines in Houston, where he used to live, when he told a conservative radio host that it was “appalling” that the city had elected a “homosexual mayor.”

The Cruz campaign seems fully aware of both the opportunities and potential pitfalls of the father’s style and rhetoric. In a campaign video, Ted Cruz himself has anticipated the attacks.

At Marion Avenue Baptist Church, Cruz seemed to have toned down some of his more controversial remarks about Obama — at least for the night. But speaking there about why pastors and churchgoers should be more involved in the political process, Cruz savaged Christians who stayed at home last Election Day and have, in his words, remained “silent” as the Supreme Court has legalized abortion and approved same-sex marriage. He argued that too many pastors are afraid that politicking might hurt their church’s attendance and income. “It’s time we become Biblically correct instead of politically correct,” he declared.

At one point, Cruz offered a stark comparison, likening churchgoers’ reluctance to engage in politics today to pastors in Nazi Germany who turned a blind eye to Adolf Hitler and his regime. “It is said that while the trains were going by taking the Jews to be exterminated, they were singing louder inside the church so that they wouldn’t hear the trains,” Cruz said somberly.

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An image of Rafael Cruz in Cuba from a Cruz campaign ad.

Anyone who has heard Ted Cruz’s stump speech knows the story of his father.

Rafael Cruz’s biography is an invaluable element of his son’s own political branding. The Texas senator mentions him at nearly every campaign stop and has cited him in political ads as a way of vouching for his own character. One spot, from the 2012 campaign, told of how Rafael Cruz had fought for freedom in Cuba before escaping to the United States. Ted Cruz, the ad said, would be a “fighter” just like his dad.

“He is my hero,” Ted Cruz tells voters.

The story of Rafael Cruz is a tale of tribulation and testing, sin and redemption, carefully rendered to appeal to evangelical voters.

Born in 1939 in Matanzas, Cuba, about an hour outside Havana, Rafael Cruz grew up in a working-class family, the oldest son of an elementary schoolteacher mother and a father who didn’t make it past the third grade. His dad worked odd jobs to keep the family afloat — picking sugarcane, running a grocery store and, in the 1950s, selling RCA televisions.

Rafael, who has a younger sister, was a straight-A student who loved fishing and playing baseball. But when he was a teenager in the 1950s, he had a political awakening. As he and his son tell it, Cruz became disenchanted with Fulgencio Batista, a brutal dictator who had seized control of Cuba in a coup. By the time he was 14, Rafael was sneaking off to political rallies, and without his parents’ permission, he soon followed his friends into the underground resistance led by a young revolutionary named Fidel Castro.

According to Ted Cruz’s book, “A Time for Truth,” which features a chapter on his dad’s early life, his father did not know Castro was a communist — he was just “an inspiring figure to Cuba’s restive youth.” Young Rafael “became a guerrilla, throwing Molotov cocktails at the buildings of Batista’s regime, whatever the resistance needed,” Cruz wrote.

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A photo of Rafael Cruz’s mug shot courtesy of Ted Cruz’s private collection via Harper Collins.

When Rafael was 17, an informant turned him in. He was arrested and taken to jail, where forces loyal to Batista held him for several days and tortured him. Soldiers broke his nose and bashed his front teeth in — “until they dangled from his mouth,” according to his son’s book. (Cruz’s memories of what happened in Cuba are hard to confirm. The Cuban government has not commented on his account.)

Rafael Cruz was eventually released from jail, but he wasn’t finished fighting. He has said he asked other members of the underground to help him reach Castro, who was hiding out in a rebel camp in the Sierra Maestra mountains. But it seemed too risky. Instead, his parents pushed him to flee Cuba. Cruz applied to the University of Texas, where he was accepted. A friend of the family bribed a government official for an exit visa, and in 1957, at age 18, Rafael set sail on a ferry to Key West, Fla. He had only the clothes on his back and $100 his mother had sewn into his underwear.

“America, quite simply, saved my father,” Ted Cruz has said.

After taking a bus to Austin, Texas, Rafael Cruz got a job washing dishes at a local diner. He learned English binge-watching movies at a nearby theater.

Though he was no longer in Cuba, Cruz still supported Castro’s cause, and when his English became good enough, he began giving speeches around Austin advocating for the revolution. In 1959, Castro succeeded, and that summer, Cruz went back to see his family. While there, he became disillusioned with the new regime.

“That same man that had been talking before about hope and change was now talking about how the rich were evil, how they oppress the poor and about the need to redistribute the wealth,” Rafael Cruz told a crowd in Iowa in 2013, offering one of his many comparisons between the Cuban dictator and Obama.

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Cruz graduated from college with a math degree in 1961. With his student visa expired, he applied for and was granted political asylum. By 1966, his parents and sister had fled Cuba and joined him in Texas. Rafael had gotten a job designing software for the petroleum industry.

Although it is rarely mentioned by him or his son, Rafael also got married and had two daughters during this period. The oldest, Miriam, died of a drug overdose in 2011; the other, Roxana is a doctor outside Dallas. She did not respond to an interview request and has never been quoted discussing her half brother, who is nine years younger. Public records show she is a registered Democrat. Ted Cruz fleetingly mentions his father’s first marriage in his book, suggesting he spent time as a child with his half sisters. Writing about Miriam’s death, he said she had a “very difficult time with her parents’ divorce” and subsequently led a troubled life of crime and addiction.

It’s unclear exactly when Rafael divorced his first wife, but the official narrative picks up in 1969 when he moved to New Orleans and met Eleanor Darragh, a fellow mathematician who was also designing software for oil companies. They married that year and moved to Calgary, Canada, where they started their own company selling software that processed seismic drilling data. There, Rafael became a Canadian citizen, and in December 1970, Eleanor gave birth to their first and only son, Ted.

The young couple had problems almost from the very beginning. According to Ted Cruz, both of his parents drank too much and “lived a fast life.” In late 1974, just before his son’s fourth birthday, Rafael walked out on his wife and child and flew back to Texas, where he settled in Houston. One night, about five months later, a friend from the energy industry invited him to a Bible study class. Rafael had been raised Catholic but wasn’t particularly religious. Still, he agreed to go.

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An image of a young Ted Cruz with his father from a campaign ad.

There, he met Gaylon Wiley, a local pastor who began talking to Cruz about his faith. Cruz was skeptical and began debating the pastor about the Bible and the concept of “being saved.” The two went back and forth for hours, according to Wiley, who is now a pastor in Lebanon, Tenn. “He was incredibly intelligent, maybe even a genius, and boy, could he argue,” Wiley recalled in an interview with Yahoo News. “He was a bit arrogant.”

According to Wiley, Cruz kept badgering him on the question of why someone had to accept Jesus Christ in order to get to heaven. “What about the man up in the mountains in Tibet who has never heard of Jesus?” Cruz asked.

“I don’t know,” Wiley told him honestly. But, he added, “You have heard about Jesus. What’s your excuse?”

Cruz seemed stunned by his answer at first, Wiley recalled. And then, Cruz dropped to his knees and began praying to God for forgiveness. He became a born-again Christian that night. The next morning — or a few days later, depending on who is telling the story — Rafael got on a plane and flew back to Canada to reconcile with his wife and son. Not long after, they joined him in Houston, where they, too, eventually became born-again Christians.

“There are people who wonder if faith is real,” Ted Cruz said at his announcement speech in April. “I can tell you, in my family, there’s not a second of doubt. Were it not for the transformative love of Jesus Christ, I would not have been saved, and I would have been raised by a single mom.”

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Rafael Cruz campaigning in Oklahoma City in May. (Photo: Rick Wilking/Reuters)

At the same time he underwent a spiritual rebirth, Rafael Cruz experienced a political awakening as well. He had grown frustrated with the policies of President Jimmy Carter — or as he told the audience at Marion Avenue, “that socialist Jimmy Carter,” who he says also reminded him of Castro. At the dinner table with his wife and son, talk centered around either the Bible or politics — a dialogue that Ted Cruz often credits for his own interest in government.

The elder Cruz’s interest in American politics came at a pivotal time for the religious conservative movement, which began to mobilize churchgoers for the first time ahead of the 1980 presidential election. Moral Majority and a sister organization, Religious Roundtable, were backed by a who’s who of evangelical and conservative leaders, including Jerry Falwell, Gary Bauer, Paul Weyrich, Phyllis Schlafly and Richard Viguerie.

Rafael has told audiences he was heavily involved in the early beginnings of the evangelical movement. He joined the state board of Religious Roundtable, which in August 1980 sponsored a gathering of roughly 15,000 evangelicals in Dallas to encourage political participation featuring Ronald Reagan. Cruz has offered few specifics about his role in the group or that rally, except to say it was a transformative moment. He wasn’t the only one who felt that way. One of the organizers of the rally was a young minister named Mike Huckabee, his son’s future opponent, who was working at the time for television preacher James Robison in Dallas, another leader in Religious Roundtable. Huckabee, who has said the rally helped him understand the political power of the pulpit for the first time, said through a spokeswoman that he does not recall meeting Rafael Cruz at the time.

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Cruz has credited his faith with helping him get through one of the darkest periods of his life. In Houston, he and his wife were still doing consulting for energy companies when in the mid-1980s the industry went bust. His clients went bankrupt — and soon he and his wife did too. They had invested a large amount of their personal savings into the operation, and soon, it was gone. “He was a multimillionaire, and they lost everything,” Wiley recalled.

The family lost their home and moved into an apartment, and like his father before him, Rafael took odd jobs to keep the family afloat. He became a salesman — at one point he sold vending machines — and focused his attention on his faith and his young son, whom he was grooming for greatness. Cruz regularly tells of how he began reading the Bible with Ted while also instilling in him a love for America and the Constitution — so that he would genuinely appreciate the freedom the country afforded him.

As he frequently tells audiences, Cruz told his son, “When I lost my freedom in Cuba, I had a place to come to. If we lost our freedom here, where we going to go?” It’s now a line in Ted Cruz’s stump speech.

At the suggestion of a friend, Rafael got Ted involved in a group called the Free Enterprise Institute, which had the younger Cruz reading economic theories and documents like the Federalist Papers even before he was in high school. He also joined a group called the Constitutional Collaborators, in which he and four other kids memorized every word of the Constitution and traveled throughout Texas visiting Rotary Clubs and other groups where they would write down sections by memory, followed by a short speech. Rafael often accompanied them.

“Before my son left high school, he was passionate about the Constitution, about the Declaration [of Independence], about free market, about the government, about the rule of law,” Rafael Cruz said in Iowa last month. “That passion became like a fire in his bones, and the reason I know my son Ted Cruz won’t compromise his principles in Washington is [because] that fire is as alive today as it was over 30 years ago.”

Rafael tells audiences he quizzed his son until he had every single word perfect. And then they worked on delivery. Under his father’s guidance, Ted Cruz began to sound almost like a pastor, but his father had greater things in mind for him than the church. “You know, Ted, you have been gifted above any man that I know, and God has destined you for greatness,’” Cruz regularly told his son.

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Cruz speaking at the Freedom Summit in Greenville, S.C., in May. (Photo: Richard Ellis/Getty Images)

Ted Cruz soon moved east to attend Princeton and then Harvard Law School. Back in Houston, his dad’s life began to fall apart. No longer held together for the sake of their son, his parents separated in the early 1990s and ultimately divorced. In his book, Ted Cruz recalled that he fought and “pleaded” to keep his parents together, printing out “pages and pages of scriptures on the sanctity of marriage.” “Alas, there was nothing I could do,” he wrote.

Rafael Cruz never mentions his divorce, and what his life was like at the time is somewhat murky. (Through the Cruz campaign, he declined to be interviewed for this story.) He has told audiences he began to build his ministry — though it’s unclear exactly what he did to financially support himself. After the divorce, he moved to Dallas, while Cruz’s mother remained in Houston. Corporate records show Cruz registered a series of businesses at the time — including one called Optimum Search International and another called Kingdom Translation Services, which offers translations of the Bible. According to Cruz, he became an American citizen in 2005.

Details on Cruz’s ministry at the time are also scant. Though biographies provided at his public appearances have often described him as a “pastor at a Dallas church,” Cruz has never been affiliated with a church, and it’s also unclear when he became ordained. Public records show he formally registered his ministry — first known as Purifying Fire Ministries — in October 2012, well after he became a full-time surrogate for his son’s Senate campaign. In 2014, Cruz changed the name of his ministry to Grace for America — to avoid confusion with a ministry founded by the televangelist Benny Hinn’s wife, Suzanne, which was also known as Purifying Fire. (Though it’s been reported that Cruz was associated with Hinn, there is no connection, a Cruz source said.)

What is clear is that as his son’s political star rose, Rafael Cruz also became a prominent figure in his own right. In 2011, he began filling in for his son at a tea party rallies in Texas, wowing crowds with his personal story, passionate speaking style and willingness to bash Obama. Soon, Rafael and his son began appearing together at conservative rallies, not just in Texas but in D.C., and in early voting states like Iowa — where the newly elected senator was already considering his political future.

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Ted Cruz with his father, Rafael, and daughter, Caroline, on election night in 2012. (Photo: David J. Phillip/AP)

Soon, leaders of the national movement began to take notice not only of Ted Cruz but his dad. Richard Viguerie, the longtime conservative leader, recalled seeing the father speak at a dinner just after his son was elected. The crowd, he said, was “blown away” by Rafael, whom he describes as a “hard-core conservative, someone who is really one of us.”

He recalled turning to Ted Cruz and joking, “I think we elected the wrong guy.” The younger Cruz, he said, laughed. “You aren’t the first to say that,” Ted Cruz told him.

It’s hard to think of a single campaign surrogate who has been more prolific than Rafael Cruz in the months leading up to the 2016 campaign. Though he flies largely under the radar, Cruz’s father appears to be everywhere. By his account, he’s spoken to at least 100 pastor groups and other religious organizations over the last two years. That doesn’t include all of his recent travel on behalf of his son’s campaign, which includes trips throughout Iowa, South Carolina, Florida, Michigan, Tennessee and even Puerto Rico, where he preached on the beach.

Often, Cruz’s speeches at churches are indistinguishable from his remarks at actual political events. At Marion Avenue, Cruz bashed the Republican Party and said Obama should be impeached (though, with just over a year left in his term, he said, why bother). He argued again and again for Christians to get involved in the upcoming GOP primary — calling it the real “battle” of the campaign. At the conclusion of his remarks, Cruz, as he often does, handed out booklets of the Constitution with a picture of his son on the cover.

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“Jesus is not on the ballot,” he said. “We are never going to find someone who is perfect.” The quest, he said, is to find someone who “shares our values.”

It’s that message that makes Rafael Cruz his son’s best ambassador to religious conservatives, according to evangelical leaders in Iowa.

“He has a compelling life story — a Cuban refugee who loves this country and has found great life change who also has a great story about raising a son who has a deep love for his Lord and his country and his family,” said Bob Vander Plaats. “When a dad says something like that about his son, people really do pause and take notice.”

In December, just a month before the Iowa caucus, Rafael Cruz will release his first book. Called “A Time for Action,” the book will not only focus on his biography but sum up his push to get Christians out to the polls. It includes a forward from talk show host Glenn Beck and an epilogue by his son.

After his speech at Marion Avenue, the elder Cruz was mobbed by churchgoers. He slowly made his way into the hallway outside the sanctuary, where he handed out copies of the Ted Cruz-branded Constitution. As the faithful filed out into the dark night, he shook every hand in sight — often asking for names. He looked like a politician, but it’s his son who’s on the ballot.

“God bless Iowa,” he said again and again. “Don’t forget to vote!”

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