“That’s the record I’m running on,” Cruz assures the crowd. In a crescendo, he affirms, “What we need in the Senate is a fighter. We don’t need another establishment, career politician that’s going to put his arm around the Democrats and keep compromising in growing the size and spending and power of the federal government.” (Meaning: We don’t need Dewhurst.)
Cruz receives warm applause for his effort. But he has competition. The last candidate to speak is 32-year-old rancher Lela Pittenger. She has no political experience, but she has the natural touch. “When people want to know what kind of experience I have, I say, ‘Well, if you’re talking about lying, cheating, or flip-flopping on the issues, I have no experience,’” she jokes to a grateful audience.
After the forum, Jim Redden, an attendee, tells me, “The lady’s very impressive.”
“Pittenger blows me away,” Jolene Hawkins, another attendee, says.
But even if the crowd appreciates Pittinger’s performance, in their gut they crave a winner.
“Cruz would win,” Lorraine LeMon, an attendee, tells me as she grapples with her vote. The straw poll is about to close.
When the votes are tallied, the victor’s margin is huge: Of 101 votes cast, Ted Cruz wins 64 of them, while Pittenger gets 15. No-show Dewhurst earns just three votes.
Cruz’s victory is well deserved. Last night, he corralled 25 of his supporters at a nearby restaurant, Buzzie’s Bar-B-Q. Today, he is the last candidate to leave — he’s constantly shaking hands, swapping stories, fielding questions. He’s determined to win. And that determination has seen him through.
Cruz inherited his work ethic from his parents. In 1957, his father, then 18 years old, fled Cuba for Austin with just $100, sewn into his underwear. He didn’t speak English, so he washed dishes seven days a week to pay his way through the University of Texas, during which time he met his wife, Cruz’s mother. Both studied mathematics, and after college, they started a small business in seismic-data processing for oil companies.
Cruz also inherited his patriotism from them. “When I was a kid, my father used to say to me all the time, ‘When we faced oppression in Cuba, I had a place to flee to. If we lose our freedom here, where do we go?’” he says. That concern for liberty (and the prospect of scholarship money) drew him as a high-school student to the Free Enterprise Institute, a Houston-based think tank dedicated to teaching students about the American founders and the free market.
Each year, the institute held a speech contest for high-school students entitled “The Ten Pillars of Economic Wisdom.” The contestants would read classical liberals such as Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, and then they would each write a 20-minute speech on what they had learned. Cruz was one of his city’s winners in all four years of high school, and he would travel to different civic-minded institutions — Rotary clubs, Kiwanis clubs, “anyone who would listen” — to give his speech from memory.
Cruz’s involvement with the institute led to a lifelong love affair with the Constitution. The institute soon began another group called “The Constitutional Corroborators,” which took five high-school students, assigned them readings about the Constitution, and then helped them memorize a mnemonic version of the document. Afterward, they toured Texas. Their shtick was to set up five pads of paper on easels and, using their mnemonic device, write the entire Constitution — in truncated form — from memory.