underdog grill
Image: Angela Cash

Gordly initially met Cruz in the late 1990s, when he was volunteering for organizations like the Oregon chapter of Weed and Seed, which works to reduce drug abuse and gang activity in urban neighborhoods. “His worldview was very much in sync with mine,” she says, so much so that in 2003 she asked him to become her chief of staff. Gordly wanted someone who understood how the district’s rapid growth was affecting people’s lives, and Cruz’s experiences helped remind her every day who among her constituents needed her most. “We never, ever, ever want to forget,” she says, “that the people we serve are also the people at the bottom.”

Cruz, in Gordly’s mind, is the kind of person whom not only the district needs, but whom the Oregon Senate needs: “The person who is willing to question conventional wisdom. The person who’s not going to just march to the drummer, meaning the party mantra.”

Someone, in other words, a lot like herself.

?It’s noon on Sunday, and Cruz is the only customer in Tupelo Joe’s, the barbecue joint and blues club on NE 107th Ave & Sandy that he refers to as his “semiofficial campaign headquarters.” After warmly shaking my hand, the six-foot Cruz, for no apparent reason, breaks into a rippling laugh. “I am the only candidate who drives a hand-painted car!” he says of the royal blue 1994 Nissan Sentra parked across the street. “I Indianized it!”

With his dark ponytail and Western shirt, Cruz could easily pass for Native American, though his father was Mexican and his mother was Irish. Mostly ignoring a plate of rib tips, he spends the afternoon going over his past: Born in 1948, he grew up in Fairfield, California, the son of a farm-worker father who became a deputy sheriff, until a car accident ended his father’s career. His mother was a legal secretary. Until his late 20s, when he finally decided to get serious about his education, Cruz lived the life of a “starving musician—I mean starving.” He graduated from Sonoma State University with a degree in political science and aspired to become a political writer.

Those dreams were deferred when Cruz met 21-year-old Gina Micheletti during her shift tending a bar in San Francisco. They were married, but soon after their first child was born—and after a short separation—his wife decided to rejoin the Mormon Church, the faith she’d grown up in. Religious differences (“I’ve never been one for dogma,” says Cruz) were a source of constant tension, as were the couple’s declining fortunes: A Bay Area start-up where Cruz found work as an editor went bust; ditto, a business he launched to develop software for the residential real estate industry. By 1988, now with four children, “we were totally broke,” says Cruz, which is how they ended up in a tent behind Gina’s parents’ house. His in-laws were less than impressed with Cruz’s potential. Work, again, was tenuous: After the rigging job, he lost a job with computer manufacturer Tandy, when it downsized. Whether due to the financial pressures or, to Cruz’s mind, his wife’s indoctrination by the church, or both, in 1991, he and Gina divorced, though a joint-custody agreement allowed Cruz to see his kids, he says, “an average of 180 days a year for five years.”