underdog sitting
Image: Angela Cash

History, so the saying goes, is typically written by the winners, and in no arena is that more true than in the race between two candidates. Possessed of outsized ambition, the person who emerges victorious is, more often than not, the one with fat coffers, a well-honed message and a high degree of political savoir faire. This is not that kind of story.

Instead, this is the story of an underdog, a long shot, someone who, by most predictors, is going to lose his race. A Portland man who dreams not of Washington, D.C., but of a modest office in Salem, his name upon the door: State Senator Sean Cruz, District 23.

Should Cruz, 59, beat the considerable odds stacked against him, he will pull in barely $20,000 per year, the current salary of an Oregon state senator. A meager wage, perhaps—but a small fortune to someone who once lived in a two-door Datsun B210, and who, until three years ago, was unable to afford health insurance. Cruz is the sort of candidate who will tell you, straight up, that he takes Zoloft for depression and is a proud member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Press him, and he’ll admit that, yes, his late son, who died while enlisted in the Army National Guard, was addicted to OxyContin and heroin. Cruz, fledgling politician, is a man whose handlers—if he had them, which he does not—would be rushing the stage to shut him up.

Yet this is only one way to spin the narrative of his life, for in 2002, after nearly six years of homelessness, Cruz became chief of staff for District 23 State Senator Avel Gordly, whose constituents live in Northeast and Southeast Portland. As chief of staff, Cruz has managed Gordly’s schedule, written drafts and revisions of bills and, increasingly, made policy recommendations. When Gordly heads to the senate floor, Cruz is usually beside her, watching debates unfold among legislators. Gordly has been so impressed with Cruz in his capacity as advisor that when she announced her intention to retire at the end of her term in January 2009, she encouraged him to run.

Cruz, a first-generation Mexican-American, now owns a home in District 23’s Parkrose neighborhood, a fact that also lends his story a certain pulled-himself-up-by-the-bootstraps appeal. That he’s experienced firsthand the issues that plague the district—racism, economic disparity, a lack of health insurance—makes him, he feels, uniquely qualified for the seat. On his blog, BlogoliticalSean.blogspot.com, he writes that he is not a “career politician” but a citizen, one whose story reflects “the issues Oregonians care most deeply about,” and not the issues “of those who are efficient campaigners.”