underdog jackie
Image: Angela Cash

This last statement is a subtle dig at his opponent, four-term state representative Jackie Dingfelder, a 47-year-old environmental planner who political pundits say will be nearly impossible to beat. Not only is she chair of the House Energy and Environment Committee—a powerful post that she’d give up to become a freshman state senator—but the list of 100-plus people and groups that have endorsed her campaign, from City Commissioner Sam Adams to Attorney General Hardy Myers to the American Federation of Teachers, reads like a who’s who of Portland political insiders.

Still, Cruz has what Dingfelder does not: a story, one that he hopes will resonate with constituents, several dozen of whom showed up in January for his fundraising kickoff at Greg’s Backyard Grill & Bar, a family-style restaurant on SE 82nd Ave. Standing beneath a TV screen flashing Keno numbers, Cruz—his face resembling a weather-beaten Gregory Peck’s—divulges the details of his life. How he came from little and wound up with less. How in 1988 he lived with his wife and four kids in a tent in his in-laws’ backyard in Battleground, Washington, and had to work a temporary job as a rigger at Portland’s Northwest Marine Ironworks, “something I didn’t know a damn thing about but took anyway, because it paid 13 dollars an hour.”

That was before things really went into the crapper.

Cruz no longer has a wife, nor contact with his three surviving children. In mid-January, four months before the Democratic primary in which he’ll face Dingfelder, he also lacks a campaign manager, a war chest and any more endorsements than can be counted on one hand. Yet, if any of this bothers him, if he notices the people leaving empty “Support Sean Cruz” envelopes alongside their empty beer bottles after he concludes his 35-minute speech, he doesn’t show it.

Cruz looks elated, if a little like a man who, having waded into a swift-moving river, realizes he’s in for a very hard swim. “Going from homelessness to a Senate seat in six years—yeah, that’s a great story,” he says.