underdog
Image: Angela Cash

The arrangement ended on February 12, 1996, when Cruz’s ex-wife left Oregon, taking the four children, then ages 7 to 17, with her. For three weeks, Cruz had no idea where they were, until a lawyer he hired finally located them in a Mormon community outside of Ogden, Utah. Cruz has never again had any substantial contact with his family—though he insists he’s tried. Over the years, the wound of the loss has festered into obsession: Nearly every story he tells begins and ends with his need to reconnect with his kids.

Following their disappearance, Cruz sank into depression and fell months behind on his rent. He took a job at El Hispanic News, but clashed with the publisher and was fired. He moved over to the Portland Observer, the city’s nearly four-decade-old African-American newspaper, where he helped launch a Hispanic section called El Observador de Portland. According to publisher Charles Washington, Cruz was a good editor and even headed up a special election edition in 1996—during which Cruz first learned about and endorsed Gordly—but the Observador didn’t generate enough revenue for the paper. Cruz was let go.

“I had lost all hope,” Cruz says. Late one night, at a New Year’s Eve party in a riverfront home near the Sellwood Bridge, he found himself staring at the water and contemplating suicide. “I was just thinking about walking out into the Willamette,” he says. Before he could, a woman came up beside him, put her hand on his shoulder and started to pray. “And I thought, ‘If I don’t go to a church,’” says Cruz, “‘I am going to die.’”

Cruz ended up at Victory Outreach on NE Alberta St, a nondenominational ministry that he had written about for the Observer several months earlier. Max Garza, Victory’s pastor, remembers Cruz looking “handsome and clean-cut” during that first newspaper interview. But when Cruz showed up at the church the next time, Garza says, “he was distraught, emotionally dysfunctional—I would say, almost suicidal.”

Victory Outreach typically helps people who’ve been incarcerated, addicted to drugs, or working as prostitutes. Though Cruz met none of these criteria, Garza made an exception.

“Pastor Max said, ‘Sean, I don’t know what your issues are, but if you need a place to stay, we’ve got a bunk bed for you,’” recalls Cruz. He wound up staying five years.

This is the narrative Cruz tells, in a somewhat shorter version, at the fund-raiser at Greg’s Backyard Grill. He talks, too, of his climb out of those depressive depths: volunteering with the Portland Police Bureau’s Crisis Response Team; getting his real estate license in 2000; starting to take antidepressants, thanks to the Oregon Health Plan Standard (from whose rolls he was later cut).

After his speech, during which he also touches briefly on his political platform—expanding health coverage, opening homes for the mentally ill and improving care for veterans—Cruz chats with a few of his constituents. Alice Andersen, owner of Bob & Alice’s Tavern on SE Foster Rd, tells him that she needs to work a second full-time job at an electronics plant in order to pay her bills. “The politicians care more about the spotted owl than they do about people and their livelihoods,” she says of candidates like Dingfelder. “I may never be able to retire–I’m 62 now, my God.” Adds John Feuerstein, the liquor-store owner who arranged the evening’s event, “Take a look at the district. You’d be hard-pressed to find any wetlands here. We’re more interested in our businesses.” When I ask George Kuppler, another liquor-store owner, why he supports Cruz, he says, “Sean has a depth of life experience; he wears his heart on his sleeve.”