Heidi Nelson Cruz's San Luis Obispo roots shaped her career, marriage to Tea Party darling

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, his wife, Heidi, and their two daughters, Catherine, 4, right, and Caroline, 6, arrive at Liberty University on Sunday, March 22, 2015, in Lynchburg, Va.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, his wife, Heidi, and their two daughters, Catherine, 4, right, and Caroline, 6, arrive at Liberty University on Sunday, March 22, 2015, in Lynchburg, Va. AP

Presidential politics first captured Heidi Nelson Cruz’s attention in the 1980s, when the 12-year-old read a Time magazine piece about the Ronald Reagan-Walter Mondale race while working at her San Luis Obispo bread stand.

She would later become a Capitol Hill intern, a policy aide on the George W. Bush campaign and economic director for the Western Hemisphere with the National Security Council. But while government and politics might have been her calling at one time, nothing in her background could have prepared her for this summer, when her husband, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, helped force a shutdown of the federal government.

“We were blessed to go to good schools and have careers that Ted and I enjoyed,” said Cruz, 41. “But we were in no way well known.”

That all changed, of course, when the newly elected Republican senator from Texas waged a campaign — culminating with a 21-hour speech on the Senate floor — to defund President Barack Obama’s health care program. His ardent stance brought nightly media attention, praise from supporters on the right and harsh criticism from the left.

While he became a darling of the Tea Party — fueling talk of a possible presidential run in 2016 — critics called him “a fraud,” “self-aggrandizing” and “nutty.”

Those words might have bothered some, Heidi Cruz said, but not her husband.

“He has an incredible heart, but he’s not the kind of person that’s trying to do what everybody wants him to do,” she said. “He’s trying to do what he thinks is right, and he has an innate ability to really not worry about things beyond his control.”

The senator’s ability to deflect criticisms — including some from his own party — has affected her own reactions, she said.

“Because it kind of rolls off him, at the end of the day, sometimes if I read a bad article, I think, ‘Why should I be stressed? Why should I lose sleep? He’s not. And it’s really about him, not me.”

That ability to handle chaos might also be traced back to her unusual upbringing in San Luis Obispo.

Religion and bread

Two threads have been common to Heidi Cruz’s family for generations: medical careers and strong religious faith.

Both her paternal and maternal grandfathers were doctors, as were multiple uncles. Cruz’s great-great-grandfather was a doctor and former president of Loma Linda University. Her maternal grandfather lived in Africa close to three decades, serving a mission while working at a hospital in the former Belgian Congo.

Growing up, Cruz visited numerous countries with her father, Peter Nelson, a dentist with a practice in San Luis Obispo; her mother, Suzanne Nelson, a former dental hygienist; and her brother, Scott Nelson, as part of missionary work her parents performed and dental work her father conducted in developing countries. The missions they performed were through the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

“I think those early travels made me expansive in terms of the things I wanted to do,” Cruz said.

While the family’s travels to numerous countries kept them busy, life in San Luis Obispo wasn’t much calmer. The kids woke daily at 5 a.m., read their Bibles, practiced piano, went to school and baked bread. Lots of bread.

“She and her brother had a running bread business out at Gopher Glen Apple Farm for six or eight years when they were growing up,” said Suzanne Nelson, who still lives with her husband in the house where their children grew up.

The siblings made bread year-round, but during the peak apple season — from August to November — they made bread daily from 4 to 8 p.m., selling it on weekends at Gopher Glen, owned by friends of the family.

Beginning at age 6, Cruz was earning $150 a week, money she’d later use to buy a car and pay off some of her first year of college. It was Peter Nelson’s idea to create a bread business to keep the children busy, but it provided lasting life lessons.

“I think it definitely taught us the value of hard work,” Cruz said. “We were used to being highly productive at all times.”

While Cruz initially worked for her brother, eventually the two went solo.

“We got kind of competitive with each other,” Cruz recalled. “We probably made 200 loaves a week.”

“She was always the outgoing one that got people to try samples,” their mother said.

After graduating from Valley View Adventist Academy in Arroyo Grande, Cruz’s bread-making days ended when she left to attend Monterey Bay Academy, an Adventist-owned boarding school in Monterey.

“Years after, people would say, ‘I need to know where that little girl is that sold bread,’ ” Suzanne Nelson said.

Establishing a career

While Scott Nelson pursued a career as a doctor, his sister preferred math and economics.

“Because of our travels — my parents took us to the East Coast, and we saw Washington as kids and Boston — I kind of got inspired by the history of our country and leadership and saw a direct tie to the service orientation of my family to public policy,” Cruz said.

After obtaining an economics and international relations degree from Claremont McKenna College, Cruz earned an MBA from Harvard. She met Ted Cruz in 2000 in Austin, Texas, when the two were policy aides on Bush’s presidential campaign. They married five months later.

Ted Cruz, a Harvard Law School graduate, became solicitor general in Texas before practicing corporate law. While he aspired to high public office, his wife eventually bowed out of government, taking business jobs with private corporations such as JPMorgan Chase and investment banking firm Goldman Sachs, where she’s now managing director in Houston.

As Heidi Cruz worked for Wall Street giants, her brother — a pediatric orthopedic surgeon — spent a year in Haiti helping heal the wounded poor after the devastating 2010 earthquake.

“The best payment I ever got was two mangoes and a hug,” The Tribune reported him saying at the time.

If her brother sought to make a difference one surgery at a time, Cruz sought change on a broader scale by helping her husband get elected to the Senate. When he was behind in the polls, Ted Cruz suggested they liquidate their savings — $1.2 million — and bolster the campaign chest.

“What astonished me, then and now,” Cruz recently told The New York Times, “was Heidi within 60 seconds said, ‘Absolutely,’ with no hesitation.”

Husband’s aspirations

If Ted Cruz’s presidential ambitions weren’t clear when he ran for Senate, they certainly became fodder for spin doctors after. A newly elected senator publicly challenging the president was a bold move. While some members of his own party thought the 42-year-old was pushing too hard, his wife said he never lost touch with his personal life.

“He’s always the first one to go, ‘Hey, let’s take a break — let’s go to a movie,’ ” she said. “He never misses date night. Loves to play games.”

A movie buff, Ted Cruz frequently recites movie lines.

“He loves ‘The Princess Bride,’ ” his wife said. “I think that’s his favorite movie.”

While Ted Cruz spends much time in Washington, D.C., his wife remains in Houston with their two daughters, 3 and 5, in a high-rise built in an affluent neighborhood. The building’s tight security helps everyone feel easier about the death threats Sen. Cruz has received.

“There’s some crazy people out there,” Suzanne Nelson said. “It’s been on the Internet and everything — what they want to do with him.”

When someone gets elected to the U.S. Senate, Heidi Cruz said, death threats just come with the job. She doesn’t worry too much about them.

“We are Christians, and we have a lot of prayer,” she said. “And I feel there are sacrifices you make.”

Ted and Heidi Cruz were last in San Luis Obispo about a year ago, for Thanksgiving.

“He’s very easy to talk to,” Nelson said. “He loves Texas. When he comes here, he doesn’t exclaim how great San Luis is. And we’re like, ‘Don’t you think it’s pretty here?’ ”

While their daughter is married to a now-famous politician, the Nelsons seldom reveal that to those who don’t already know.

“I don’t talk to too many people about it because they either hate him or they love him,” said Suzanne Nelson, who fears the reactions she might get. “He’s my son-in-law. He’s in our family, so I just don’t go there.”

While there are plenty of Ted Cruz detractors, his wife avoids most of the negative comments.

“I’m totally off social media, and I don’t see right now a real advantage to being on it,” she said. Besides, she added, “I truly don’t have an inch in my day for it between the job and the babies.”

But if anyone spent five minutes with her husband, she said, they couldn’t help but like him.

“There’s no doubt that he has a very strong intellect, and he’s very articulate,” she said. “But he is actually a very easy person to be around. He’s incredibly thoughtful.”