CALGARY, alberta — Here in the city where Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas was born, many Canadians give less than a hockey puck about whether their native son is eligible to be the U.S. president.
Many of them are just glad he’s not running for anything in Canada.
“I just don’t think he’s reasonable. The States can keep him,” said Jane Savannah, a nursing student at Foothills Medical Centre, the hospital where Cruz was born in 1970. A close follower of U.S. politics, Savannah talked of how Cruz was not liked “by a lot of people in the Senate” and of how he was chummy with business mogul Donald Trump “until he tried to eclipse him.”
Many here are bingeing on the U.S. election as if it were an addictive TV drama. In these snowy foothills of the Canadian Rockies, they are especially amused as constitutional scholars argue whether Cruz qualifies as a natural-born citizen of the United States — and as Trump insinuates that Cruz is too Canadian to live in the White House.
Not since the 1988 Winter Olympics were held in Calgary has there been so much U.S. media attention on this oil town. Canada usually doesn’t register in a U.S. election. But Trump is tweeting that Cruz should run for its prime minister. Pranksters in the icy plains of Iowa dressed as Royal Canadian Mounted Police and passed out copies of Cruz’s birth certificate. New York’s Daily News tabloid blared this across its cover: “Drop Dead, Ted” and “Go back to Canada!”
This week in New Hampshire, Trump stepped up his attacks on Cruz, saying his Canadian birth makes him vulnerable to legal questions: “If he gets the nomination, they’re going to sue his ass off.” Trump has also said Cruz “may not be a U.S. citizen” but is rather “an anchor baby in Canada.”
It’s all rather confounding to our northern neighbor, where there is no prohibition on foreign-born prime ministers. In fact, a few were born in the United Kingdom.
Cruz’s Cuban-born father and U.S.-born mother moved to Calgary in the 1960s and set up a business that helped oil companies process seismic data to pinpoint the best place to drill. His father, Rafael Cruz, lost himself in the bottle and abandoned the family here before finding religion and later becoming an evangelical pastor.
“Were it not for the transformative love of Jesus Christ, I would have been raised by a single mom without my father in the household,” Ted Cruz said during his announcement speech last year.
In 1974, Rafael Cruz, his drinking days behind him, returned to Calgary to retrieve his wife and toddler son and settled the family in Houston, Ted Cruz has said.
“It’s truly ironic, but if Rafael hadn’t become a bad boy in the first place, his son wouldn’t be running for the White House,” said Mike Galbraith, a geophysicist who worked with Cruz’s parents in Calgary.
Galbraith remembers Rafael Cruz as “a party animal” who would invite 100 people over to his pig roasts in the back yard of his swanky home along the Elbow River. With a math degree and a lot of ambition, he and his wife, Eleanor Darragh, a computer programmer, set up their own company. Galbraith recalled that Rafael Cruz loved this saying: “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”
Born Rafael Edward Cruz, the future senator from Texas was known as “Felito” as a baby, Galbraith said. Only later did he start using the name Ted.
Gillian Steward, a journalist in Calgary who knew Cruz’s parents when they lived here, said that Cruz would be far too conservative for most voters in his home town.
A conservative Canadian, many say here, is a liberal American.
“He’s pretty extreme,” said Steward, chatting over a cup of coffee on a frigid day. Canadians are “much less inclined” to mix religion and politics, she said.
Fond of their socialized health care, Canadians also chafe at Cruz’s fervent opposition to the Affordable Care Act. They welcome Syrian refugees and disagree with Cruz’s fierce anti-immigration stance. And in a country with much tougher gun laws, the video clips of Cruz cooking bacon by wrapping it around the barrel of an AR-15 rifle left some slightly aghast.
Given all that, Paul Fairie, a political scientist in Calgary, said: Don’t expect anyone to make a “memorial at his childhood home.”
If anyone tried, they would run straight into Mary Eggermont-Molenaar, who lives in the first house Cruz lived in as a newborn.
“If he knocked on the door, I’d welcome him — but I’d give him an earful,” she said in the cozy kitchen of the two-story house in the middle-class St. Andrews Heights neighborhood.
“You can’t blame him for where he’s born, but you can blame him for being pro-gun and pro-death penalty,” she said. “Even my right-wing friends don’t like him.”
Eggermont-Molenaar, an author from the Netherlands, joked that, given that his rivals tell him to run for office in Canada, and he is a poor fit here, he should consider a third option: “Cuba!”
Jebb Fink, an American comedian who has lived in Calgary for 27 years, said most Americans probably couldn’t name Canada’s current prime minister (Justin Trudeau) or the one who just left after a decade in office (Stephen Harper). But in Canada, the U.S. election is frequently talked about on social media, on the front page of newspapers and on the nightly TV news.
Comedy shows here point out how little Americans know about Canada. Mayor Naheed Nenshi, who studied at Harvard and by his own admission is obsessed with U.S. politics, recalled the saying: “Canada and the U.S. share the world’s largest undefended one-way mirror.” That is, Canadians look south and see what’s going on down there, but Americans look north and only see themselves.
Nenshi said he, for one, would relish a Cruz victory. “I am excited at the tourism dollars. People would come to Calgary for the rodeo, skiing — and to visit his birthplace.”
Of course, not everyone here is glued to U.S. politics, more interested in the Calgary Stampede, one of the largest rodeos in the world, that will be held around the time of the Democratic and Republican national conventions.
But for many, the 2016 race has become personal. Nenshi is Muslim, and while his faith was not an issue when he ran for mayor, it was certainly noted when Trump started talking about banning Muslims from the United States. Nenshi, one of the most popular mayors in Canada, is now frequently described as the first Muslim mayor of a major Canadian city.
“Does Trump really want to keep our mayor out of the United States?” Jim Jinah asked.
He works at his family’s downtown souvenir shop, and from behind a counter full of Canadian sweatshirts Jinah said: “What worries me is not only what Trump is saying — but those crowds at his rallies. It’s frightening!”
People interviewed at the ice rink in front of City Hall or sipping a hot chai at Davids Tea had similar reactions. They said that the U.S. election matters in a province known as the Texas of Canada, where the oil and cattle industry is closely linked to the United States, and where economic repercussions sometimes blow from the south.
“If Trump wins, it will be a head-scratching moment,” said Justin Smith, policy director at the Calgary Chamber of Commerce. Even in the birthplace of Cruz, Trump gets most of the airtime, he said.
It’s downright “jaw-dropping” how much money and time is devoted to the U.S campaign, he said. “We just had one of the longest campaigns — 10 weeks.”
Harry Sanders, a local historian in Calgary, said if Cruz ever comes back to see where he was born, he should know that his big show of renouncing his Canadian citizenship in 2014 as he prepared for his presidential bid is remembered. “He treated it like some stain that he had to get removed,” he said. “That got Calgarians’ attention.”
Harry Sanders didn’t make a prediction about Cruz’s chances in the U.S. election, but he did offer one historical parallel.
The only other U.S. presidential candidate to ever have lived in Calgary was George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic nominee.
McGovern, from South Dakota, lived in Calgary as a toddler in the 1920s, when his Canadian-born mother moved the family closer to her ailing mother.
Those Calgary roots did McGovern little good. In 1972, Richard Nixon trounced him in one of the greatest political wipeouts in U.S. history.