From Claremont to Campaign Trail: Heidi Nelson Cruz '94 in her Own Words
When Heidi Cruz prepared to shake thousands of hands at rallies on the presidential campaign trail this year, she thought back to one of the essential premises of Professor Jack Pitney’s government classes: that politics is always for the people, by the people, and about serving the people. 44-year-old Cruz, who graduated from Claremont McKenna in 1994 and now works as a Managing Director in Goldman Sachs’ Houston office, has extensive experience in public service, most recently on her husband Senator Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign this fall. She cut her teeth on politics at CMC, taking government classes and founding the College Republicans club her junior year.
“I interned in D.C. the summer of 1992 and realized upon coming back that we were a majority-Republican school, but there was no club for Republicans,” Cruz recounted to the Forum in an interview over the phone. “I remember late one Saturday night, we spray-painted signs and hung them not far from the Honnold Library. The College Democrats came out before dawn and hung their own signs over ours as a retaliation.”
Cruz, then Heidi Nelson, arrived at CMC in the fall of 1990 already interested in economics and international relations. When she was a young child, her father’s work as a dentist brought the family to live as missionaries in Kenya and Nigeria for a several months. Back in her hometown of San Luis Obispo on the Central Coast, Cruz discovered her passion for economics when she started a bread-making business at the age of six with her brother to earn spending money. Twelve years and thousands of loaves later, she had saved enough money from her bread-making business to help pay her tuition and buy her first car.
Cruz lived in Berger, Boswell, and Fawcett dorms and spent her junior year studying abroad in Strasbourg, France. She accompanied the Claremont Chamber Orchestra on the harpsichord, mountain biked on Mt. Baldy frequently, and often attended meals at the Athenaeum, although she was so short in college that her feet dangled from the chairs.
“I personally liked to study -- I’m kind of nerdy,” Cruz said. “I would naturally have been in the group of people who were more focused on class and studying, but I also enjoy being outdoors and individual sports, so I also had a few mountain-biking buddies.” Cruz also liked going to a coffee shop in the village with a friend to talk for long hours into the night over coffee about religion and philosophy.
She applied herself in her classes, using up her professors’ office hours and even babysitting Professor Asuman Askoy’s son so she could go to her house and get extra time to discuss calculus problems. In her senior year, Cruz received the Best Senior Thesis in Economics award. How she got there was unexpected, however.
“My professors said writing a year-long thesis would be required to do my subject justice, and I really did not want to change the topic for which I was passionate: exchange rate theories in emerging market economies,” Cruz recalled. “But working through second semester of senior year seemed a step too far on my scale of liking to have a little fun, so I set out to just do it in one semester and work twice as hard.”
She recounted with a laugh: “I was sure it would not be me, so during the Athenaeum awards ceremony I went for a run instead of attending. I only stopped by the dinner because a friend ran after me, since we had no texting in those days, of course, and told me I was getting the award that night.”
Professor Ed Haley, one of Cruz’s international relations professors and mentors, remembers her as an attentive, outstanding student. “What distinguished her from other students was that she listened, really listened,” Haley wrote in an email last month. “What was different and quickly became apparent was that Heidi was deeply serious about learning how past American leaders in foreign policy and politics had succeeded and failed. It pleased me but didn’t surprise me to hear from her in January 2001: ‘Professor Haley, I have three job offers in the new George W. Bush administration, which one should I take?’”
After leaving CMC, Cruz switched between the private and public sector. “When I was an intern on Capitol Hill I received some well-placed advice from a Congressman,” Cruz recalled. “If you are interested in both the public and private sector, he advised to start in the private sector.”
Cruz worked as an investment banker for JPMorgan in the 1990s and had an offer to work at Goldman Sachs after finishing Harvard Business School, but she ended up instead taking a position as an economic policy advisor on Bush’s 2000 campaign. Her subsequent work in the Bush administration led Cruz to a seat in the Situation Room on Condoleezza Rice’s National Security Council staff, where she served as an economic advisor for the western hemisphere.
As Bush’s second term approached, Cruz recommenced her career in the private sector. She left the White House at the end of Bush’s first term, moving back to Texas to work at Goldman Sachs and join her husband, who was then the state’s solicitor general.
A decade later, when her husband announced his run for President in 2015, Cruz took a leave of absence from Goldman. “This campaign gave me an incredible opportunity to once again try to do something for others,” she said. Cruz ended up becoming the biggest national fundraiser for the campaign, an unusual role for a spouse, and her strong conviction that America needed a leader with principles drove her work. “Ted has a unique intellect and ability to really connect with people and explain why freedom matters, why the Constitution matters,” she said. “The campaign became a true grassroots movement, with over 325,000 volunteers, and we raised more hard money (non-super PAC) than any Republican primary candidate in the history of Republican politics -- and it was a real privilege to be a part of it.”
Throughout the year, Cruz traveled across the country and saw the lessons she had learned in her government classes in practice. “When you campaign, you get to see all of America, cutting across a lot of different communities,” she said, noting the perspective this experience gave her. “All of us are captive to the environment that we are in to a certain degree, no matter how open-minded we try to be. It’s only when you get out and meet people across all different walks of life that you realize how many misconceptions there are in society.
"What I came to know and love is that the vast majority of people in this country have very similar core values: being proud to be citizens of this country; a desire for the opportunity to have a chance to get ahead economically; wanting a better future for their children; by and large, a pretty solid knowledge of the Constitution; and a knowledge that it is not just their desire, but their right, as an American, to live in freedom – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the list goes on. The only ‘out-of-touchness’ people experience is not understanding how similar we all are.”
Cruz also emphasized her belief in voters, rejecting the view that parts of the American populace are uninformed. “They’re informed about their own life experience, and passionate about their families’ futures.” Cruz said. “That’s the work of politics, to go and really understand what other people care about so you can work for them.”
When her husband dropped out of the race last spring after coming in second in the GOP primary, winning 12 states and nearly 8 million votes, Cruz said she was grateful for the opportunity to run. “We were gladly putting our lives on hold to serve,” she said. “If you run for the right reasons and you run to serve others, then you’re emotionally prepared for whatever happens. Ted and I are filled with gratitude for the opportunity to work side-by- side with so many incredible people who care so deeply about America.”
The Cruzes were together throughout much of the campaign, often bringing their young daughters Caroline and Catherine along on the road. “They really brought some lightness and humor to the campaign,” Cruz recalled, laughing. “Running for President before kindergarten will always be a part of Catherine’s life story.
“One of my daughters was also very concerned with me making no money during that time, and she asked me why I was doing it. She asked if the First Lady gets paid. She was shocked when I told her no, on this particular job, you do it because you want to make a difference.”
Although Cruz will not be First Lady this year, she has returned to her job at Goldman helping expand its national investment business and is settling back into life in Texas. “I told my girls that the goal was not to live in the White House,” Cruz reflected. “That is the People's house. The goal was to stand for a set of principles and values. And we will continue to do that.”