RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Let's hear now about an American presidential candidate for whom boldness comes more naturally than compromise. That would be Ted Cruz. Barely through his first year in the Senate, the Texas Republican bucked his party leaders and became the public face of a government shutdown while standing up for conservative ideals. We've been revisiting the NPR series on where candidates come from, called The Journey Home. And as part of that series, Ailsa Chang traveled to Houston. That's where Ted Cruz was selling a message of conservatism when he was just a teenager.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: You could say Ted Cruz ran with a gang in high school. Their colors were blue jacket, white shirt, red tie. They called themselves the Constitutional Corroborators. And their leader was the head of a conservative think tank who took them around Houston to perform.
WINSTON ELLIOTT: He would introduce them and say, they're now going to write down, memorize sections of the Constitution word for word.
CHANG: Winston Elliott helped train the young recruits. The Constitutional Corroborators would roll into rotary clubs and other civic groups, and they'd be armed with easels.
ELLIOTT: On cue, they would stand at the easel and each write out on the easel a major section. And then, when they finished, he would say, now each of you explain that section of the Constitution.
CHANG: This is how Ted Cruz, the teenager, spent much of his spare time, hanging out two nights a week with a think tank called the Free Enterprise Institute. They discussed the Constitution, the Federalist Papers and Anti-Federalist Papers. They compete in speech contests about the free market. That's where Elliott first met Cruz, when he judged the skinny high school freshman.
ELLIOTT: Suddenly, Ted just turned it on. And you just got this confidence and this clarity and explained economic principles - basic economic principles of inflation and property rights and this kind of thing when you're in ninth grade. I mean, I think Ted was 14 then.
CHANG: It was the mid-1980s, and Ronald Reagan was his hero. Cruz's father, who had emigrated from Cuba, followed the oil business down to the Houston suburbs. And there, his son inhabited a world that was safe, quiet and insulated.
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CHANG: If you walk around Cruz's old high school, soft music will follow you all day in the hallways.
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CHANG: This is Second Baptist High School. It's on the campus of a mega-church tucked near a country club in a leafy, affluent neighborhood. Cruz was valedictorian here, and so was Doug Daniels the year after.
DOUG DANIELS: This is called the Chapel.
CHANG: What used to go on here?
DANIELS: Originally, this is where they had the dramas and the plays. I feel like he would have been in at least one play in here.
CHANG: Cruz loved being on stage, even if it meant being the villain. He played the murder Bill Sikes in "Oliver" and was Rolfe, the young Nazi, in "The Sound Of Music." In his senior yearbook, Cruz is leaning dramatically into a microphone under the title, most likely to become the next Geraldo Rivera. Daniels first met the future senator in Spanish class, when Cruz transferred from another high school midyear.
DANIELS: And it was not very long before Ted was raising his hand and answering questions and - like he had been there from not only the beginning of the class, but the beginning of the school year. At the time I probably wouldn't have used this word, but now I will say it was intimidating.
CHANG: A newcomer who refuses to hold back. That's how Cruz has marked his first couple years in the Senate, too. And it's a style that's won him legions of fans in his home state.
WALLY WILKERSON: I think he's very passionate about things that most Texans believe or else he wouldn't be as popular as he is.
CHANG: Wally Wilkerson is the longest-serving local GOP chairman in Texas. He's been Montgomery County's chair since 1964, just north of Houston.
WILKERSON: If you have any disagreement with Ted Cruz, it might be over his passion or his actions or whatever, but not what his beliefs are.
CHANG: Cruz might not be the stereotypical Texan. He's more Ivy League than cowboy, more fighter than horse trader. But he seems to get Texas. Consider this - after infuriating many of his Senate colleagues, who blamed him for the government shutdown in 2013, Cruz was the highest-rated politician in all of Texas. But Wilkerson says Cruz has an unexpected weakness for a Latino from Texas.
WILKERSON: As a Hispanic, by nature and by birth, you would think the Hispanics would be attracted by that. But I think there's something there that hasn't clicked, and I think that could be a problem for him.
CHANG: It's a tension that feels especially pronounced in Cruz's hometown of Houston, which is more than 40 percent Hispanic. Houston is no longer the city of oil rig workers. This massive, sprawling metropolis is now home to one of the most racially diverse populations in the country. Drive just 10 minutes outside Cruz's old high school, and you'll see that.
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CHANG: Along a single street, you can pop into a store and buy an Indian sari, then walk over and pick up Halal meat at a Middle Eastern market.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).
CHANG: And then catch a soccer game in Spanish at a Guatemalan bakery.
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UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR: (Speaking Spanish).
CHANG: The sheltered pocket where Cruz grew up bumps right up against the city of immigrants Houston has become. And many in these parts struggled to call Cruz their hometown hero, especially in a Latino neighborhood called Aldine. Near the airport, it's one of the poorest communities in Houston.
NANCY YANES: He's just so - I don't know how you say this in English - humilde. He's not a humble person to want to help people who actually need help.
CHANG: Nancy Yanes says her parents came to the U.S. from El Salvador illegally 30 years ago. And she doesn't like that Cruz opposes a path to citizenship for people like her parents.
YANES: You might be from Houston, but it doesn't really seem like you care about the people in Texas, in Houston.
CHANG: But Cruz's friends say he's not someone who was ever running for mayor of Houston. Cruz has stuck to the same conservative principles he used to recite as a teenager. Here's Doug Daniels again.
DANIELS: I don't think you'll find a single person who knew him in high school who is at all surprised where he is now. He had direction. I mean, you knew Ted had a plan.
CHANG: And that plan always seemed bigger than home. The kid who was never afraid to raise his hand in class, who never avoided the stage, even if he had to play the bad guy, would naturally go for the biggest brass ring - the White House. Ailsa Chang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.