State Senate candidate Dan Cruz is not your typical rural New Jersey Republican. Cruz seeks to represent the 24th Legislative District, which comprises municipalities in Sussex, Warren, and Mount Olive in Morris County. However, the Paterson born-and-bred Cruz believes he can bring a much-needed perspective to reconnect with the people—a constituency, he charges, which has been neglected and taken for granted by machine politicians. As a child, Cruz was sent to Puerto Rico to live and work after his factory-worker mother suffered a debilitating injury. After working for two years in agriculture, he returned to Paterson with his family and lived in the projects by Route 80. Emerging from the Paterson school system and having endured what he described as a hard journey, he became a teacher himself. Four years ago, he and his family left to make their home in Sussex County.
“I was born with conservative values as a child,” Cruz told Insider NJ. “Living in Paterson made me realize that there’s more to it in life than just living in the city. My mother and grandmother taught me to work hard for what you believe in, and my grandmother was always an entrepreneur. For me, it was about getting out of the hood and getting out of the inner city and becoming my own person. Working hard has always been my forte.”
Making his home in Sussex was the fulfillment of a long-held dream, a place where he felt he could live with others who more closely shared his values. “One of my eighth-grade teachers lived in Sparta and always stressed that Sussex county is a beautiful place to live. So, I always wanted to move up to Sussex county. It’s a huge change [from Paterson] and people down in the city would tell me, ‘that’s not a county you’d be welcome in’, it’s totally the opposite. I don’t think people understand that when you come up to Sussex and Warren county, people are genuine.”
Serving on the Andover Board of Education, he felt the desire to run for higher office. His target: the state senate and LD24 incumbent Senator Steve Oroho, a Republican who took office in 2008.
But according to Cruz, most people in the district don’t even know who represents them in the state senate, a matter which spurred him to launch his own campaign. When asked what the public response had been as far as awareness of their state leaders, Cruz said, “Slim to none. I’ve knocked on probably six or seven hundred doors and only three people knew who my opponent was. I took a survey of 200 people and asked, do you know your state legislators? Would you rather vote for one who knocks on your door, or one who puts signs out? And they said they’d vote for one who came knocking on the door. Not too many people know our state legislators, and I think we’re so out of touch worrying about our next re-election and not worried about the people, the people who placed them in those positions.”
Cruz said that the district had suffered because of disconnected leadership more focused on itself than the people who elected them. “Around the country we see politicians who have been in office for years, continuing to be re-elected, based on the agenda for a few years. We’ve had the same leadership in our district for the last 13 years and we haven’t received anything from Trenton.” Cruz cited his background as an advantage in connecting with voters on the ground. “I believe in bringing politics back to the people and holding our state legislators accountable. I believe that coming from Paterson and an area where you really have to work your butt off to get to a place—there’s nothing given to you—I believe that no matter race, color, or creed, I can relate to everybody.”
Reconnecting with the people on the local level, he felt, was the key. Not only would it establish critical awareness in the first place, but also help to rebuild what he has described as a dwindling Republican party on the watch of the current party kingpins. “I want to be able to say ‘hey, this is who I am, let’s get to know our state legislators’, and I’d like to do that by incorporating town hall meetings where you get to tell me how you want me to vote on certain bills. It would better embed the community in the district. They have to be part of the collaborative process.”
Failure to do so, he asserted, would spell the end of the Republican majority in LD24. “When we talk about growing the party, that’s something I want to fix and am going to fix—and I know that my incumbent cannot fix because he hasn’t yet. When he took office in 2008, there was a 75/25 stronghold for the Republicans in Sussex county. It is now 2021, that number went to 60/40. With the pandemic and more people from the cities moving out to Sussex and Warren counties, the Republicans are only going to decrease. The Sussex Republican team has not tried to grow the party at all. They’re worried about themselves and not the people. If [Oroho] does one more term, the party is going to go from 60/40, to 50/50.” Could the district go from red to blue? “Absolutely. There is no doubt in my mind. It is going to turn and if they don’t do something—and they haven’t since 2008—it’s going to turn.”
The district is still firmly Republican, but Cruz said he wanted to “break the stigma” associated with the Republican party before they lost their grasp. He acknowledged that some of that came from President Donald Trump’s term in the White House, but emphasized that there’s diversity of thought within the GOP ranks. “We cannot just serve one side, we have to serve everyone and bring everyone together to make decisions on a collaborative effort. Many people disliked the party because of President Trump’s message and what he stood for, but that doesn’t mean all of us are like that. We, as the Republican party, have conservative values which we stand for, and we must do all we can to grow the party. I have a plan where we can do recruiting, go out and talk to Republicans, Democrats, independents, everyone. We need to come together and stop dividing. Even within the Republican party there are people divided among each other.”
As far as Cruz is concerned, Republicans can do better by reaching out to areas that they traditionally have not campaigned in. Republicans’ failure to try to appreciably make the big tent bigger is detrimental to their long term success. Regarding the gubernatorial election, he said, “My impression is this. Murphy has the leg. Right now, he is ahead in the most populous cities—Paterson, Newark, Trenton—he is ahead there. You don’t have a Republican who can go into these cities and say ‘Vote for me.’ They aren’t going into the inner cities, speaking to the people. Take it from someone who lived in the inner city, I never saw a Republican governor come into the city and speak to us. I think that’s harming the Republican party right now, they aren’t going into the cities and trying to speak to the people. The message from me is that we cannot just serve one side, we have to serve everyone and bring everyone together to make decisions.”
Cruz said that when he made his intentions known to relocate to Sussex county, he was given some negative feedback, warned that he would not be accepted in the new environs. Those worries, he noted, were unfounded. “When I first moved up to Sussex county, people said I couldn’t move up there, whether from Paterson, Essex county, people said I couldn’t move up there because people are racist and you won’t be treated well. I’ve lived here for four years and I’ve never dealt with any issues thus far. Am I going to say that it is a perfect county? I wouldn’t say it is perfect, or say that racism doesn’t exist, but I haven’t experienced it.“
And therein lays another problem the Republican party faces. Cruz, who is Hispanic, can represent a tangible refutation of the GOP’s association with bigotry. “When people say, ‘you’re a Republican so you support racism or you’re a xenophobe’, I say ‘no, how can I support that?’ My wife is Black, my children are half Black and half Hispanic, how can I support that? It’s not about supporting that, it’s about supporting our values, which is one of the reasons we moved up to Sussex county, to live among people with the same values, and our party is decreasing. Everybody I speak to who is not a Republican thinks the Republican party is a racist party. I tell them, it’s not, it’s what the media portrays them. If you watch CNN you might think that Republicans are the worst people in the world, but you have to be open minded.”
No political discussion or interview can take place these days without bringing up the microscopic menace that has affected all aspects of life, not only around the world, but on the local level as well. When asked what he thought of Governor Phil Murphy’s performance handling the pandemic, Cruz was candid. “Regarding Governor Murphy there are some things that he could’ve done better, and there are obviously some things he has done that you can say he did OK. I think with the COVID plan, he did what he thought was the best possible solution in his eyes and administration,” a seemingly rare instance in the current climate where an opposition party acknowledges the perceived sincerity of another. Nevertheless, Cruz felt that it was time to move along with easing restrictions. “There are a lot of small businesses that are going under, there are a lot of businesses tanking. I think that having an open mind to listen to other governors around the country, and even state legislators. To my state legislators, I ask, where were you in telling Murphy we need to open the state a little more? Let’s not wait because businesses are tanking, but let’s do it properly with distancing and wearing masks, doing everything we need to based on the CDC guidelines.”
Some governors such as Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida have been assailed as having prematurely let go on restrictions, or not having had sufficient restrictions at all. On the other side of the spectrum, since the virus has, in an almost uniquely American way, become political, others see them as being champions of personal freedom despite the ongoing emergency. Mixed messages from the various layers of government have contributed to distrust and confusion, but in the end, the message from both left and right agree that the individuals have to act responsibly. Miami made national headlines when the city called an emergency after thousands of party-goers swarmed their streets. For Cruz, he felt that New Jerseyans have been better. Balancing governmental direction with laissez faire has been a perilous tightrope act for Governor Murphy since the start of the pandemic. “When you read the news and listen to people,” Cruz said, “I believe that New Jerseyans have been extremely responsible during this time.”
Should Cruz win, he has promised to limit his own career from the start by calling for term limits. He vowed that if he should win, he would only stay for two terms in the state senate. “We need to ensure our state officials are serving our citizens of New Jersey, not themselves,” Cruz said.
To achieve this, Cruz said that he would introduce legislation to enact term limits as one of his first actions, should he be elected. “There is no reason whatsoever that someone can serve for more than two or three terms, to be in office for 30 years—there’s no reason. If the president can only serve two terms, why can our state legislators serve so many years? That’s ridiculous. That is the first bill I will propose and fight for. At the end of the day, we need new ideas, new blood. Look at [Congressman] Bill Pascrell—Paterson is getting worse by the minute.” Pascrell, 84, served as mayor of the City of Paterson from 1990 to 1997, has been re-elected to congress for 14 years. “My family is still there, I still visit Paterson, and when I see it, it breaks my heart. So, what do our state legislators, our governor, our congressmen do? It’s more of the same.”
Education is obviously important to Cruz, as he serves on a board of education and has three children with his wife Onida, herself an educator. A product of the Paterson inner city schools, he felt that schools in LD24 were under-served by Trenton, and that they were being ignored for the bigger cities. “Our 24th legislative district is suffering because Murphy isn’t giving us enough school aid. Most of the school aid is going to the inner cities. I ask, why is that money not reaching up here? Is it because we’re a rural area or a predominantly red area? I think at some point our legislators need to be a little louder and more straightforward with Governor Murphy and say, what is the reason? Let’s bring some of that money here, we need it just as bad as any other town. I think that’s the biggest push for me, to make sure we get our fair share of state aid which we are not receiving.”
No two districts are the same, however, and the socio-economic factors are unique for every area. Nevertheless, Cruz asserted that fairness was in deficit. “Coming up to Sussex county, seeing the difference with Paterson, I see more parental involvement, but there are also resources given to the city that are not given in Sussex county. For me, let’s get those same resources up here. We can dig deeper and say it is based on population or demographics, but I think at some point we have to dig deeper than that. Every child is the same and deserves the same opportunities no matter where you are coming from.”
On the Path to Progress, Cruz was quite clear, and the matter resonated with the educator strongly. “The Path to Progress plan is an interesting situation. The plan has some aspects which could potentially benefit the people of the 24th district in a few small aspects in the distant future, however the negative aspects far outweigh the positive ones. For example, the biggest issue I have with the plan is the regionalization aspect. Regionalization is not what the 24th district needs right now. The schools of Sussex and Warren counties are sources of deep pride for many of our residents. Generations of residents and their families have walked the very same halls! Communities have formed around the natural uniqueness of these schools. Their long history of pride, community building, and scholastic achievement is what makes these neighborhoods great! This is one of the reasons why my family and I moved to Sussex County!” Additionally, Cruz had indicated his opposition, in general, to consolidation of schools and, broadly, for shared services among municipalities.
“We must remember, we as taxpayers are investors in our schools as well as our tax dollars assist in its operations and therefore we are all invested in our schools’ success,” Cruz said. “If someone has an issue with something the school is doing, they would go and make their voice heard at the local Board of Education meetings and look to find a solution with these elected officials. Regionalization creates a problem in the sense in which BOE’s become less effective, having power taken away from the board to make certain decisions which, in turn, takes power away from the people, the same people who have invested in these schools. This is an unacceptable concession, especially in the times we are currently living. Trenton continues to push out curriculum changes and mandates, constantly effectively stripping power away from local BOE’s at record pace as it is. Allowing for even more power to be taken away from the people is not an acceptable answer to any problem we may face as a district, state, or nation. Power being taken away from the people must not be allowed to happen.”
The GOP may do well to pay attention to a candidate like Cruz, though he is sure to ruffle some feathers. But feather-ruffling, in the post-2016 environment, can prove a successful pathway for a Republican willing to knock on enough doors and make enough calls. If Trump had appeal for nothing other than being an outsider, Cruz can claim that with sincerity. And should he successfully limit his own time in office with his proposed legislation, none would ever be able to call him unprincipled. “I think that machine politics has created an environment of mediocrity and complacency that has led to politicians worrying about their own careers and power instead of the people they were elected to fight for,” Cruz said. “It’s embarrassing and it’s unacceptable.”