Ted Cruz urges passage of a school choice measure in Texas

(Reagan Mcgregor Hicks/Texas Tribune, Reagan Mcgregor Hicks/Texas Tribune)

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U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz called school choice a civil rights issue and defended his decision to go to Cancun during the 2021 winter storm in an interview Saturday at The Texas Tribune Festival.

Cruz’s comments on school choice come just days after Gov. Greg Abbott said a special session on the issue would start next month.

“It’s the civil rights issue of the 21st century,” Cruz said, causing some laughter from the crowd at Austin’s Paramount Theatre.

Cruz said he doesn’t hesitate to campaign against fellow Republicans who oppose school choice.

“Every two years, I sit down with my team and compile a spreadsheet, and I look at every vote the state legislature has taken on school choice,” Cruz said. “If you voted against choice, the chances of me supporting you are essentially zero. Odds are significant that I’m going to endorse your primary opponent and when I endorse, I don’t do so gently.”

In his conversation with Tribune political reporter Patrick Svitek, Cruz also defended his decision to leave Texas for Cancun during winter storm Uri, which paralyzed much of the state with days of subfreezing temperatures and widespread power blackouts.

“I don’t have the ability to control the weather,” Cruz said. “I was at home with my wife and my daughters, our power was out like everyone else, so I made a decision to take my kids to the beach.”

Cruz said before flying to Mexico, he was working without electricity, and added that “lots” of other Texas officials left the state during the storm.

“I was doing my job, and you can do that from anywhere,” Cruz said. “There were multiple other Texas officials who were out of state who nobody cared about at all.”

Cruz also addressed his recording of a podcast three times a week. An anti-Cruz group, Lose Cruz PAC, has been hammering him over how much time he spends on the podcast and recently released a video compiling regular media appearances where he promotes the podcast. Cruz said he found the criticism puzzling and defended the podcast as a way to communicate with constituents.

Cruz was asked about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who has been criticized for accepting lavish gifts from donors without disclosing them.

Cruz defended Thomas, saying that other justices have done the same, including Stephen Breyer — who accepted a flight from a Democratic megadonor — and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who accepted a trip to Israel and Jordan from an Israeli billionaire. A ProPublica investigation said that both Breyer and Ginsburg disclosed those gifts and found that Thomas is an apparent outlier because of the frequency and volume of undisclosed gifts, including paid vacations, that he’s received.

“People hate [Thomas’] jurisprudence, but there’s also a particular hatred that the left has for a Black man who dares to be a conservative,” Cruz said, adding that it’s the same for Hispanic people like himself who aren’t Democrats.

Cruz, who is running for reelection next year, ended the conversation by saying he was staying out of the 2024 Republican presidential primary.

“I’m Switzerland,” he said.