Ted Cruz avoids controversy in first New York speech

NEW YORK— Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is a rising star Republican who has irked even members of his own party with his conservative views on immigration reform and gun control.

But Cruz made no mention of those hot-button topics in his official debut on the New York political stage Wednesday, using a speech before the state GOP to encourage Republicans to be optimistic about their party’s future and to continue the fight for “economic growth” and “freedom” because the nation’s future depends on it.

“It is very easy for Republicans to feel demoralized right now… but change happens fast, like lightning in politics,” Cruz declared during a 35-minute speech at a packed fundraising dinner for the Republican Party of New York State in Manhattan. But he argued that Republicans could win again by sticking to their ideals.

"I am profoundly optimistic for this country because our ideas work," Cruz said. "Freedom works.”

Cruz’s speech, which was littered with references to Ronald Reagan and generic calls for the party to stick to its economic principles, seemed aimed at being as non-controversial as possible—a notable move given the furor that preceded the senator’s appearance here, which included protests from two high-profile New York Republicans.

On Tuesday, Rep. Peter King announced he was skipping the annual dinner in protest of Cruz’s efforts to derail a bill giving federal aid to victims of Superstorm Sandy.

Asked about King’s boycott before he took the stage, Cruz replied, “I have not met Mr. King, but I think it is unfortunate he couldn’t join us here tonight.”

But King wasn’t the only holdout. Rep. Michael Grimm, a Republican from Staten Island whose district was hard hit by Sandy, skipped the event—though he insisted he had never planned to attend. His announcement came after Democrats tried to make an issue of the dinner and called on Grimm to “condemn” his party for inviting Cruz.

State party officials shrugged off the cancellations. One party official, who declined to be named, trashed King, saying the GOP congressman hasn’t attended a state GOP dinner “since George Pataki was governor.” Meanwhile, Ed Cox, the state GOP chairman, said criticism of Cruz's opposition to the Sandy bill had been misinterpreted. "That was a vote against pork," he said. "It was not against Sandy aid."

Officials also insisted the protests had no impact on ticket sales for the annual dinner. According to NY GOP spokesman David Laska, 500 tickets were sold for the event, raising about $750,000 for the party—about the same that had been raised at dinners held in previous years.

“No impact at all,” Laska said of controversy over Cruz’s policy positions.

Indeed, many Republicans, who showed up early to wine and dine during a cocktail hour ahead of the speech, waved off criticism over Cruz’s appearance. “Overblown,” one man said, as he took his seat inside a large ballroom at the Grand Hyatt, where the annual dinner was held.

But it was a different story outside, where several dozen people waved signs protesting Cruz’s stance on immigration and Sandy aid. “Anti-Latino!” one sign, featuring a photo of Cruz, said.

Speaking to reporters, Cruz said he hadn’t seen the protestors, but welcomed their presence. “It’s important that we have a civil dialogue on the issues that matter to all of us,” Cruz said.

But the senator carefully pushed back against his critics on immigration—though he did so while trying to offer as little specifics as possible. He told reporters he is fighting for a “common sense” approach to immigration.

“I think the key to actually passing a bill is to focus on areas of bipartisan agreement,” Cruz said. He specifically cited “securing the border” and efforts to “expand, improve and streamline legal immigration.” Asked if he planned to filibuster an immigration bill championed by President Barack Obama, he declined to answer, saying only that he planned to introduce amendments to “improve the bill so that it actually fixes the problem.”

“The current bill is utterly toothless when it comes to border security,” Cruz said.

Asked again if he would filibuster the current Senate bill, Cruz declined to answer, as an aide tried to usher reporters away. “This is not a press conference!” the aide said, as Cruz turned away from the media.

Introduced as a “rising star,” Cruz took the stage here to a standing ovation and wild applause from the audience. He bypassed the podium that had been used by speakers ahead of him, and instead wore a wireless microphone as he paced the stage, appearing less like a politician and more like a motivational speaker.

His speech was a boilerplate economic address—hitting on generic themes of “free market” opportunity and warning about the nation’s growing federal deficit.

“It's morally wrong to bankrupt our country and saddle our children and grandchildren with debt,” Cruz declared at one point.

He won tepid applause for a round of jokes about the Justice Department—jokingly warning attendees that their phones were likely be tapped because they had attended the dinner. But the room went silent as he recounted his own personal story of growing up as the son of a Cuban immigrant who had come to America with nothing but $100 sewn into his underwear and took a job washing dishes for 50 cents an hour while he put himself through school.

“My dad has been my hero my entire life,” Cruz said. “But what I find most incredible about his story is how commonplace it is. Every one of us in this room has a story just like his… Every one of us is the child of someone who risked everything for freedom. That’s what it means to be American: Love, liberty and opportunity.”

As Cruz continued to speak, a woman seated at a table near the back of the room turned to her husband and mouthed the word, “Wow.”