State Representative Angel Cruz talks opioids, Puerto Rico and the 2020 census
Cruz says he’s content where he is now - but he isn’t ruling out other political aspirations.
It’s been almost 20 years since Angel Cruz first stepped foot in Harrisburg to represent Pennsylvania’s 180th district, having served the Juniata, Harrowgate and East Kensington sections of Philadelphia since 2001.
A ward leader in Philadelphia for more than ten years now, Cruz is also currently the Democratic Chair of the Pennsylvania House Human Services Committee, and he was previously the President of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators.
Re-elected for another term in early November after running unopposed, Cruz’s attention these days is occupied with concerns about the opioid crisis and Philadelphia’s polluted streets, the status of Puerto Rico as it continues to recover from Hurricane Maria, and alarm surrounding the citizenship question that the Trump administration would like to add to the 2020 census.
The opioid crisis that Mayor Jim Kenney has declared a citywide emergency tops the list of immediate priorities for Cruz — but more compassionate solutions do not sit well with the state representative.
“Enough is enough,” said Cruz, who believes a hardline approach, including cutting off drug users from government support and food stamps if they do not seek treatment, is needed.
“We all feel sorry for [the drug users], but you know what? We got taxpayers, we got people that are trapped in their homes, we got people that are going through a lot of dramatic stuff, and these people that don’t vote, don’t do anything, are getting away with it,” he continued.
Cruz has taken a firm stance against the safe injection sites that Ed Rendell has championed.
“We’re going to entertain these folks of committing a crime? Come on. Absolutely not,” he said of safe injection sites. “Ed Rendell, you were mayor. You’re not mayor [now]. You don’t live here. You live in Roxborough. Take them with you to Roxborough. Do not put a safe injection site here in the Land of Oz.”
Cruz also believes that needle exchanges are ineffective.
“I have a war in Kensington on drugs. My cops are burned out. Why should the government, city municipality or state give any funding for a needle exchange program?”
Cruz acknowledged he doesn’t hold the answers right now - he just knows more communication is key.
“If I had the answer, we would not be living in the situation we’re living in right now. It’s too many angles,” he said. “Until you have federal government and state government meeting the municipalities, working collectively together, that’s how you get your solution.”
Cruz hopes to take a similar, more hardline approach to cleaning up Philadelphia’s streets, by addressing short dumping and graffiti with stricter enforcement.
“[The short dumping] is out of control,” he said. “We need cameras in the most excessive dumping areas.”
Illegal dumping in the city is the worst it’s ever been, according to Cruz, much of which he attributes to the discarding of tires by mom and pop auto shops. A PlanPhilly report from 2017 noted that there “were 55 percent more [cleanup service] requests in January 2017 than January 2016, which was already 35 percent more than January 2015.”
“If we clean up Philadelphia, we can bring in businesses, because it’s historical,” he continued. “But it’s a dumping ground. Everybody dumps everywhere and it’s okay with everybody.”
Cruz has previously introduced legislation to cut back on short dumping, and noted that he also has pushed legislation that would fine local business owners for failing to remove graffiti or defacement of storefronts.
Address the smaller crimes first and foremost, Cruz’s philosophy goes.
“If you push to enforce the small crimes, it won’t lead to the bigger crimes,” he said. “We need to not keep creating more laws that are not going to be enforced, but enforce what we do have, because those small crimes are the ones that lead you to big crimes. If you stop them dead in their tracks, it’s a better society.”
Cruz, 54, is a first generation Philadelphian. His parents are both from Puerto Rico, a heritage the state representative clearly holds dear. He visits the island often, he said, and he helped raise funds for relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria last year.
He wasn’t shocked by the Trump administration’s roundly criticized failure to adequately support the American territory's efforts to recover from the storm that killed an estimated nearly 3,000 U.S. citizens. The island, after all, has no representation in the U.S. Congress, nor a say in the presidential elections.
“Puerto Rico is a territory owned by the U.S. government, but they don’t have the right to vote for president,” Cruz noted. “He gets elected without their help, so he gave them crumbs.”
He wants statehood for Puerto Rico for this very reason. In June 2017, Puerto Ricans voted by an overwhelming margin - 97 percent in favor - to become the 51st state, though less than a quarter of the population participated in the referendum.
Allowing the people of Puerto Rico to determine for themselves whether to become a state or commonwealth, or remain a territory, is the best way forward, Cruz believes.
“We need to let Puerto Rico decide, and we support whatever they decide. They live there,” he said.
Cruz welcomed hurricane refugees to his district over the past year, but his concerns for the island’s future have him hoping that the displaced Puerto Ricans return to the island soon.
“A year later, I think it’s time for people to go back home,” he said. “I think we’ve given and helped. We were here just to help, not to maintain, and I think Puerto Rico is ready for them to come back. If not, [Puerto Rico] is losing population and losing a lot.”
“My fear is that Congress will sell Puerto Rico,” he continued. “My fear is that [if] we stay away from Puerto Rico, we lose Puerto Rico.”
The Trump administration is preparing to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 census for the first time since 1950, and Cruz is worried. He believes the question will scare residents of his district and others from responding to the census, which will then distort true population figures and, as a result, impact the distribution of funds.
“If Congress does not remove that question about your status, we’re not going to have the correct numbers. Districts are going to be affected. People are going to be affected. Funding is going to be affected,” Cruz warned.
No matter one’s citizenship status, if someone is residing here, they should be counted in the census, Cruz continued.
“Whatever their status is, some people are working and paying taxes. How do you deprive them, taxpayers - whether citizens or not - deny them services when they pay taxes?” he said.
Though he said he’s helped try to put pressure on Congress to thwart efforts to include this question, the outlook remains bleak.
“We’ve gone to rallies, we’ve met legislators, we’ve met people, we’ve done everything,” he explained. “Everybody is passing the buck.”
Before becoming a state representative, Angel Cruz worked for former Councilman Rick Mariano for five years, conducting Latino outreach. Prior to this role, he worked for the Probation Youth Advocate Program, helping minors ensure they complied with the court system.
He acknowledged that his experience in public service has had him thinking, perhaps, on a grander scale, though he maintained the noncommittal stance typical of a seasoned politician on what the future may have in store for him.
“I’m comfortable where I’m at because I’ve accomplished a lot, and I still have a lot more that has to be accomplished,” he said.
“I want to keep my options open. I’m qualified to run for anything that I’d choose to, because I think I’ve proven what I can bring and do.”
Though he doesn’t rule out a run for mayor down the line, current Mayor Jim Kenney, for one, can count on Cruz’s support as Philadelphia prepares to head into the May 2019 primary elections.
“I am 100 percent supportive of my man, Jim Kenney, who’s doing an excellent job no matter what his critics say,” he said.
A run for City Council, if any, may be more likely for Cruz this spring.
“I’ve been asked by a lot of influential and important people, that they need me here in Philadelphia. I worked for a councilman, so I know how to do the city council stuff,” he noted, referring to his past role with former Councilman Mariano.
“I’ve been in legislature 20 years. I’m a ward leader. I have the experience, I have the knowledge of the needs,” he added.
Cruz, whose state district overlaps with City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sanchez’s 7th district, noted the councilwoman may be vulnerable to challengers come the primary elections in May.
Though Cruz said Quiñones-Sanchez “knows how to do her job,” he believes she could do a better job of incorporating differing perspectives and involving local ward leaders in her efforts to address the issues the district faces.
“The problem with the Councilwoman is that she doesn’t know how to unite, she doesn’t know how to bring everybody to the table.”
Come early 2019, a clearer picture should emerge of who will be among the candidates vying for a seat at the table on Philadelphia’s City Council. Whether this includes State Representative Cruz remains to be seen.
“Right now, with Thanksgiving, with Christmas, I have my family over here I’m taking care of, and I want to focus on that,” he said, referring to his parents, who he recently helped move back to Philadelphia from Florida.
“But again, as I say, I don’t know what tomorrow holds.”