She was remembered at her memorial service last Wednesday, April 16, as, among other things, the Den Mother of the religious right in Washington State. But Ellen Craswell, who died at 75 after a third brave battle with cancer, began her political life as a very different kind of Republican. The distinction is missed by many, but it explains the glide path of religious conservatism in Washington and how it affected Republican politics.
And it started as an accident.
In the bicentennial year of 1976, Republicans wanted Bruce Craswell, Ellen's husband, to run for the Legislature in Kitsap County's 23rd District in Poulsbo. Craswell was a moderate Republican in the Dan Evans mold who had already run for office and was well known in party circles. But he had recently changed jobs and declined the offer. When party activists met to find a replacement, no one else stepped forward and Bruce turned to his wife and said, "Ellen, it looks like it's you."
Poulsbo voters liked the petite, polite, well-coiffed woman with the disarming smile and sent her to the House. Four years later they promoted her to the State Senate, the first Republican to win that seat in 50 years. She held it for 12 years. No Republican has won it since.
Soon after joining the Legislature, Ellen began making her mark, not by crusading to stop abortion or pornography, but to rein in runaway state spending. Her vehicle was Initiative 62, a relatively modest proposal, but a bold one at the time since there had never been a brake applied by initiative on state spending. Her partner on I-62 was suburban Republican Ron Dunlap from Mercer Island, who was eyeing the 7th congressional seat held by freshman Democrat Mike Lowry (Dunlap ran in 1980 and gave Lowry the only serious race he faced in Congress). I-62 sailed into law with overwhelming public support, and Ellen's star as a Reagan Republican was on the rise.
That year of 1980 was pivotal in Washington politics, both because the Reagan revolution was sweeping the country (including Washington state which sent Slade Gorton to the U.S. Senate and John Spellman to the governor's mansion that year), but also because Ellen Craswell was about to find God. Until then the Craswells, who had met at the UW in the early 50s and married in '53, were nominal Christians who preferred spending weekends hiking and climbing mountains, including Mount Rainier. They thought Born Again Christians were wound a bit too tight. But after a year of serious reflection, study, and prayer, Bruce gave his life to God and became Born Again himself. Ellen eventually did the same.
Her faith was strengthened three years later after a brush with mortality when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She took to wearing a wig at the Capitol while undergoing chemo, but remained upbeat, positive and unswervingly conservative. She also won points for her integrity. As one lobbyist put it to Bruce, "When she tells me 'no' today, I know it's going to be 'no' next week."
But while Republicans moved forward in Washington, D.C., under Ronald Reagan, they were stuck in neutral under Republican Gov. Spellman in Olympia. The state was in deficit and rather than chart a clear fiscally conservative course forward, Spellman opted for finding consensus between powerful interest groups in the public and private sector. That resulted in both spending cuts and higher taxes, a combination that sent the GOP sprawling in the '82 elections. In 1984, after a single term, Spellman was replaced by Democrat Booth Gardner. There hasn't been a Republican governor in the state since, and the Reagan Revolution lost its chance to take root at the state level.
And Ellen Craswell's priorities began to change. Though still a spending hawk, she sponsored bills to overhaul Washington's no-fault divorce laws, opposed gay rights legislation, and in 1990 proposed that rapists be castrated, which passed the Senate before being snipped in the House. She raised the volume on the abortion issue, and sometimes cited scripture when making the case for her legislative priorities.
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