Remembering Ellen Craswell: She could have been a contender

Tracing her history is a path through the drift of the local Republican Party, from Reaganite cost-cutting to Robertson Christian conservatism — a formula for defeat. Here's the little-known story of Craswell's personal pilgrimmage.
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Ellen Craswell.

Tracing her history is a path through the drift of the local Republican Party, from Reaganite cost-cutting to Robertson Christian conservatism — a formula for defeat. Here's the little-known story of Craswell's personal pilgrimmage.

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.

She was giving voice to a growing movement. In 1988 Pat Robertson beat Vice President Bush in the Washington state caucuses. But by 1992 the movement approached self-parody after Jennifer Dunn left the party chairmanship to run for Congress and hard right delegates controlled the delegate selection process to the GOP state convention in Yakima.

How hard right? I was then the only conservative presence in the Seattle media, doing TV Point/Counterpoint Commentaries on KIRO-TV with historian Walt Crowley (talk radio was still a year away). I was denied delegate status because I was deemed insufficiently conservative. When they did the Pledge of Allegiance, which ends with the words "and justice for all," some delegates added "Born and Unborn." One of the platform planks called for strong opposition to witchcraft in the public schools, prompting this headline from The Bellevue Journal American: "Republicans Pass 'Nutcase' Platform." It was a PR fiasco and contributed to Republican Attorney General Ken Eikenberry losing that November's governor's race to Mike Lowry.

Also in 1992, Craswell left the Senate. But she stayed active and came back in '96 to mount a race for governor – not as the Reagan Republican she was 20 years before, but more of a Pat Robertson Republican. Many Christian conservatives eagerly served as footsoldiers in "Ellen's Army." Republicans believed that '96 was their year to recapture the governor's office. Incumbent Democrat Mike Lowry's tax-and-spend policies weren't popular and neither was he. Five strong Republican candidates entered the race, including popular legislator Dale Foreman, King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng, attorney Jim Waldo, populist state Senator Pam Roach, and Ellen Craswell. The split field worked to Ellen's benefit, as she narrowly defeated Foreman, with Maleng finishing third.

But Lowry declined to seek re-election and Republicans were left to face King County Executive Gary Locke, a former legislator who had money, organization, high favorables, a beautiful and pregnant wife, Mona Lee Locke, and an American Dream profile. About a week before the election, with the polls announcing Locke the certain winner, Bruce told me he was still optimistic about the race. "Do you know how many Christians live in Washington?" he said, when I looked puzzled. Well, yes. Even though we're one of America's least-churched states, a majority of voters consider themselves Christian. But what's important in elections isn't what people believe, but what they vote on. Voting for someone because they share your faith isn't a priority for most people.

In the end, despite Ellen's associating Locke with outgoing Governor Mike Lowry's tax and spending increases, Locke still won a solid 58 percent of the vote. The Craswells withdrew for a time from politics, as Ellen faced a second battle with cancer. But two years later, they were back, when Bruce decided to run on the American Heritage ticket against Republican Congressman Rick White, a moderate ensnared in an ugly divorce. Getting only 6 percent of the vote, Craswell effectively elected Democrat Jay Inslee to the seat by splitting the GOP vote.

Four years after Ellen's run for governor I announced for the job myself in March 2000. I beat state Sen. Harold Hochstatter, a Craswell ally, in the primary and faced off against Locke in the general. But a lot had changed in four years. No tax increases. In fact, tax cuts. More money for schools and colleges, but also a $1.2 billion surplus. Plus welfare reform and a pledge to eastern Washington not to breech the dams. A poll I foolishly ignored showed that only 27 percent of the electorate thought Olympia was on "the wrong track," which is less than the Republican base vote. Locke again won 58 percent.

In 2004, with no incumbent in the governor's mansion, Dino Rossi ran as the candidate of change on Reaganite themes of expanding the economy and getting the government off of people's backs. He started a year in advance and raised twice as much as any Republican had ever raised before. The party, united and inspired, rallied to him and almost put him over the top. The rematch is under way.

Most movie fans remember the famous taxicab scene from On the Waterfront when washed-up boxer Terry Malloy tells his corrupt brother that "I coulda been a contendah!" Ellen Craswell was a contender, but had she remained the Reagan Republican she was in the 70s she might have become the champ. The lesson from her story is that Christian conservatism can triumph when it's part of a larger movement (read: Ronald Reagan, Dino Rossi), but it falters when it leads that movement (read: Pat Robertson, Ellen Craswell). It can also contribute to Republican defeat, as in the '92 and '96 races for governor and for Rick White's seat in Congress.

Craswell's migration from Reagan Republican to Robertson Republican was sincere and it reflected her deeply held beliefs and new-found priorities. But it unquestionably marginalized her from the wider electorate, even though affection for her continues to run strong in Kitsap County and among the Republican grass roots.

The larger lesson for the GOP is that if it doesn't stand for a clear, principled agenda on the issues that matter to most people, the vacuum will be filled by issues that matter most to some people. After a decade and a half of missed opportunities, it appears the Republican Party has now learned that lesson.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Carlson

John Carlson

John Carlson is a contributing columnist covering politics in Seattle and Washington state.