Monday, April 7, 2008

God's plan for Ellen Craswell

It may have included a folding machine, as she loved to say, but apparently God's plan for Ellen Craswell didn't include a political comeback election as governor or, sadly, the opportunity to beat cancer a third time.

My friend David Postman, author of the excellent Seattle Times blog Postman on Politics, emailed this morning to let me know that Craswell died over the weekend (here's the Kitsap Sun obit). He knew I'd want to know, and I appreciated the note.

Craswell, pictured in a Seattle Times photo, isn't someone you'd automatically assume was my type. She was an old (75 when she died on Saturday), very conservative, very religious retired politician without much humor or even common cultural references. She didn't see movies or watch TV, and didn't read much of anything except the Bible. In her political career she wanted more religion in schools, softer laws against child abuse and, most famously, castration for sex offenders -- views that I, as a voter, probably wouldn't support. Yet I considered her an exceptionally warm person, a terrific journalistic subject and, finally, a sort of long-distance friend.

I covered Craswell for years when I was a statehouse reporter for the Seattle Times, but really got to know her in late 1994 and early 1995 as I wrote a feature about her for the Times' Sunday magazine. She had decided to run for governor and was considered a fringe candidate and sure loser. But this was at a time when I was most plugged into the state's politics and, although the election was two years away, I could see a path for her to the Republican nomination. I decided to do the magazine piece, which turned out to be one my favorites of my own stories, and it also turned out to be pretty prescient: She did navigate her way through a large Republican field to win the nomination, although she was easily defeated by Democrat Gary Locke in the 1996 general election.

Anyway, like a lot of people, as I got to know Ellen I was totally disarmed by her sincerity and her lack of pretension. I've known a lot of politicians and a lot of religious zealots and I have to say that, whatever one may think of her beliefs, she was the most honest of the lot. There wasn't an ounce of charlatan in her. She didn't even have the good sense -- or the trickster ability -- to soft-pedal her wackier ideas when a reporter was following her around with a notebook and tape recorder.

As I wrote in the story, Craswell believed that God had a plan for everything: the world, the country, the state, her. She found evidence in the smallest things; when she needed a folding machine to continue producing her religious-right newsletter and then got one, she believed that it was literally a miracle. Her job, she said, was to try her best to understand God's plan and then to let him work it through her.

She didn't win the election, but that's OK, she said, that was part of God's plan too. Later, when she got cancer and I visited with her in the hospital, she saw the illness as some vital part of God's plan, even if it was one she couldn't understand. Twice the cancer went away and came back before claiming her on Saturday.

My honest, journalistically unobjective opinion is that it's probably best that Ellen Craswell wasn't elected governor. And getting to know her never sent me back to church, if that was part of the plan. But I liked her a lot and I'm glad I got to know her.

My thoughts today are with Ellen's husband Bruce, her son Jim, who I met, and the rest of her large family of children and grandchildren.


Michelle said...

Nice post baby...

kateco said...

yup, very nice.

Jim Thomsen said...

I didn't know Ellen very well, but my impressions of her were much like yours. She had no chance of being governor and wasn't the right choice to run the state, but as a person she was sweet, unpretentious and utterly without guile. It's really too bad you have to be opposite of Ellen Craswell to be a successful politician.

I loved your magazine piece, by the way. You really managed to do what most journalists covering her couldn't or wouldn't do — which was to simply avoid rolling your eyes and making fun of her. You captured her charm without being seduced by it — or worse, cynically finding it to be fake and even evil.

Ellen Craswell was a lot of things, not all good for constituents. But she was never fake.

Jim Thomsen
Night news editor
The Kitsap Sun

Paul Petry said...

[A]s a person she was sweet, unpretentious and utterly without guile. It's really too bad you have to be opposite of Ellen Craswell to be a successful politician. -- Jim Thomsen, The Kitsap Sun

Too bad indeed. But Ellen Craswell was successful - as a Representative and as a Senator, she held up a refreshing standard of honesty and integrity which we should still demand from our leaders. Her 16 years of public service in the legislature, without a hint of scandal, were ample proof that she would have been just as effective in the state's highest office. Those of us who knew her have been immeasurably blessed - our lives impacted for the better in so many ways. I cannot help but think how much different our state might be today if Ellen Craswell had been elected Governor.

Would state regulations, spending and taxation have bloated astronomically to what we have today, or would Ellen have introduced fiscal responsibility, based upon the honored principles of our nation's founders which she always talked about? We'll never know.

Chad Minnick said...

Nice post, Mark. Your piece in Pacific Magazine was one of the best political profiles I've seen to date. Honest, and presented a clear picture of who she was.

In a world where someone of Ellen's ilk has a tough time getting an honest and fair shake from the journalism community, it was both.

Having known Ellen Crawell since I was in short pants, I will say that you remained one of her favorite journalists to the end. And not because you wrote it like she wanted. (I doubt she would agree with your characterization of her efforts to protect parental rights as "weakening child abuse laws".) But because you were fair and without guile yourself.

That's why you two hit it off. Two honest people with different world views intersecting on your common ground of state politics.

I would also say that I don't think Craswell had any more or fewer "wacky ideas" than any other politician...knowing quite a few myself. Congressman Jack Metcalf thought we should return to the gold standard. I know elected officials in office today with some crazy opinions and ideas that might frighten voters.

Ellen just didn't mind telling people what she thought. You could take it or leave it, but she was sincere enough to let people know what she thought.

Locke and Gregoire both believe in a state income tax, but we don't have one.

I think the state would have been better off with Craswell as governor.

I agree with Jim Thompsen, however. I just don't think it was possible for her to get elected because her honesty compelled her to call them like she saw them. Politicians with that malady rarely rise, unfortunately.

But her memory remains and you, Mark, were one bright spot because you told her story the same way you saw her, without guile or pretense or agenda.

Thanks for remembering her and thanks for what you contributed to her life.