Sunday, February 5, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Northwest People

Craswell's Crusade -- This Long-Shot Candidate Dares To Mix Religion And Politics

"PEOPLE WHO QUOTE the Bible and aren't ministers are regarded as kooks."

This was Adele Ferguson, the well-read Bremerton Sun political columnist, counseling Ellen Craswell, a veteran state legislator whose religious beliefs seemed to be overwhelming her political good sense.

The week before, Craswell had declared the state's laws were being corrupted by legislators who "don't know God's plan." Voters, she said, should ask legislative candidates whether they have a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ."

Ferguson was outraged. If Craswell could no longer represent all of her Kitsap County constituents - and it was clear she'd ceased trying - she ought to resign her state Senate seat in favor of someone with broader interests.

Here is what happened after publication, in September 1986, of Craswell's political epitaph.

She won re-election. She became one of the Legislature's highest-ranking women, and the first woman to regularly preside over the state Senate. She gained notoriety, including some international media attention, for legislative proposals such as her plans to castrate sex offenders, weaken child-abuse laws and do away with no-fault divorce.

She became an even bigger force among the Christian right: amending the Republican Party platforms both in the state and nationally to reflect her views, publishing a political newsletter read by tens of thousands every week, and - even after eventually losing an election - helping dozens of Christian candidates around the state win office in 1994, the religious right's most successful year ever.

In November, she announced her candidacy for governor, presumably against Democrat Mike Lowry and other, more moderate Republicans. For many voters she'll be the natural choice, especially now that the state's best-known Christian conservative, Linda Smith, has been elected to Congress.

True, the 1996 election is still 21 months away but, for a woman who is not well-known outside Christian political circles or the sphere of columnist Adele Ferguson, that's not long. It's time for Craswell - who does know God's plan, does have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ - to introduce herself to the rest of the state.

ELLEN CRASWELL is at home in her Poulsbo living room, talking about politics and religion, this scary combination that was supposed to doom her career. She is so disarmingly candid that you think she can't possibly be a politician. Devout public officials usually develop a split personality: The political half, attuned as Ferguson was to the risk of seeming a kook, counsels the religious half to cool it, especially in the company of a reporter.

It's a paradox of American politics. In a country where religion matters to people, where 96 percent of those polled say they believe in God, public officials are supposed to be believers, but with a wink. They're not supposed to take their faith too seriously, or if they do, they're not supposed to acknowledge it.

It was OK for Ronald Reagan to end each speech with "God Bless America," but not for Jimmy Carter to talk about being saved and having lusted in his heart.

Craswell is unfazed by such distinctions. Although she'll talk about more than her Christian agenda - she has positions on property rights, welfare reform and government regulation that will appeal to a broad range of voters - she's also willing to confide that she's just sent a quickie "arrow prayer" heavenward, asking God to help her discuss her faith honestly, in a way that honors the Lord.

Everything in her life in one way or another is a reflection of God, she says. And He's a God who sweats the details.

When the circulation of her "Family In Touch" newsletter grew to the point that production deadlines were threatened, she prayed for a machine to fold the pamphlets. Not long afterward, a friend with a print shop donated just such a contraption, which Craswell took to be, literally, divine intervention.

"God provided a folding machine!"

The newsletter itself is a remarkable mix of politics and religion, at once an astute guide to legislative proceedings and a celebration of its readers' faith. It summarizes bills of interest to its audience just as a weekly report for, say, the asphalt lobby might. Only here the suggested lobbying strategy invariably begins: "Pray." Secondary options (just in case?) are more common: Consider testifying before a committee, call lawmakers and urge them to vote.

Yes, Craswell says, she does want to inject a little religion into politics, and why not? Surely it's no coincidence, she says, that as our country has turned away from religion and morality we've been beset by this scourge of problems: crime, drugs, divorce, suicide, teen pregnancies, abortion, worse schools, more welfare, less good will.

For someone who has seen most of these changes in her 62 years, the pattern is unmistakable. And it shouldn't come as a surprise. Both the Bible and this nation's founding fathers stressed the importance of having strong, moral - she calls them "righteous" - people in positions of leadership.

"We went from one extreme where something like 50 of the 52 founding fathers were Christians to a total turnaround, to believing Christians shouldn't be involved at all politically. Naturally that's changed the outcome of what government's doing," she says. "Now I think we're seeing the pendulum swing back to where Christians think it's time to get involved again. And instead of feeling not represented at all, now we're going to see some representation."

ARE WE EVER. JUST look at the November election. Aside from the changes at the national level, a record 52 members of the new state Legislature (including two Democrats) were both Christian enough and conservative enough to earn Craswell's endorsement, with several backed by her influential Christian political action committee, IMPAC.

The reversal in Christians' political fortunes is part of what Craswell believes to be God's plan for government. Her election as governor, if it comes to pass, she says, would fit right in.

In Craswell's understanding of the Bible, there are three basic institutions in life - the family, the church and the government - and God has a plan for all three. The Washington state version is not complicated: Government should be small, taxes low, with laws based, above all, on a biblical sense of morality that encourages strong families and discourages immoral behavior.

Thus she fought as a legislator to eliminate no-fault divorce, which she saw as inviting the breakup of families. Under her bill courts would have granted a divorce only if an unhappy spouse could prove adultery, abuse, abandonment, neglect, habitual drug or alcohol abuse, or impotence.

She tried to weaken child-abuse laws. The state is too quick to remove children from their homes - a policy that undermines parents' authority, she said. So she opposed, as "vague," legislation making it illegal to shake a child under 3 or to throw, kick, burn or cut a youngster, or strike him with a fist.

She pursued several changes in the school system, where her guiding principle is that it is the parents' responsibility to educate their children, not the state's. If families want to send their kids to public schools, fine. If not, they should be free to teach them at home or send them to private or church schools, with no interference from government. And in the public schools, full control should rest with local school boards. If a community chooses to remove Mark Twain or J.D. Salinger or William Shakespeare from the school library, so be it.

Further elements in God's plan for government, as glimpsed through her record: No gay rights, which she calls "special rights for sodomites." And no abortion except when necessary to save the mother's life.

Her willingness to stake out such secularly blasphemous ground gradually brought Craswell a certain celebrity in Olympia during the 1980s. That she was unsuccessful in nearly all her legislative efforts was almost beside the point. Reporters would seek her out for the "Christian perspective" on a bill. Among those who shared her religious and political views, she became a leader. For those who didn't, she became an enemy.

Craswell's most famous proposal was the 1990 plan to castrate sex offenders. Specifically, her bill offered those convicted of certain sex crimes a trade: You agree to surgical castration, we'll knock as much as 75 percent off your prison sentence. The idea drew national and international media attention. And although it, too, ultimately failed (after passing the Senate), the castration bill more than any other cemented Craswell's Olympia reputation as a pleasant but rather cold-hearted, extremely out-of-touch, religious nut.

A David Horsey cartoon in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer portrayed her as "Alice in Wonderland's" Queen of Hearts, rising on the Senate floor to shout: "Off with their . . . well, you know."

And Sen. Phil Talmadge, the West Seattle Democrat who was a frequent opponent, characterized the proposal in biting terms that summarized, for some, what "God's plan for government" might really mean.

"This is a bill the Ayatollah Khomeini might like," said Talmadge, now a state Supreme Court justice. "What next in the way of mutilation? Do we pluck out someone's tongue for blasphemy? Chop off a hand for theft? Perform a lobotomy for thinking impure thoughts?"

IN THE BIBLE, a man named Saul, persecutor of early Christians, is on the road to Damascus when he's blinded by a heavenly light and hears the voice of the Lord. The Lord instructs him to lead others from darkness to light, from the authority of Satan to the authority of God. Saul accepts salvation and, after regaining his sight, later becomes the apostle Paul.

In Bruce Craswell's case, the road was Interstate 5 and he was headed to Olympia.

It was Feb. 27, 1980, the Legislature was in session, and as he had been doing for most of Ellen's four years in the state House of Representatives, Bruce was commuting between his Seattle office and the couple's temporary apartment near the Capitol.

As he merged his Mercedes onto the freeway, Bruce began thinking about the Bible, a frequent topic of conversation lately. Neither he nor Ellen had been particularly religious when she was elected to the Legislature in 1976, although both were raised in Christian homes and had attended church as adults.

Her early M.O. as a politician wasn't "religious nut," it was "anti-tax nut." She ran for office promising never to raise taxes, and in 16 years she never did, except for supporting a small "user fee" increase that she later renounced as the worst vote of her career.

One story has it that her first desk on the House floor was occupied previously by Rep. Dick Bond, a conservative Republican whose opposition to almost everything was so automatic that practical-joker colleagues had altered his electronic voting apparatus: No matter which button he pushed during a roll call vote, the result was always "no." Craswell, the story goes, sat there for months (years, in one version) before noticing she didn't have a "yes" light.

So it happened that anti-tax crusader Craswell fell into a quick kinship with Rep. Ron Dunlap, a tightfisted Bellevue Republican, and in 1979 they sponsored Initiative 62, a tax-limitation plan.

While Craswell and Dunlap campaigned around the state for their initiative, Bruce and Dunlap's wife, Allison, traveling with them, killed time discussing the Bible. Bruce loves a good-natured argument - "If it's Advil vs. Anacin," Allison Dunlap says, "he'll take you to the mat" - and he was sure he could prove the Bible was not absolute divine truth, as Allison had accepted it to be. But after several weeks of debate, Allison recalls, Bruce was astonished to see he hadn't shaken her faith. Intrigued, the Craswells agreed to join the Dunlaps and several other couples in a more thorough Bible study.

All of this was floating through Bruce's mind that Wednesday evening as he drove south after work. He was thinking about the Rev. Billy Graham's remark that it is harder for a rich man to get to heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Suddenly, he says, he realized what the passage meant: It wasn't his money God wanted, but his life. He had to surrender his life to God.

And with that, he was so overcome with emotion that he had to pull the Mercedes over to the side of the freeway, somewhere around Fort Lewis. When he got out of the car he saw a vision, he says, that is still "just as clear and just as real as sitting here looking out the window."

There before him was Christ, nailed to the cross.

And for five minutes Bruce Craswell, who had been so proud of his skepticism and his logic and his impeccable debating skill, knelt, crying, traffic whizzing past, staring up at Him.

IF YOU MET Bruce and Ellen Craswell today, you'd swear he was the politician and she was the devoted politician's spouse. Which, in fact, is the way it was supposed to be.

In the 1960s Bruce was the budding politico, a moderate Republican who volunteered on Dan Evans' gubernatorial campaigns and later served on the local school board. In 1974 he ran unsuccessfully for the Legislature and planned to run again two years later. But when the time came he was in the midst of switching careers - he gave up dentistry to manage a prepaid dental plan - and decided to bow out.

When no one else showed an interest in the seat, Kitsap Republican leaders gathered for an emergency session in the Craswells' living room. They stared at each other, unable to roust a candidate.

Though she wasn't thinking about it at the time, there was a long history of both politics and public service in Ellen Craswell's family. Her grandfather, James B. Howe, was one of early Seattle's top lawyers and civic leaders. Two generations earlier, in 1800, an ancestor named John Drayton was one of the first governors of South Carolina.

Ellen Howe grew up in Silverdale, the fifth of seven kids, in a big waterfront house just three doors down from the house where Bruce and Ellen would raise their own four children. Her father died when she was 9, and she credits her mother - quiet but so adventurous that she took up water-skiing, on one ski, in her 70s - as a great influence.

Still, it was hard for Ellen to imagine running for office. She'd never worked outside the home, and was as shy as she'd been on that blind date with Bruce at University of Washington in the 1950s. How could she run for the Legislature?

But here were the Kitsap Republicans, and still no candidate, and in this bicentennial year of 1976 that was just unforgivable. Finally Bruce turned to Ellen: "Looks like you'll have to do it," he said.

"And all of a sudden," Ellen Craswell says, recalling that day, "everybody was planning my campaign as if they didn't even hear me say no."

ELLEN CRASWELL'S acceptance of Christ was not nearly so dramatic as her husband's. He told her what happened that day on the freeway; she watched him, liked the new sense of peace she saw, and six weeks later, April 15, 1980, decided she, too, would surrender her life to God.

"I remember feeling suddenly it was like the weight of the world was off my shoulders," Craswell says. "I think that's part of what gives you strength. You don't have to do it alone. You have this inner strength. Somebody else is there to hold you up."

In that sense, politics got easier for Craswell when she became a Christian. She could look to the Bible for guidance, and she felt God supporting her efforts, no matter what the earthly outcome.

At the same time, though, her devotion weakened her effectiveness in Olympia. Compromise is everything in a legislative body. But if every position you take is a matter of religious faith rather than mere political ideology, compromise becomes nearly impossible.

That's why, hung up on minor details, she often ended up voting against ideas she supported, like the bill that made home schooling legal. And why she was able to coax only a very few bills all the way through the Legislature and into law. Her greatest legislative accomplishment, she says, was a tax policy change approved in 1979, her second term in the state House, a year before she became either a Christian or a senator.

In both their cases, friends would tell you, the details of how the Craswells came to Christianity perfectly reflect their personalities. Where Bruce is gregarious and vivacious, Ellen is reserved, cautious, chronically soft-spoken.

The first time she met his family she was astounded. "Everybody talked at once," she told her mother.

She's smiling at the memory, and you can see in her face that she smiles often. Her skin is taut - for years she was an avid runner, and she's climbed Mount Rainier and many other of the state's peaks; she's in great shape - yet when she smiles a pattern of long, deep wrinkles splay easily across her cheeks. It's a sight that ought to melt the Olympia press corps' image of her as stern and cold.

Another look at Horsey's famous "Queen of Hearts" cartoon and you see why, although funny, it seems off. It's hard to imagine Ellen Craswell shouting. It's also hard to imagine her saying anything quite so memorable as "Off with their . . . well, you know," which is a problem for a statewide political candidate.

Whatever Craswell's skills as a politician, "quick with a quote" isn't among them. One reason may be that she avoids the mass media; she lacks common cultural reference points. She can't remember the last movie she saw. A portable, rabbit-eared TV escapes from the closet only on special occasions. If she listens to the radio, it's Christian music or a conservative talk show. She doesn't read much, except for legislation, Christian literature and the Bible, which she studies daily.

Though she got a lot of ink for that castration bill, it was another lawmaker, Democratic Sen. Brad Owen, whose often-quoted line spicily captured the sentiment of those who liked the idea: "Castration is too good for some of these guys."

A POSTER in the Craswells' dining room depicts the characters of the Bible as on a family tree - Adam and Eve at the top, with Old Testament figures twisting off in complicated branches through the birth, bottom center, of Jesus. You half expect to see the names "Bruce and Ellen Craswell" scribbled in there someplace.

Which they're not, of course, but another poster on an adjacent wall completes the thought: a map of the state's 49 legislative districts.

In this dining room and on a computerized database down the hall, the race for governor has begun.

There have been no polls on Craswell's statewide viability as a candidate, but the lay of the land is pretty clear. She's a relative unknown whose views will turn off a good percentage of the electorate. She has no experience in a statewide campaign. She lost her last re-election bid, in 1992. And there are likely to be many other Republican candidates, probably with more familiar names and possibly with more palatable politics.

Among those frequently mentioned are Ken Eikenberry and state Sen. Dan McDonald, both of whom ran in 1992, along with Sens. Pam Roach and Ann Anderson, state Rep. Dale Foreman, former King County Republican Chairwoman Nona Brazier and KVI talk-show host and Seattle Times freelance columnist John Carlson. Even Linda Smith, the presumed front-runner before she was drafted to run for Congress last fall, hasn't ruled out running.

By any objective measure, Craswell would have to be considered an extreme long shot.

But there are some hopeful signs. The polls show Lowry's vulnerable. "Family In Touch" has given her a statewide base of potential contributors and campaign volunteers. And the electorate has clearly moved to the right.

Even the expected deluge of Republican candidates could work to her favor. In a crowded primary, with a bunch of moderates or semi-conservatives dividing votes, who knows, she might very well survive.

Can she be the state's next governor?

Craswell herself would tell you the outcome is in God's hands. But for someone who sees a miracle in a folding machine, that's not a bad place to leave it. "Craswell's religion threatens career," a newspaper headline once said, and that's probably still true. Sure she's a long shot. Then again, what is faith if not belief in the unlikely, or the impossible? Ellen Craswell, not your typical politician, has a prayer.

Mark Matassa is a Pacific Magazine writer. Harley Soltes is Pacific's photographer. Jimi Lott is a Seattle Times news photographer.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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