Longtime Illinois Congressman Phil Crane died Saturday at the home of his daughter, Rebekah, in Jefferson, Maryland. He was 84.
Crane, a Republican, represented the state’s 8th Congressional District and held office from 1969 to 2005. He lost to Democrat Melissa Bean in 2004.
Kirt Johnson, Crane’s chief of staff and longtime friend, said he spoke with the former Illinois congressman Friday.
“He was a principled conservative and a great human being,” Johnson said. “We spoke about the good old days and fighting the good fight. We shared a lot of good times.
“Anyone who worked with him on his staff enjoyed working with him,” Johnson said.
After winning a special congressional election in 1969, Crane became a major force on the Republican right. During the 1970s, he became chairman of the American Conservative Union and was considered for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination until he withdrew in March of that year.
A former history professor and Army soldier, Crane competed with Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley Jr. as an idol of conservatism.
Crane was actively involved in presidential politics in the 1970s and 1980s. He was the first sitting congressman to openly support Ronald Reagan’s effort to defeat then-President Gerald Ford in the 1976 Republican presidential primary, said Eric Elk, a Republican political consultant and former chief of staff to Sen. Mark Kirk.
When it appeared that Reagan was not going to run in the next presidential election, Crane threw his hat in the ring for the 1980 GOP nomination, only to have Reagan enter the race later. Crane eventually withdrew from the race throwing his support to Reagan.
Crane gained recognition in politics through his work on the Barry Goldwater presidential campaign in 1964. While working as an assistant professor of history at Bradley University, Crane proved to be a popular and charismatic public speaker for Goldwater, Elk said.
In 1964, Crane wrote “The Democrat’s Dilemma,” which jumpstarted conversation in the fledgling conservative movement.
Sen. Mark Kirk released a statement Sunday heralding Crane as “one of the great leaders from northern Illinois.”
“He will always be remembered for vowing to never raise taxes, a promise he kept through his long career, and for expanding trade opportunities for our state,” Kirk said.
Loudoun Funeral Chapels in Leesburg, Virginia, is handling funeral arrangements.
CONTRIBUTING: Associated Press