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Rep. Phil Crane was a pioneer in spreading conservative gospel

WASHINGTON — Former Rep. Phil Crane, R-Ill., was a pioneer in spreading the conservative gospel throughout his 35 years in the House and a failed run for president in 1980, all that time representing Chicago’s northwest suburbs.

Crane, who turned 84 on Nov. 3, died Saturday from lung cancer at the Jefferson, Maryland, home of one of his daughters, Rebekah.

During his time in Congress — when he left he was the longest-serving Republican member — Crane was deeply involved in trade and tax issues, stemming from his work on the Ways and Means Committee.

OPINION

But Crane’s more important and lasting legacy is his mark on the U.S. conservative movement. The former college professor turned politician provided the intellectual underpinnings that helped to steer the generations to come after him.

“Phil was one of the intellectual stimulants who got people thinking about a different type of governance,” said former Rep. Don Manzullo, R-Ill., who served with Crane and considered him a mentor.

“He was ahead of his time and helped to really start the conservative movement we have today,” said Kirt Johnson, Crane’s former chief of staff.

Tim Schneider, chairman of the Illinois Republican Party, said in a statement that Crane’s “accomplishments, and his lifelong pursuit of conservative principles, will have a lasting effect for generations to come: from his work on the Ways and Means Committee and the Republican Study Committee, to his work founding the Heritage Foundation and leading the American Conservative Union. He fought for lower taxes, a simplified tax code, free-market principles, and free trade.”

Crane was born Nov. 3, 1930, near Rainbow Beach on the South Side and attended South Shore High School. After receiving his undergraduate degree from Hillsdale College in Michigan in 1952, Crane served in the Army from 1954 to 1956. He earned a master’s and a doctorate in history at Indiana University in 1963.

He was a professor at Indiana University and Bradley University in Peoria.

Crane was also politically active, campaigning for Barry Goldwater when he ran for president in 1964, the year his book, “The Democrats Dilemma” was published.

Crane’s political break came in 1969, when he won a special election to replace Rep. Don Rumsfeld, R-Ill., who was tapped by then-President Richard Nixon to be the director of the national poverty program.

In Congress, Crane’s influence within the conservative wing grew when he launched  the Republican Study Committee in 1974.

Crane reached national prominence when he ran in 1980 for the Republican presidential nomination, jumping in at a time when it was not clear if Ronald Reagan would be running and staying in through the Illinois primary.

Former Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., recounted why Crane — a Reagan backer in his 1976 run — decided to run in 1980. Here’s what he said on the House floor in a salute to Crane as he was winding up his congressional career in 2004:

“I will never forget the evening sitting on the House floor when Congressman Crane told me the story of that night. He said, “We all just figured that one day Governor Reagan would look at Nancy and say, ‘I think, Mommy, we should just go and retire to the ranch.’ Ronald Reagan and history had different intentions, but as he has always been throughout his career, Phil Crane was ready to stand in the gap,” Pence said. “And when Ronald Reagan made his candidacy a reality, Phil Crane stayed in the race to honor his delegates from Illinois who had supported their favorite son, but he was one of the strongest supporters of President Reagan in 1980, enabling and assisting in his election and also being one of the great champions of the Reagan revolution from the minority here on Capitol Hill.”

After the ill-fated presidential run, Crane never again reached that level of national prominence. He focused on his Ways and Means work, advocating for a flat tax to replace the income tax, a cause of his since the early 1970s, and for various free trade agreements.

In 2000, Crane, then 69, confronted his alcoholism and — as I wrote at the time — “checked into a rehab center only after friends, colleagues and family confronted him” in an intervention. “Mercifully, I discovered it before it was too far gone,” Crane told me in an April 2000 interview.

“By the time of the surprise intervention at 6 p.m. March 15 — which landed him in a Maryland treatment center a few hours later — Crane was up to at times 10 beers a night. He said he gained insights into why he drank so much: the death of his 17-year-old daughter, Rachel, two years ago last Christmas from cancer and quitting cigarettes cold turkey after 50 years of smoking,” I wrote then.

In 2004, Crane’s congressional career came to an abrupt end with the upset victory of now former Rep. Melissa Bean, D-Ill. After that, Crane maintained an office at the Heritage Foundation here, but mainly retired to spend more time with his family.

Crane’s wife, Arlene, a key political partner, died in 2012.

Survivors include his brothers, Dan, of downstate Danville, a former House member; David, of Martinsville, Indiana, and a sister, Judy Ross, of Downers Grove. And his children, besides Rebekah, Susanna Crane, of Falls Church, Virginia; Sarah Crane of Winchester, Virginia; Catherine Hott, of Berryville, Virginia.; Jennifer Oliver, of Boyce, Virginia; Carrie Crane, of Severna Park, Maryland, and George Crane, of Leesburg, Virginia.

Funeral arrangements were still pending on Sunday night, Johnson said, with a visitation possibly on Thursday at the Loudoun Funeral Chapel in Leesburg, Virginia. Burial will be in the Rose Hill Cemetery in Hillsboro, Indiana.