Phil Crane. Photo: Wikimedia

Phil Crane. Photo: Wikimedia

Phil Crane, the long time Republican Congressman from Illinois and a conservative champion, died Sunday at the age of 84.

The news got my attention in a very personal way. Phil Crane won his seat in a special election in 1969. It was Illinois district 12, where I grew up. It was a crowded field and my mother, Eloise Canfield, then just beginning her own career in local politics, was a leader in the small group of people who backed Crane in a nine-way primary. After winning the primary, he went on to win the general election and serve for 35 years in the House. My mother was integrally involved in his subsequent elections in the ’70s and early ’80s.

I realized even then he stood out. He was conservative when it wasn’t cool. He gave an intellectual heft to the ideas of free markets and a strong national defense during those wilderness years when few on the national scene were talking about such things. He was anti-communist when nobody was.

He didn’t become a political star like his contemporary Jack Kemp, but he did have profound impact on many who shaped the conservative movement of today. He was a pioneer. For starters, Heritage Foundation Founder Ed Feulner worked for Phil Crane on Capitol Hill for four years. Feulner ran the conservative Republican Study Committee, which Crane had fearlessly founded, and took what he learned there to Heritage, which he turned into a conservative powerhouse.

Phil Crane backed Reagan’s insurgent candidacy against President Gerald Ford in 1976. He was one of only ten House Republicans to do so, a risky political move to be sure. That campaign paved the way for Ronald Reagan to win the presidency in 1980. Ironically, Crane ran unsuccessfully against Reagan in the 1980 primaries. Crane claimed the big guy never held it against him.

Meanwhile, back in Illinois, my older brothers were active in the Phil Crane Youth Caucus (yes, there really was such a thing). When my parents asked Phil Crane where he thought my brother David ought to go to college, he said Hillsdale –- Crane’s alma mater — and so David did. By the time I got to junior high, I was plastering my locker with Phil Crane bumper stickers while lecturing uninterested classmates on the importance of smaller government and lower taxes.

After he left Congress, Crane served as a visiting fellow at Heritage. He was also a long-time supporter and President’s Club member.

In some way due to that early Phil Crane influence, I suppose, my brothers and I celebrated the election last Tuesday night together – cheering all the way. I hope Phil Crane got to revel a bit in that election night too.

When my mother died in 1995, then-Rep. Crane came to her visitation. He said, I think referring to other political allies of theirs who had passed away since he was first elected, “it’s a terrible thing Eloise is gone — but just think of the reunion the saints are having in Heaven with her there!”

Well, I do believe one more has just gotten in on that party. Phil Crane, thank you. RIP.

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