By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Has it really been only two years since Ted Crisell burst outrageously (albeit barely detected) onto the Orange County political scene, hurling all his frenetic idealism at the staid electoral status quo?
Has it really been only two years since then?
Ummm . . . no.
"I've been around for a long time—I was student body president of Orange Coast College, student body president of Chapman," the 55-year-old Crisell says, although that's not exactly how he says it. It's not the last time he says it, either. Crisell recites his résumé so often and so vigorously and in such detail that his words tend to get a little muddled. Thus, "student body president" becomes something like "studnbodpresnt," and he can gobble up two minutes and 53 seconds on an answering machine replying to a simple yes-or-no request for an interview.
"Then I ran for Orange County school board when I was 21," Crisell continues, when you finally meet him face to face midmorning at the Sports Club Irvine, where he's a refreshingly scruffy vision of ballcap-and-jeans normalcy amid the opulence of that athletic cathedral. He's sitting alone at the farthest edge of its empty, indoor café, beside a table cluttered with the paperwork of his life story. "I was the youngest candidate ever to run for countywide office," he emphasizes. If so, that long-ago, school-board-election day also made Crisell the youngest candidate ever to lose a run for countywide office. He took it hard, apparently. "I swore I'd never run for office again," he divulges, suddenly solemn.
He goes silent.
Slowly raises his eyes.
Peers into yours.
Somewhere upstairs, somebody drops a barbell.
Eventually, Crisell speaks again. "It took me a long time," he says, interjecting a final, slight hesitation, "to heal."
Crisell delivers this 34-year-old excerpt from his autobiography like someone with lots of practice. Like, oh, maybe 34 years' worth? It can be pretty effective. He recited it soon after arriving at a meeting of the Orange County Democratic Party in August 1999 to offer his help registering voters. "It's funny how I showed up; I walked in and started talking," Crisell says, and words begin to clickity-clack out of his mouth with the precise and rising speed of thread through a sewing machine. "I was sort of bored. I would say the things you're not supposed to say. But the truth is you sit back. . . . I was 53 years young and coming through that whole generation of all the things we went through in the '60s and stuff, and a lot of us sort of gave up—'Oh, we can't do anything, can't make an impact'—but you're sort of sitting alone at home watching TV, watching Seinfeld reruns, and you go, 'I want to make a difference. I want to do something. I still want to do something.'"
That's when, Crisell says, he told the OC Democrats the story of his youthful, ill-fated run for school board—until Jeanne Costales, party chairwoman at the time, interrupted him. "Next thing I knew, Jeanne asked me, 'Will you run for Congress?'" Crisell recalls, still thrilled by the memory. "I replied, 'No, I just want to help register Democrats.' And then Jeanne said, 'We'd like you to run for Congress.' I said no three times."
And then he said yes.
That's not the way Costales remembers it. "I didn't ask Ted to run for Congress," she says. "I think he walked in with that plan."
Apparently, that was enough to make Crisell the Democratic candidate—pretty much a suicide mission against the 45th District's ultraconservative perennial incumbent, Dana Rohrabacher.
Crisell campaigned relentlessly. He spoke wherever he could find an audience—friendly, hostile or indifferent. Lots of his speeches were at schools, where most of his listeners weren't even old enough to vote. He held debates with Rohrabacher three times, including one where Rohrabacher actually showed up. He distributed red-white-and-blue campaign brochures crammed with information in footnote-sized type and spangled with full-color photos of him smiling with Governor Gray Davis, working with Democratic Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez and jawboning with Maryland Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend—she of the Kennedy family, with whom Crisell insists he is a close friend. He staked out positions on all the issues, from environmental catastrophe to military buildup to drug laws. He was for the Patients' Bill of Rights, against school vouchers, for preservation of the Bolsa Chica wetlands and pollution controls, against massive tax cuts that would mostly benefit the wealthy, for a woman's right to choose, against unregulated gun sales, for protecting workers' wages and benefits, against the El Toro International Airport. He weighed in on controversies ranging from President Bill Clinton's impeachment to Huntington Beach Mayor Dave Garofalo's ethics.
"My whole campaign was about . . . sort of . . . well . . ." Crisell scours his frames of reference. "I'd compare it to Warren Beatty in Bulworth."
And then, on Election Day, Ted Crisell got creamed again.
Another primary election rolls around in four months—that's March 5, 2002—and Rohrabacher's seat is available again. "Yes, I will be running a second time," Crisell answers before you can finish asking. "I will be running a second campaign to remove Dana Rohrabacher from Congress."