Is It Time for Ted Crisell?

Well-informed, well-meaning, well-spoken and well-positioned on the issues, the Huntington Beach Democrat is going to get killed in his upcoming battle with Dana Rohrabacher

He doesn't have a chance.

Not because the time isn't right to beat Rohrabacher. After 13 years in office, the Surfin' Congressman's re-electability may be more doubtful than ever—even more than in the days when Rohrabacher was railing in favor of term limits that would have booted him by now had they passed.

And not because Crisell is a Democrat. California's 45th Congressional District has been reconfigured. It now reaches across the Orange Curtain to include a thick swath of blue-collared, union-membered, minority-populated, gay-neighborhooded Long Beach, as well as the wealthy but socially moderate Palos Verdes peninsula. That kind of red-blooded cross section of real-life America may not be that receptive to Rohrabacher's wonkish devotion to a cookie-cutter Americana, which tends to play on fears that this crowd is already working through. Meanwhile, Rohrabacher's anti-environmental record may put him on the wrong side of those issues in former strongholds like sewage-spoiled Huntington Beach, which is becoming known as Surf Shitty.

And not only because Democrats Gerrie Schipske and Peter Mathews—who barely lost congressional races to retiring Republican Congressman Steve Horn among many of these same voters in the past two elections—are also expected to run.

No. Ted Crisell hasn't got a prayer because Ted Crisell is . . . well . . . Ted Crisell—well-informed, well-meaning, well-spoken and well-positioned on the issues, but somehow in well over his head, a head he tends to lose along with his temper, his tongue, his track of time and, ultimately, his welcome. Candidates like that don't have a chance, if for no other reason than that political parties don't seriously fund them.

Yet there's something almost genetic about the way Crisell is drawn to politics, and there's certainly something fascinating about watching him—if you like watching a moth fly toward a flame. Even some of his friends, people who counseled him during the 2000 campaign, privately observe that Crisell seems to have "a political death wish."

Ask him yourself. Give him a call, make an appointment, go visit him in the quiet, tidy apartment in Tustin he shares with his 88-year-old mother, have a seat in a comfortable chair, and listen to him deliver well-informed—and frequently inspiring—takes on current events as he sits there, barefoot, before he leaves for work at the Irvine property-development firm, Voit Commercial.

Then ask him: Is it time for Ted Crisell?

Listen to what Crisell said when we popped that question:


So much for that moth.

These are exactly the kinds of moments that make Crisell so compelling and so confounding. They create a pattern of behavior that can't really be decoded into a pattern at all.

"Well, I mean, I probably won't get elected," Crisell quickly rallies, perhaps noticing our bewilderment, "but I am going to have my message." He chuckles. "Like I told you, I talk like crazy."

Except that as Crisell talks and talks, his message eventually becomes just as flabbergasting. Just when Crisell begins to convert you—with a refreshing perspective or a courageous stand or a disarming manner or a logical policy—he scrambles your fledgling confidence by doing or saying something that makes you feel embarrassed about beginning to believe.

This process takes about 10 minutes. For the first eight, Crisell sounds like exactly the kind of man who is needed in elected office—free-thinking, brave, compassionate. If Crisell would just stop talking at that point . . . but he never does. And in the next two minutes ("C'mon, be serious," one of his friends chides you gently. "Have you ever known Ted to stop talking after just 10 minutes?"), Crisell's shots from the hip become blasts from a loose cannon. His courage begins to sound like kookiness. His compassion morphs into anger.

Crisell has displayed this behavior several times since he lost last November's election to Rohrabacher, which is when he hoped to position himself as a meaningful political figure rather than just fading away.

Last winter, when Costales stepped down as chairperson of the OC Democratic Party, Crisell ran for the post with a plan to mount a massive voter-registration campaign. But he was careless during a pre-election interview with Orange County Register reporter Martin Wisckol, who focused his story on Crisell's treatment-over-punishment stand on illegal drugs. Because of Crisell's agitated language, the story almost sounded as though Crisell was promoting drug use. Because of Crisell's new prominence, these opinions generated considerable controversy among Democrats—and a last-minute flurry of new candidates for party chairperson. While insisting he had been misunderstood, Crisell obviously enjoyed the excitement he had created on the eve of the election.

"This is going to be a very big meeting, lots of political jockeying," he said. "It's gonna be fun. It's gonna be fun. It's going to be very raucous and fun. I'm going to give the best speech of my life—about a vision for the party, about a direction for the party, what I want to see us accomplish."

Crisell insisted he had everything in perspective. "I've turned it over to the hands of God," he said. "If I win, I'll smile. If I lose, I'll smile. You know, I'm not about political games. I've worked with the homeless. I've lived with the homeless. I've worked with Mother Teresa's order, the Brothers of Charity, which is the male order of the Sisters of Charity. I take care of my mom, who has breast cancer. She's 87. I have a wonderful mother. So I'll be just fine."

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