Is It Time for Ted Crisell?
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 rsum 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.
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"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 caf, 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."
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."
And by election night at the Carpenters Hall in Orange, Crisell did have things in perspective. He realized he didn't have a chance to win. When he was called to the podium, Crisell launched into a different kind of speech altogether, attempting to graciously withdraw and grandly throw his support to the obvious winner, Frank Barbaro. But a few sentences into his address, Crisell was shouted off the stage by longtime Democratic Party heavyweight Ray Cordova as Costales impassively looked on. Denied the chance to concede with dignity, Crisell walked quickly from the room, humiliated.
Contacted for comment the next day, Crisell answered his cell phone in Santa Barbara. He said he was on his way to Ojai for a day of silent reflection on Meditation Mountain and a visit to the Krishnamurti Library. He seemed to have recovered his emotional balance. "My life—maybe you got a sense of who I am last night—does not come from ego," said Crisell beatifically. "I went home and took my 88-year-old mom, who is dying of breast cancer, out for cappuccino. If anything, that tells you who I am. Those who have eyes to see can see. Those who are blind cannot see. I'm feeling a lot of different emotions, but I am not feeling hate."
Nonetheless, a few sentences later, Crisell was describing Costales as "a little-old-granny, asshole, powermongering bitch" and Cordova as "full of dominating-male-ego bullshit." Fair enough. They did kinda screw with him.
But then Crisell really took off on a rant, announcing he was running for California secretary of state, suggesting he might run for governor, comparing his setbacks to those suffered by Abraham Lincoln on his way to becoming president. "You're gonna see me run for everything in this state," Crisell promised. "These people can kiss my sweet ass. Look at Warren Beatty in Bulworth. I think I touched some of those people who have to look at their own bullshit. A lot of people in the audience told me, 'I'm really with you, but I can't say anything.' They've got no fucking balls. You've gotta have some guts. Look at the president. The guy's a piece of dogshit. Gore wasn't much better. Here we had a guy who was willing to speak the truth, a guy with a brain—I'm talking about Nader—and . . . well, I woulda had Nader as my secretary of interior."
Maybe Ted Crisell is the crazybeautiful thing about the United States' great experiment with democracy. "I'm not a politician," Crisell will say. "I'm a guy who cares. I just speak the truth from my heart."
He has a point. Granted, some of the stuff he says can be a bit over the top. But Crisell is propelled by the heat of passion. His rant against the OC Democrats was a reaction to the pain of a fresh and raw wound. Viewed from that human perspective—and in comparison with automaton politicians whose unnervingly measured voices tend to chloroform debate about the most important issues in our lives—isn't Crisell's lack of self-censorship refreshing? Isn't it admirable, even? Essential, ultimately?
Except that for all of his supposedly plain speaking, it's still difficult to determine who Crisell really is. His rsum rambles through achievements and experiences large and small, practical and obtuse, and it goes on endlessly—challenging your gullibility, not to mention your attention span.
In less than an hour, he mentions:
DANIEL BOONE: "My great-grandfather came out west with Daniel Boone on the Oregon Trail. We still have the family farm. You should see my great-great-granddaddy. He looks like Lincoln. He has the stovepipe hat and the big beard on the family farm. You look at it, like, they're all this farming family. It's like, whoa!" JACQUES COUSTEAU: "I met Jacques Cousteau, and I've been on his boat, the Calypso, and I've been diving with divers of his. I've been a diver ever since I was about . . . ever since I can remember, about 10 years of age." WORLD PEACE: "I founded the World Peace Project about 20 years ago. There is a woman who is really an American saint. She was the Peace Pilgrim. She was a woman who walked for peace as an individual stand. My No. 1 issue is peace. We basically formed a worldwide prayer group. What it comes down to is consciousness and awareness. So on the Internet, I have connections—having been around the world five times and been in 74 countries and having so many connections—and we talk about the subject of peace. And I'm linking it up. That's my No. 1 issue, is peace." NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCES: "I almost died four times. First when I was 15, and I stole my father's car to take my girlfriend to Disneyland . . . and this older woman in a big black Cadillac hits us from behind and flips the car. The whole car was totaled. We walked away without a scratch, but I had that near-death experience, that whole type of seeing down the pipe, you know, this silence. It was just incredible. At 15. Then the next two death experiences were in India. Once, I was in the back seat of a car when a child ran in the road and my driver, a Sikh man, hit the child, killed the child, and I walked away without a scratch. And the third time was in the Himalayas on my motorcycle, when a friend of mine spun out on a road. The fourth time, I was surfing off Bali when I fell off my board and, the tide was pulling me out. I prayed, and I heard a voice: 'Hold on! I'm coming!' And I was pulled out of that surf by a water-polo player from San Francisco. I never saw him again." ACTING: "I was a child actor. I played an Indian in a lot of movies. I danced at Disneyland, the only non-Indian dancing with the Indian dancers at Disneyland. Then I worked in films. I worked with Walter Brennan on The Real McCoys and Playhouse 90. The big break I missed was when Donna Reed had her show and wanted me for her son, Jeff. I was being cast for that, and my mother didn't want me to take that part. But I love the theater. I've been an extra. I've worked with Seinfeld. I was on the Seinfeld show. I'm a Seinfeld nut. I know every Seinfeld show." BEING A BIG BROTHER: "I was a Big Brother to a gang member for three years. My boy actually robbed me. It was a bad situation. I was out of town; he robbed my house, stole my car, stole my liquor and everything else. It was an inside job, so I guessed it was the kid. I had to go to court against him. They were going to try him as an adult. And one of the kids, the father came up to me, he was a black guy, and he was blind, and his son had just been accepted to the military, and this was his way to escape the gangs and stuff. And I said, 'Don't worry. I'm not going to testify.' And he was in tears, gave me a hug, man, and that was the moment for me that said, 'I'm on the right path.'" BEING RICH AND POOR: "I made my first million dollars by the time I was 30. I had a development company, a brokerage company, a construction company. I owned a department store and two restaurants. I was worth between $5 million and $10 million, had five houses, two boats, a Rolls-Royce. I was part of the jet set. It was pretty good, but I wasn't happy. By the age of 40, my life was shit. Then I borrowed about $50 million from the banks in the late '80s and I pretty much lost everything when interest rates went through the sky. I don't have much money now, but I'm happier." LOVING AND LOSING: "My wife was a Miss Oregon. I was married to a beautiful woman, but she got multiple sclerosis and died. My business partner, a great friend, had a heart attack and died. Now I'm a widower, no children, who takes care of his 88-year-old mother, who has breast cancer. But I know I'm still around for some reason. I know I have a purpose." DANCING: "My biggest love, if you want my real love, is the world of dance. I'm a dancer. I compete professionally in dance—ballroom, waltz, foxtrot, tango, samba, rumba, cha-cha, mambo—I compete in all the dances." There's lots more. Is it even worth picking through this fantastical landslide, separating the facts from your suspicions of fiction? For example, a couple of phone calls to Orange Coast College both corroborate and cast doubt on Crisell's assertions that he was student body president and a member of the school's football team. Yes, he was president of OCC for the 1965-66 school year. But there is no record of him playing football. Beyond that, it turns out Crisell was not student body president of Chapman College—only of its floating campus, the ship that takes certain students on a yearlong trip around the world. Whatever. The ultimate fact, again, is that none of this will make a difference come Election Day. Crisell doesn't have a chance. And, ironically, that impossible situation is what has provided him with the opportunity to make his case to the electorate. "I come into this thing and everybody's like, 'Who's Ted Crisell?'" he reflects. "Well, I'm a guy with some balls. I was student body president of Orange Coast and Chapman. I played the student-government game. This isn't much different than student government. All the egos and all the bullshit. They're such wimps. We don't have any real, solid kinds of people. Nobody wants to lead. Everybody wants to strategize, manipulate, maneuver in the background. Not me. I'm here." Yes, he is. And although Crisell isn't going to be anybody's answer, he still poses a very important question: What does it say about our two-party system that our choices are so often between the pleasantly packaged status quo—even when it's the underlying viciousness of easygoing extremists like Rohrabacher—and the desperate provocations of the hopeless? Meanwhile, Crisell would rather pose this question: "Why was Rohrabacher in the Ambassador Hotel that night that Bobby Kennedy was killed?" he asks, referring to the June 5, 1968, assassination of Senator Robert. F. Kennedy in Los Angeles. "Now, Rohrabacher was involved in some funny organizations at that time. . . . Check out those young, ultra-right-wing organizations that he was in—they weren't just regular right-wing; they were some extreme right-wing organizations that Rohrabacher was a party to. I think there's a lot more to these assassinations of the Kennedys than is out there. Tie Rohrabacher to it."
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