Ellen Craswell, a longtime conservative figure in state Republican politics who ran for governor in 1996, died Saturday after her third bout with cancer.

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Ellen Craswell, a longtime conservative figure in state politics who spoke unabashedly of “God’s plan” for government during her unsuccessful run for governor in 1996, died Saturday after her third bout with cancer. She was 75.

Former state Sen. Craswell was known as “Senator No” for her opposition to tax increases and remembered for increasingly conservative views that ultimately contributed to her split from the Republican Party.

The Poulsbo, Kitsap County, resident spent her final years enjoying her 14 grandchildren and being a volunteer Sunday school teacher, family members said.

A lifelong outdoor enthusiast, she had climbed Mount Rainier, Mount Adams, Mount St. Helens and many other Cascade peaks.

As recently as September, she made a backpacking trip to Cape Alava on the Washington coast with her husband and chief political supporter, retired dentist Bruce Craswell. It was on that trip she first noticed a pain under her arm she thought was a pinched nerve but which turned out to be a cancerous tumor near her shoulder.

Ellen Howe Craswell was born in Bothell May 25, 1932, and was 3 years old when the family moved to Kitsap County. She attended the University of Washington and became a registered medical technologist, but she worked just a year before leaving to become a full-time wife and mother.

A longtime Poulsbo resident, she served 16 years in the Legislature after being swept into office in 1976, in what Bruce Craswell remembers as “the year of the nonpolitican.”

“It wasn’t her idea to run. We pushed her,” he said, telling of a strategy meeting at the Craswell home in which Republicans scrambled to find a candidate for a historically Democratic House seat. Bruce Craswell himself had once run for the post, but in 1976 had taken a new job and couldn’t spare the time.

“We couldn’t get anybody to run and finally I said, ‘Ellen, why don’t you run?’ and everybody like the idea. She said, ‘Oh, no. I can’t,’ but nobody listened to her,” her husband said.

Despite that initial reluctance, Sen. Craswell brought a strong commitment to the job and particularly enjoyed helping constituents who had problems with bureaucratic state agencies.

“She would call up the head of whatever agency it was, and suddenly the problem would get solved,” Bruce Craswell said.

No single event shaped her politics more than becoming a Christian in 1980.

While some politicians downplay their beliefs to avoid offending voters, Sen. Craswell didn’t shy away from explaining how her religious and moral foundation shaped her political agenda, such as her opposition to most abortions and her advocacy of castration for sex offenders.

“You knew where she stood. She was not one to play political tricks or to say one thing to one group and another thing to another group,” said former state representative and state GOP chairman Dale Foreman of Wenatchee, who knew Sen. Craswell as both political opponent and ally.

“She was a strong, Christian woman who believed that less government is better,” he said.

Foreman was one of seven Republicans Sen. Craswell defeated in the 1996 Republican primary for governor. Afterward, he worked enthusiastically on her general-election campaign, but she managed barely 42 percent of the statewide vote against Democrat Gary Locke.

On Monday, Gov. Christine Gregoire praised Sen. Craswell as “a soft-spoken, gracious and straightforward woman” and noted that Sen. Craswell was the first woman to hold the position of Senate president pro tem.

“Ellen was a true Washingtonian whose deep devotion to her family and to public service will long be remembered,” the governor said.

A Republican colleague of Sen. Craswell’s in the House of Representatives, Bob Williams of Longview, said in his first term that Sen. Craswell helped him figure out how to effectively help constituents. “People whose checks were getting lost in the mail or who couldn’t get their disability. She knew how to deal with that.”

Now president of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a policy-research group, Williams will remember Sen. Craswell most for “her integrity and for caring about the people in her district. And her faith always showed through.”

The power of conservative Christians in the Republican Party may have peaked in 1994, when the GOP gained dozens of seats in Olympia and the state’s congressional delegation.

But after Sen. Craswell’s 1996 defeat in the race for governor, many in the party distanced themselves from its right wing.

In 1998, the Craswells, disenchanted with the GOP, joined the American Heritage Party.

Gradually, the Craswells’ visibility on public-policy matters waned.

“We are retired from politics,” she told a reporter in 2005. “We enjoyed it while we were in it, but now it’s time for another generation to carry the torch.”

In addition to her husband and grandchildren, Sen. Craswell’s survivors include two sons, Dick Craswell, of Palo Alto, Calif.; and Jim Craswell, of Poulsbo; and two daughters, Patty Johnson, of Poulsbo and Jill Solano, of Frisco, Texas.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Wednesday, April 16 at Christ Memorial Church in Poulsbo.

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or jbroom@seattletimes.com