A refusal to die in the darkness

July 10, 1994|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Sun Staff Writer

For six years, until 1991, Victor L. Crawford lobbied to protect the right to smoke. And he was good at it.

Tall, debonair, with a trial attorney's flair for language, Mr. Crawford says flatly that he "did it for the money." A former Maryland state senator who used to smoke 2 1/2 packs a day, he says he was paid well to fight bills that would limit smoking.

"Health Nazis," he glibly labeled the groups arrayed against the tobacco interests. "Yeah, yeah," he says with a dismissive wave. "I argued freedom of choice and all that. You have the right to smoke if youwant to. Yeah, I said it all."

He pauses. "I did a lot of damage."

He is sitting in a coffee shop at Johns Hopkins Hospital, fresh from the bustling oncology center, where his fellow patients await their round of chemotherapy, their dose of radiation. Some are bald from the drugs. Some sit weakly in wheelchairs. Some appear robust, their looks belying the illness within.

Now, Victor Crawford says, he's lobbying on behalf of those patients, trying to make up for the years he spent in the pay of thetobacco interests.

Last month, he stunned a legislative committee in Annapolis by standing to testify in favor of new regulations that would ban most smoking in Maryland workplaces.

"I know what [tobacco] is," he told the committee. "And it is a killer."

In September, doctors in Washington examined Mr. Crawford and said they were very sorry. Three weeks, they said. Three months if he was lucky. They'd done all they could for his cancer, a marauder that had charged from his throat to his pelvic bones and now was in his lungs and liver.

Today, he is in an experimental chemotherapy program at Hopkins, where he has been taking the drug taxol. The CAT scans no longer find tumors in his lungs and liver. But the drug has caused such numbness in his hands and feet that he fears more treatment will leave him in a wheelchair.

Last week, he and his doctors decided to forgo the prescribed 12th round of treatment. He says the prognosis is "good." He has "months, maybe a year, maybe years," his doctors tell him.

And in the time he has left, Mr.Crawford, 62, is trying to undo some of the damage he believes he did as a smooth, successful lobbyist.

"Unless you've been through it, you don't know what it's like to lie in a hospital bed for eight days with lead shields around you, and nobody can visit you -- not even the nurses -- for more than five minutes at a time because they've put a radioactive implant in your neck.

"You look at the muscles in your legs, that you were so proud of, reduced to this" -- he brings the fingers of both hands together to form a narrow circle -- "because of atrophy.

"Nobody should go through what I've gone through," he says. "Even if you've done it to yourself."

Good money'

Victor Crawford spent 16 years in the Maryland legislature, representing Montgomery County as a delegate and later as a senator until he retired in 1982. He enjoyed the Annapolis power brokering.

"He was a wheeler-dealer who just threw himself into the Annapolis scene and just put himself at the center of everything," says Montgomery state Senator Howard A. Denis, a Republican.

"I remember someone describing Victor as the closest thing we had to a riverboat gambler: cowboy boots, pinky ring, vest and gold watch," says Montgomery Del. John A. Hurson, a Democrat, who calls Mr. Crawford a mentor.

When he left Annapolis, Mr. Crawford decided to lobby to supplement the income from his Rockville law practice, which focuses on criminal law.

"He was very white-hat," representing good guys such as the Olney Theater, says Linda Crawford, his wife of 12 years. But the white hats generally don't have big lobbying budgets.

"I figured the big money was with the black hats," he says. He was approached by the tobacco industry and he said yes. "Nobody twisted my arm. I knew what I was doing."

He lobbied for the Tobacco Institute and related interests in Montgomery County and at the state level from 1986 to 1991.

"It was good money," he says.

"It wasn't that good," Ms. Crawford says. Later, she estimates that over six years her husband earned $15,000 to $20,000 from the industry. "It looked good at the time," he says.

He did a fine job, fighting to weaken anti-smoking bills. He fought nonsmoking areas in restaurants, bans on workplace smoking, laws against smoking in elevators. If he couldn't defeat the measures, he got them watered down. "We won more than we lost," he says.

He knew all about smoking. He'd taken up cigarettes at 13. Even then, long before the U.S. surgeon general began to crusade against cigarettes and years before he would understand the hell of cancer, Mr. Crawford knew that smoking was bad.

In his late 30s, he gave up cigarettes for cigars and pipes. Three or four years ago, he gave up the pipes.

"I thought I was out of the woods," he says. "We're all in denial. We all think it will happen to the other guy." Then it happened to him.

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