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He lost a primary election but found some hope

Dec. 4, 2022 Updated Mon., Dec. 5, 2022 at 9:10 p.m.

By Kathy Hedberg Lewiston Tribune

On May 18, the day after the Idaho primary election, Sen. Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville, got what was probably the worst news of his life.

It wasn’t the news that he’d lost his senate seat to Cindy Carlson of Riggins.

A few months earlier Crabtree had started to have trouble swallowing. He didn’t think much of it at first; just decided to drink more water. But before long he was having to blend up all his food to get anything down.

He’d already conquered diabetes two years earlier with medication and diet.

A year after that he’d gone in for his regular physical and a test revealed he had prostate cancer. He had surgery and came out feeling like he was over the hump.

And then the swallowing problem arose amid a hectic legislative session.

“And you’re getting no sleep,” he said. “I am working 24/7 – the load I took on was excessive. Now I’ve got to run a campaign and I’ve got no energy. I can’t swallow, I’ve lost 40 pounds – it’s like, this is rough.”

On the day after the election – his 70th birthday – when it was clear Carlson had beaten him, Crabtree went in for a medical consultation regarding the swallowing problem.

“I met with the guys and they said, ‘Hey, you’ve got stage 4 cancer. You’re going to die in six months.’

“Now, you want to know about hard times? (I’m) going, ‘What election? I don’t even care about an election.’ ”

The diagnosis was esophageal cancer, which is usually fatal. In addition, the cancer had spread to his bones and his lymph nodes.

Crabtree said his doctors told him the stress he’d put himself under since being elected to the Idaho Legislature was a major factor in his health failure.

His doctors told him: “You can either die in six months or 12. You can do chemotherapy and that will extend your life six months, based on the averages.’ Well, I’m going for the long-range plan.”

Immediately he started chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

Crabtree was first elected in 2016 and served on the Senate’s education, transportation and finance committees. During his tenure he has been an ardent supporter of public education and sponsored a successful bill to include kindergarten in the state education budget. He also promoted legislation that would require testing students for dyslexia – a reading disability that affects about 20% of students statewide. That passed both houses unanimously.

He has promoted increased transportation funding that has contributed to the improvements on U.S. Highway 95 in north central Idaho. And he is a strong proponent of expanding broadband access to rural Idaho.

“I see broadband as a big equalizer for rural Idaho,” Crabtree said. “If we can’t have the same connectivity as Boise then we won’t have the same health care system; we won’t have the same education system; we won’t have the same business situation. We have to be equal and we have to have legislators who will fight for that.”

Crabtree grew up near Kooskia and has a keen awareness of some of the disadvantages rural areas have compared to the more populous areas of the state.

“North Idaho has always had a chip on their shoulder that they get beat up by the Boise people,” Crabtree said. In past years, when he served on governing boards for state and national cattle associations, he learned to deal with those disparities.

“You do that by outworking them,” he said. “And then you find out what you have in common and then discuss the differences with them last instead of first.”

It was an approach he used in the Legislature and part of what allowed him to successfully represent District 7. During his three terms in the senate Crabtree sponsored about 30 bills per year – more than any of his contemporaries – and all of which have been signed by the governor.

The loss of the election was a blow but his fragile health put things into a different perspective. Shortly after his diagnosis, Rep. Neil Anderson, R-Rexburg, with whom Crabtree had served on the legislative finance committee, gave him a call.

“So Neil calls up and he says, ‘Hey, Carl, I hear you’re having a little health trouble.’ I said, ‘Yeah, you could say that.’

“We talked about the weather and then pretty soon he said, ‘Carl, you ever read the dictionary much?’ Only he would say something like that. I said: ‘No, not as regular as I probably should.’

“He goes, ‘You know, there’s a word in there: miracle. You ever hear of that?’ I go, ‘Yeah, I believe I have.’ He said, ‘You know why it’s in there? Because it happens.’

“Well, it struck me like you wouldn’t believe,” Crabtree said.

Throughout the summer and early fall Crabtree continued treatment. And then about a month ago, doctors tested the results of the immunotherapy. All of the cancer in his bones and lymph nodes had vanished, they said. There was still a little cancer in the esophagus but two weeks later, following another treatment, he got the news that even that was gone. All was clear. He was cancer-free.

“The doctors said this happens 1% to 2% of the time. Talk about a lucky dog, eh?”

These days Crabtree is back home in Grangeville, tending his cattle and doing what he has to do to stay healthy. Doctors have told him he must continue the immunotherapy for two more years to make sure the cancer does not return.

But somewhere down the road he expects to return to public service.

“This has been a wonderful experience representing the people of District 7,” he said. “I did the best I could possibly do – better than I hoped I could do. But it’s been an important experience in my life to try to help these people in the area from which I came. Because I was raised here. And this has been a wonderful experience of learning things I never knew and using the skills that I developed over my life.”

Hedberg may be contacted at

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