In memoriam: Happy Fernandez and H. Craig Lewis

It always frustrates me when people dismiss all politicians as phonies or, worse, crooks.

Some are not. Some are decent people motivated by a sincere urge to serve, which they struggle to preserve inside a clamorous, corrupt system that constantly nudges them down darker paths.

But Team Decency has lost two of its best local players.

H. Craig Lewis and Happy Fernandez both died suddenly and shockingly in the last week.

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Lewis, who served with distinction as a state senator from Bucks County, died while on vacation in the British Virgin Islands. He was 68.

Fernandez, who served on Philadelphia City Council for seven years and was the first woman to make a serious run for mayor, died Saturday after suffering a massive stroke a few days before. She was 74.

Neither had been in elective office for a while. Each had found meaningful work after politics – Craig as an executive with Norfolk Southern, Happy as president of the Moore College of Art & Design.

Surviving ‘The Fishbowl’

I got to know each of them a bit when I served as editor of the Inquirer’s editorial board. Politicians trooped into the Fishbowl, as the board’s meeting room at the old Inquirer building was known, pretty often – to seek endorsement for election, or to push pet projects.

The Fishbowl prided itself on shining a penetrating light on the political visitor. The questioning that went on there amid the Naugahyde couches revealed many a candidate or lawmaker to be unprepared, shallow, petty or hollow.

But it showed others to be honorable, serious and solid. Craig Lewis and Happy Fernandez were in that latter group.

Each found ways to be effective without being mean-spirited, unethical or grandiose.

Happy’s nickname, and her gentle manner, belied her tough-minded dedication to getting things done. She never lost the sense of passionate advocacy, for better schools, for social justice, that first propelled her into elective politics.

And she never lost the competitive fire that made her a tough person to get a passing shot by on a tennis court.   It was an honor and pleasure to get to know her better during her years at Moore.

Craig Lewis I knew less well, but during my years on the editorial board he was one of the select few state lawmakers who had such universal respect among board members that he never had to worry about an endorsement interview. In the intervening years, when I’d see him at local events, he was unfailingly friendly and full of pithy observation about the political scene.

Good guys do go into politics sometimes. Some manage to serve long and well without losing their souls or their moral compass.

Craig Lewis and Happy Fernandez were two such.

The region today feels their loss.

May Craig’s wife, Diane, and Happy’s husband, Dick, know that the prayers of thousands whom their spouses touched with their lives are with them today.

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