Death of a majority maverick

The Post~Crescent in Appleton passes on this sad news:

Former state senator Michael Ellis, an influential figure in state and Neenah politics for four decades, has died.

Mark Ellis, his brother, confirmed that he died Friday morning at age 77.

“The public that knows Mike knows he was not so much a politician, he was just Mike,” Mark Ellis said. “And by that I mean, right is right, wrong is wrong. And if he disagreed with either party, he would be vocal, and so that meant that sometimes even his own party was not happy with him.”

He remembered his brother as a down-to-earth legislator who did his homework before coming to a conclusion and worked across the political aisle. He first ran for Neenah City Council in 1969, kicking off a decades-long tenure in public service, Mark Ellis said.

A Republican from Neenah, Michael Ellis spent 44 years in the Legislature — 12 in the Assembly and 32 in the Senate. He held stints as Senate majority leader, minority leader and president.

U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman called Ellis “an independent voice in an occupation short of independent voices.”

Grothman teamed up with Ellis when the two were in the state Senate and their fellow Republicans resisted their attempts to tighten payday lending regulations.

“I can’t think of an ally you wanted more in the state Senate than Mike Ellis because he was fearless, never intimidated by other politicians or by high-priced lobbyists,” Grothman said.

Wearing dark aviator glasses whether inside or outside, Ellis was as comfortable in his Senate office and the halls of the Capitol as he was the Avenue Bar in Madison and Payne’s Point Bar & Grill in Neenah.

As a senator, Ellis was instrumental in putting limits on how much school districts could raise in property taxes.

A long-time champion of campaign finance reform, Ellis was a key force behind the creation of the Government Accountability Board, an agency meant to strongly enforce campaign finance laws. The board’s critics argued it overreached and GOP lawmakers dissolved the board seven years after it was formed.

The idea for the board was first jotted down on a bar napkin, said long-time Ellis aide Mike Boerger.

“He handled me the cocktail napkin and said, ‘Get this drafted,'” Boerger said.

A budget hawk, Ellis and Republican Sen. Rob Cowles of Allouez coined the term “structural deficit” in the 1990s and established a way to monitor the long-term effects of budget decisions.

That approach helped lawmakers from both parties see the consequences of their financial decisions. A former high school math teacher, Ellis kept a chalkboard in his office on which he sketched out budget ideas.

“He cared very much about doing something about deficits and government spending. You look around now and that’s kind of a rare commodity these days,” said former GOP Sen. Dale Schultz of Richland Center.

Ellis was known for his spitfire personality as much as his policy views. He relished teasing lawmakers and reporters. Sometimes he would bend the truth as “a technique to get people off balance,” Schultz said.

Ellis usually got along with Democrats, but clashed with them at times, such as when he banged his gavel as Senate president so hard in 2013 that it broke during a debate over abortion restrictions.

He sought re-election in 2014, but dropped his bid and announced his retirement plans after a secretly recorded video was released showing Ellis in a bar talking about setting up an illegal campaign group to attack his opponent.

At the time, he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel he was leaving office in part because he was frustrated by how polarized the Legislature had become.

“There isn’t room for independent thinking and compromise,” he said then. “There’s no room on the street anymore for people to walk down the middle of the road.”

As news spread, Republicans and Democrats alike expressed sadness at his passing and noted his deep impact on the state and the Fox Valley. They also described him as a unique and witty force in the halls of the Capitol and the Fox Valley community.

Cowles called Ellis “a very dedicated public servant (and) big thinker” who was focused on state finances.

“He would know more about the budget than the governor would know about the budget,” he said in an interview.

Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson said in a statement that he was devastated by Mike Ellis’ death. Nelson called him “a favorite son of the Fox Valley” and said his sense of service and commitment to the community were unrivaled.

“Quite simply, there will be no other,” Nelson said in the statement. “Senator Ellis will be sorely missed but his influence will be felt for years to come.”

He spoke in layman’s terms and had a deep commitment to serving his constituents —not political ambitions, Mark Ellis said.

Mark Ellis, who followed his brother into public service, was among those whom Michael Ellis mentored. State Sen. Roger Roth, R-Appleton, also remembered him this way.

“Mike was a dedicated public servant, a highly respected colleague, and a good friend,”  Roth said in statement. “He was a tremendous mentor to me and I knew I could look to him for guidance on any issue. His breadth of knowledge and experience always kept him two steps ahead of everyone.”

Ellis’ cause of death had not been determined, but the belief Friday was that he had died in his sleep, his brother said.

In a statement, Gov. Scott Walker called Ellis “a giant in the Legislature and a bigger-than-life personality in Wisconsin politics.” Walker praised his wit and passion, saying he will be missed.

Martha Laning, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said in a statement that Ellis was a “passionate advocate and leader for the people of the Fox Valley through and through.”

Republican Party of Wisconsin Chairman Brad Courtney said in a statement that Ellis “was a tireless fighter who spent his career advocating for the Fox Valley.”

State Rep. Amanda Stuck, D-Appleton, said in a statement that Ellis’ impact in Madison and the Fox Cities continues to this day. He was never afraid to call out bad ideas from either party and stood up for the people of the Fox Valley and his district, she said.

For State Rep. Dave Murphy, R-Greenville, Ellis was a mentor who he said in a statement welcomed him to the Legislature. It was an “incredible privilege” to serve with Ellis, whom Murphy described as having the same drive as ever last month when he spoke at one of Murphy’s events.

“It’s difficult to believe that he’s gone, as his colorful football metaphors are still ringing in my ears,” Murphy said in the statement. “He will be missed.”

The Wisconsin State Journal in Madison adds:

Senate President Roger Roth, R-Appleton, who succeeded Ellis in the Fox Valley Senate seat, described him as someone who put his district before politics, unafraid to challenge members of his own party and work across the aisle.

“Someone once told me that Mike Ellis wasn’t just the leader of the Senate, he was the Senate,” Roth said in a statement. “No matter what was happening in the Capitol, Mike knew about it and was already working it out. He has left a lasting impression on this state because of his strong personality and dedication to public service.” …

Members of the state Senate passed a resolution in March 2016 honoring Ellis.

“Why would they want to honor me? Most of them hated me,” Ellis quipped when he learned of the vote.

He joked that the Senate might “name the bathroom on the third floor after me.”

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, praised Ellis as a friend and mentor who dedicated his career to making Wisconsin a better place to live.

“Everything I learned about leadership and politics I learned from Senator Ellis,” Fitzgerald said in a statement. “Mike’s personality and character were only outmatched by his dedication to public service. He ferociously fought for his constituents and his district, even when it meant challenging his own caucus or negotiating a deal that seemed impossible to reach.” …

“We were political adversaries but private friends the entire time,” said Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, a former Senate President who spent 44 years with Ellis in the Legislature.

Risser described Ellis as a “well-versed and articulate legislator and a good representative to his constituents.” …

At the end of his political life, Ellis told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he had no regrets about his career. He lamented the growing partisan polarization in Madison and said he didn’t fit in in an environment where there “isn’t room for independent thinking and compromise.”

In a 2015 interview with the Appleton Post Crescent, Ellis said the only legacy with which he was concerned was having the ability to look in the mirror and say, “I did the best I could.”

The best way to describe Ellis politically is “majority maverick,” similar to Schultz. When the Republicans were in the minority in the Senate, Ellis and Schultz almost always voted with their GOP colleagues. When the Republicans were in the majority, especially a narrow majority … well, that then depended on the situation. They were certainly not afraid to buck their party when their party was in charge.

Here’s an example: Ellis was the Senate majority leader when Miller Park legislation was being considered by the Legislature, including the five-county 0.1-percent sales tax. The legislation was pushed by Gov. Tommy Thompson. (Recall his famous “stick it to Milwaukee” statement.) Ellis was opposed to the legislation. And yet Ellis worked in the Senate to get it passed. Yes, he worked to get passed a bill that he opposed.

I got to know Mike and Mark Ellis through Marketplace Magazine. I once called Mike about a story, expecting maybe 15 minutes of interview. Forty-five minutes later, I was still talking to him. Mike forgot more than most people knew about state politics, and he was a fascinating guy to watch and talk to, in part because you never knew for sure what you were gong to get from him. In this era of political and media consultants, Mike Ellis was an unvarnished original.

From the perspective of either someone in the media or someone who spends too much time observing politics, there are not enough people like Mike Ellis in politics, and now the irreplaceable original is gone.



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