Mike Ellis, RIP

State Sen. Mike Ellis’ 44-year career in state government ended in ignominy. Surreptitiously videotaped  in a barroom plotting to engage in the sort of illegal campaign tactics he once righteously denounced, the Neenah Republican saw the handwriting on the wall and meekly announced he wouldn’t seek his umpteenth re-election.

What a sad story. Ellis was a walking contradiction–simultaneously brilliant and crazy, both full of himself yet paralyzed by a fear of risk. In the end, Ellis showed himself to be another clueless politician who stayed too long at the fair. He was out of touch with the monochrome conservatism that rules the GOP these days, but lacked the guts to challenge its policies.

In January 2006, I wrote: “He could have been a contender. Instead he is a footnote.” I’ll stick by that assessment. That comment from eight years ago followed Ellis’ announcement that he would not challenge Jim Doyle, the incumbent Democratic  governor. The original links to two old Isthmus columns have been lost. But here’s part of what I said in June 2005, when I naively argued Ellis was well positioned to run an insurgent campaign for governor:

To talk politics with Mike Ellis, 64, is to talk substance, not tactics and wedge issues. He has a sweeping unified view of how Wisconsin has spun off the tracks and smashed into the wall -– and, more important, how it might yet regain its status as a leader among states.

Though he calls himself pro-life, Ellis ignores the familiar “guns, gays, God and feeding tubes” spiel of the GOP True Believers. Instead, he talks about Wisconsin’s unending fiscal crisis.

“We’re perpetually in hock,” he moans, noting that governors and lawmakers have cooked the books to balance the last six straight biennial budgets. “The papering over of the biennial budget deficit immediately throws the next budget into the red, so we can never do any serious reform because we don’t have the resources.”

Blame the pols, says Ellis. They’ve mortgaged their souls to the special interests who finance their campaigns. Doyle and the Democrats dance to the teachers’ union tune, while the Republicans take their cues from Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.

“We need to get the special interests out of the game,” Ellis says. “We need to use public money to fund elections. If we did that, the Legislature could break free from the tentacles of the special-interest groups. Then we could solve problem number one: bad budgeting.”

Now Ellis is warmed up, laughing and cracking jokes to his aides, looking Elvis-like beneath his sunglasses (a youthful swimming accident overexposed him to chlorine and makes him sensitive to bright lights).

Zeroing in on integrity issues, Ellis wants to merge the state’s election and ethics boards (“two toothless giants,” he sniffs), strengthen their powers, and let them root out trouble. “Legislators need to be afraid of something,” he says.

Then Ellis comes to the heavy lifting — restructuring school aid and local government finance. This is a policy area that typically sends lawmakers heading for the exits. This stuff is too hard, too complicated, too freighted with political dangers for the sound-bite rhetoric of the legislative leadership.

But Ellis is in his element. Long ago he was a teacher, and he delights in the exposition as he sketches out his Equity in Education Act, which would create a statewide levy to finance K-12 education, with add-ons for certain kinds of students and a facilities building commission reviewing capital projects.

“A kid in Crandon should get as good an education as a kid in a property-rich district like Neenah and Madison,” Ellis declares.

When it comes to shared revenue, Ellis would dump the current system and give local governments more latitude to decide what taxes to impose and services to provide. Real poor communities, he adds, would continue to get state aid.

Suddenly, Ellis looks up. “Jesus, I got a platform!” he exclaims, winking at staffers Mike Boerger and Kurt Schultz. “Where do I get the yard signs? I just came up with more goddamn good ideas than you’re going to hear out of Walker, Doyle — what’s that other guy’s name? — yeah, Green, him too.”

The full column can be found on the WisPolitics.com archive: http://wisopinion.com/index.iml?mdl=article.mdl&article=2158

In January 2006, I wrote a web post for The Daily Page (the Isthmus website), commenting on Ellis’ decision to not challenge Doyle. Here it is in its entirety:

Mike Ellis: No guts, no glory

Big surprise.

State Sen. Mike Ellis, the Neenah Republican, said last week he wouldn’t run for governor next fall.

Too expensive, he told the Appleton Post-Crescent. He needed at least $9 million to take on U.S. Rep. Mark Green and Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker for the GOP nomination.

But the real reason is more mundane. Mike Ellis (umm, how to put this politely) is a big wuss. He lacks (umm, how to put this politely) the guts to put his principles to the test. Instead the veteran lawmaker, 64, will probably seek another four-year term in the Senate, which puts him in line for an AARP commendation, a free cup of Sanka, and increasing irrelevance.

Look at it this way: Ellis has already served almost 24 years in the Senate. What possible attraction, other than force of habit, does four more years provide? The guy has chosen to give up his shot at greatness

It’s a real shame. On paper, Ellis is darn near the perfect gubernatorial candidate, someone who could pick off the legions of Democrats disgusted with Gov. Jim Doyle’s lack of leadership and the legions of Republicans horrified over their party’s descent into the cloud cuckooland of rightwing politics.

Old-timers at the Capitol will tell you that Ellis is the smartest lawmaker around. School finance, local government finance, criminal justice and more—Ellis can rattle off detailed plans that would spin the heads of Walker and Green.

Campaign finance reform, of course, is Ellis’ signature issue. For years, he’s been aligned with the good-government types, trying to lessen the steely grip of special interests on the machinery of state government. The recent convictions in the Capitol corruption investigation only highlight the need for a let’s-clean-up-the-mess candidacy that Ellis alone could run.

You would have thought that Ellis would have jumped into this mile-wide opening. But no, he claims he couldn’t raise the money for a statewide run. Oh, baloney. That’s a fig leaf for his wussiness. Time and again, Ellis has failed to reach out statewide, and across party lines, to build a reform coalition.

He could have been a contender.

Instead, he’s a footnote.

Nothing changed in the next eight years. Play Taps for his demise.

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