Ambush politics struck close to our backyard and it brought to end the 44-year career in Madison of state Sen. Michael Ellis, R-Neenah.
The practice of secret recordings is a mirror of doing a selfie – taking a picture of a personal memorable moment – as the intent is to catch the victim in an embarrassing act.
In Ellis’ downfall, it is the proverb, “God save me from my friends – I can protect myself from my enemies,” that came into play.
Ellis was heavily invested to retain his senate seat as evidenced by a mass mailing highlighting his career, credentials and fiscal history in the legislature.
The mailing arrived after his withdrawing from the election. It was convincing enough to return him to the senate, if people took time to read it and not deposit in file 13 as I do with most “junk mail.”
He was elected to the Assembly in 1970 and to the Senate in 1982.
Ellis has been one of the most fiscally conservative politicians in Wisconsin and has the ability of a former teacher to recite facts and figures rote.
But it was conservative activist James O’Keefe’s secret video recording, by Project Veritas at a Madison bar, of Ellis discussing an illegal political action committee to help in his race against state Rep. Penny Bernard Schaber, D-Appleton, that did him in.
Ellis is outspoken and relishes debating any subject, a characteristic Mike acquaintances are keenly aware.
The video shows O’Keefe’s crew baiting him with a combination of flattery and misleading statements. Ellis swallows the bait like a hungry largemouth bass.
Ellis told WTMJ radio’s Charlie Sykes, “I just don’t fit in there anymore. I grew up when you could be an independent thinker and still work out compromises.”
Today it is all in or bust with many PACs and special interests with singular issues.
Ellis challenged and brought about a compromise on Gov. Walker and Veritas plans to expand voucher schools statewide.
I met Mike shortly after arriving in New London in 1964 at the Rainbow Supper Club, a site for state meetings because of the U.S. 45-State 54 intersection.
Prudy Fletcher, a waitress, recalls Ellis and his wife Sandy were frequent visitors to the Rainbow, one of several commercial investments by her father, Dr. H.C. Schmallenberg.
Mike later became a regular source on politics and various issues before the state Legislature during my last three decades with the Post-Crescent.
Mike’s voice – deep and loud – belies his physical size and is ideal for talking to a room full of people. He speaks extemporaneously and is gifted, discussing budget issues, citing facts to substantiate his position.
Dennis Smith, then president of the Manawa school board, recalls an incident at a state meeting of school officials where some people complained about state financing of schools.
“Having been at prior meetings, I knew Mike had all the information in his head to dispute their figures. He did not disappoint,” Smith said, “citing all the various money the state invested in schools.”
Jay Heck, state director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, a nonpartisan advocacy organization, was surprised and saddened by the end of Ellis’ career.
Heck accurately points out Ellis is an equal opportunity target of such diverse groups as Wisconsin Right to Life, Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity and Democratic leading groups like Wisconsin Education Association Council, AFSCME (public employees union) and Greater Wisconsin Committee.
“Ellis’ enthusiasm for campaign finance reform seemed to wane precipitously in 2010 – shortly after the Citizens United vs. F.E.C. U.S. Supreme Court decision – which opened up the floodgates for outside spending and made it much more difficult to counter that kind of money,” Heck stated in a release.
“His heart didn’t seem to be in it (campaign finance reform) anymore, and he directed his considerable intellect and persuasive powers to other issues.”
Heck said Ellis should be remembered as the father and brains of the nation’s only nonpartisan, independent state agency charged with overseeing elections and ethics – the Government Accountability Board – established in 2007 by bipartisan support.
Heck added, “That was before bipartisanship and compromise became grounds for political dismemberment, as they are now.”
Ellis also forgot another old adage, “loose lips sink ships.” In his case it sank and tarnished an illustrious career.