Monday, April 14, 2014

A Sad Farewell to a Unique Political Reformer

By Jay Heck

The sudden speed with which it knocked him out of Wisconsin politics after 44 years in the Legislature was shocking enough.

But the content of the conversation contained in the secret video taken of longtime State Senator Michael Ellis, filmed without his knowledge at a bar on the Capitol Square, hit me like a blindside kick in the stomach.

His discussion about setting up a “hypothetical" outside spending group, funded by wealthy long-time Ellis supporters, to attack his Democratic opponent, State Representative Penny Bernard Schaber, seemed absolutely inconceivable to me.

It’s an illegal scheme, of course. But that’s not what was most shocking to me. What really hurt was that he would even conceive of doing something like that.

I first met Mike Ellis in 1988 when I moved to Madison from Washington, D.C. to work in the Capitol for the Senate Majority Leader at that time – State Senator Joe Strohl, a Democrat from Racine. Ellis was the assistant Republican Senate Leader, and it was quickly evident that he was among the smartest in a State Senate that had a lot of very smart people back then, counting among its members: Russ Feingold, Joe Leean, Lynn Adelman, Brian Rude, Chuck Chvala, Margaret Farrow, Gary George, Mordecai Lee and others. Bright, intelligent lawmakers.

I got to know Mike Ellis fairly well and when I became the leader of Common Cause in Wisconsin in 1996, I talked to him often – and beginning in 1999 – on a very regular basis.

As Senate Majority Leader, Ellis wielded tremendous power and clout, but he also wanted to undertake far-reaching and comprehensive campaign finance reform for Wisconsin.


Ellis was and is a fiercely independent legislator who absolutely despised the fact that very deep-pocketed special interest groups of both the right and the left could dump hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars influencing elections and in doing so could, as Ellis phrased it, “sink their claws” into legislators and thereby control them and run the Legislature.

Ellis supported all the key elements of serious and effective campaign finance reform: disclosure of donors, public financing, tighter restrictions on when fundraising could occur, elimination of legislative leadership campaign committees, limits on PACs and conduits. But the overwhelming motivating force behind Ellis’ passionate advocacy for reform was to be able to counter the money and influence of outside spending groups.

That’s why Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the Wisconsin Realtors, Wisconsin Right to Life and later, the other huge outside spenders in Wisconsin politics like Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity (Koch Brothers) – all of the right wing groups – all opposed and hated Ellis with the same vehemence as did the Democratic-leaning outside groups like WEAC (teachers), AFSCME (public employees) and the AFL-CIO and later the Greater Wisconsin Committee.

That’s the very reason Common Cause in Wisconsin was very proud to stand with Mike Ellis. We felt (and still feel) the same way he did about these “800-pound Gorillas” as they were called.

Some are more like 8 tons, now.

And that’s what hurt so much when I heard Ellis talking about setting up that same kind of “gorilla” to attack Penny Bernard Schaber in the right-wing hit piece video concocted by out-of-state political assassin and cheap-shot artist, James O’Keefe.

Ellis’ enthusiasm for campaign finance reform seemed to wane precipitously in 2010 – shortly after the infamous 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. Even the effective disclosure legislation that he introduced with long-time campaign finance reform partner, State Senator Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton), never went anywhere after 2011. I don’t think Ellis put much effort in advancing or even promoting it. His heart didn’t seem to be in it anymore and he directed his considerable intellect and persuasive powers to other issues.

And so it’s been a while since we worked together. But for ten years, it was a strong and effective partnership.

Mike Ellis should be remembered as the “father” and brains behind the establishment of the nation’s only non-partisan, independent state agency charged with overseeing elections and ethics – the Government Accountability Board – which was finally established in 2007. Ellis worked very closely with Common Cause in Wisconsin beginning in late 2002, after the Legislative Caucus Scandal to shape and advance the G.A.B. legislation – which was finally passed with overwhelming, bipartisan support – including that of some legislators who now seek to weaken it because they despise its independence.

For years, Senator Mike Ellis was the “go to” legislator for political reform. And we were proud to be with him through most, if not all of it. We honored Ellis in 2005, along with former Wisconsin U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, at a big event in Milwaukee attended by more than 500 people, for their bipartisan achievements in advancing political reform.

That was before bipartisanship and compromise became grounds for political dismemberment, as they are now.

After the almost Greek-like tragedy of the past week begins to recede in memory – and it will – I hope Mike Ellis will become active again in the increasingly urgent quest to reform Wisconsin politics and to clean up state government. There is so much to do.

He has much still to contribute.

Jay Heck is the state director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, the state’s largest non-partisan, non-profit political reform advocacy organization.

Phone: 608-256-2686; Email address:;

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