Senate President Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, stung by an undercover video released this week showing him discussing illegal campaign tactics, won’t seek re-election this year.
Ellis, 73, a blustery budget hawk who staked out moderate positions on some issues that rankled members of his own party, was first elected to the Senate in 1982 and served in the Assembly before that since 1970.
In a statement, Ellis said he was following in the footsteps of Tim Cullen, Bob Jauch and Dale Schultz, who also are retiring after decades in the Legislature.
“I see that compromise is not valued in today’s Capitol environment, and that means I don’t fit in anymore,” Ellis said. “Special interests hold too much sway, instead of the voice of the people. I’m a senator from a different era, and I value my integrity too much to compromise it any more.”
Ellis said in an interview with the Associated Press on Friday that the decision not to run had been coming for a while, but the undercover video’s release put him over the top.
“It was the tipping point,” he said.
The video, released Wednesday by a conservative activist group, included audio of Ellis talking about creating a Super PAC to run negative ads against his Democratic opponent, Rep. Penny Bernard Schaber of Appleton.
Ellis acknowledged Wednesday he discussed the idea but quickly scrapped it after learning it was illegal.
That statement drew skepticism from many, given Ellis’ strong support for campaign finance reform. In 2010, he told the Appleton Post-Crescent that the types of ads he describes in the video are “the biggest cancer in our election system.”
Questions also remain about why James O’Keefe and Project Veritas targeted Ellis using fake identities and a hidden camera. The group’s video released Wednesday includes audio of Ellis that was secretly recorded several months ago.
O’Keefe is notorious for his hidden camera operation and heavily edited videos targeting the liberal activist group ACORN, National Public Radio and Planned Parenthood.
With his tinted glasses and bad toupee, which he frequently joked about, Ellis was known for his vast knowledge of the state budget, booming voice and political acumen. He was elected majority leader three times and minority leader three times during a career spanning 44 years, second-longest among current senators behind Fred Risser, D-Madison.
Ellis worked behind the scenes as a power broker and at times a maverick, forcing Republicans this past session to amend proposals to cut taxes, expand private school vouchers and shorten early voting.
He also courted controversy while cameras were rolling. In 2012, he was caught on video disparaging a Green Bay high school and last June he shouted down Democrats and banged his gavel so hard it broke the base during debate on an abortion bill.
In one of the Project Veritas recordings, Ellis brags that he is running the Senate, rather than Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau.
“My focus has always been to build the strongest majority possible to best serve the taxpayers of Wisconsin,” Fitzgerald said in a statement Friday.
Fitzgerald said he was beginning the process of speaking with potential candidates, “all of whom are reform-minded conservatives that will work to advance common sense solutions to further strengthen our state’s economy.”
Former state Rep. Roger Roth said Friday he is considering a possible run for Ellis’ seat. Former Rep. Steve Wieckert is also considering a possible run, a spokesman said.
“Senator Ellis spent his life proudly serving the people of the Fox Valley and all of Wisconsin, and I wish him nothing but the best during his retirement,” Roth said.
Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, called on Republicans to remove Ellis as Senate President.
“The people of Wisconsin are sick of the culture of corruption in Madison,” Larson said. “We need to end the days of pay-to-play governing and do-anything-to-stay-in-power politics utilized by current Republican leaders. Mike Ellis not running for re-election is a good start, but he needs to be held accountable by those in his party who elected him head of the Senate.”
— State Journal reporter Mary Spicuzza and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
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