MADISON (AP) – Republican state Senate President Mike Ellis abruptly announced Friday that he would no longer seek re-election, saying the release of a secret video recording of him discussing an illegal campaign scheme was the “tipping point.”
Ellis’ announcement means the end of a 44-year career in the Wisconsin Legislature that spanned eight governors and began when current Gov. Scott Walker was just 3-years-old. 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 served as majority leader three times and Senate president twice, including the past four years.
Ellis dropped out of his campaign just two days after the secretly recorded video was made public by Project Veritas. The national organization, led by conservative activist James O’Keefe, recorded Ellis about two weeks ago while talking at a bar near the state Capitol.
Ellis joins four other senators – Republican Dale Schultz and Democrats Bob Jauch, Tim Cullen and John Lehman – in retiring at the end of this year. Ellis, Schultz, Jauch and Cullen were all known for sometimes taking moderate positions that angered their parties.
“There’s no room for independent thinking and there’s no room for compromise,” Ellis said in an interview. “The art of the compromise, the ability to accept diverse thought, is just about dead on both sides. … I don’t fit in any more. I can’t fit in.”
Ellis, of Neenah, said that the decision not to run had been coming for a while, but the video’s release put him over the top.
“It was the tipping point,” he said.
In the recording, Ellis discusses creating a super PAC to spend money attacking his Democratic opponent, state Rep. Penny Bernard Schaber, of Appleton. State law bars candidates from coordinating with outside groups such as political action committees. After the video’s release, Ellis said he did not pursue the idea after realizing it was illegal.
Ellis was roundly criticized for even contemplating the idea, which Democrats said he clearly should have known was not allowed because he’s been an outspoken opponent of PAC spending in elections and has been a leader in writing the state’s campaign finance laws over more than 40 years.
Ellis, 73, was first elected to the state Assembly in 1970 and served there until he was elected to the Senate in 1982. He is the second-longest serving member of the Legislature, behind only Democratic Sen. Fred Risser, who has been in office since 1957. Risser is the longest-serving state lawmaker in the United States.
As Senate president, Ellis exerts power over the setting of the chamber’s agenda and frequently presided over debate. Ellis made headlines last year for angrily shouting down Democrats and banging the gavel so hard that it broke the base during an abortion debate.
Ellis has described himself as a “moderate to conservative but independent voice.” He opposed Walker’s proposals related to expanding the school voucher program and cutting funding for public schools.
Ellis also tried to persuade Walker to ease off his confrontation with unions in 2011, but Walker refused and Ellis ultimately voted for the GOP governor’s plan that effectively ended collective bargaining for most public workers.
Ellis cited his work in helping to pass bills this year to reduce the cost of oral chemotherapy drugs and another to legalize a marijuana extract to help children with seizures as two of his biggest accomplishments.
Ellis is second in power only to Republican Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald. In recent years, Ellis has frequently been at odds with Fitzgerald and other more conservative Republicans, including Walker.
Walker’s spokeswoman said the governor did not plan to comment. Earlier Friday, before Ellis announced his decision, Walker called the video “disturbing.”
Fitzgerald issued a statement that didn’t mention Ellis and instead attacked Schaber and said he was in the process of recruiting “reform-minded conservatives” to run against the Democratic candidate.
Schaber said the race isn’t about Ellis.
“I want to convince voters to vote for me, rather than vote against someone else,” Schaber said.
Associated Press writers Gretchen Ehlke and Dinesh Ramde in Milwaukee, and Taylor W. Anderson in Madison contributed to this report.