MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Former longtime state Senate President Mike Ellis, a legend in Wisconsin politics known for his tinted glasses, bad toupee and encyclopedic knowledge of the state budget, died Friday.
Ellis’ brother Mark Ellis said he appears to have died in his sleep at home in Neenah. He was 77.
Ellis was a true character, short in stature but oversized in personality. He served from 1970 until 2014 in the Legislature, a tenure that spanned eight governors and began when current Gov. Scott Walker was just 3 years old.
“He was a giant in the Legislature and a bigger-than-life personality in Wisconsin politics,” Walker said in a statement. “I enjoyed serving with him as a lawmaker and as governor. We were just on the radio together recently and I love his wit and passion.”
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald called the fellow Republican Ellis a friend and mentor and credited him with “everything I learned about leadership and politics.”
“Mike’s personality and character were only outmatched by his dedication to public service,” Fitzgerald said. “He ferociously fought for his constituents and his district, even when it meant challenging his own caucus or negotiating a deal that seemed impossible to reach.”
Ellis described himself as a “moderate to conservative but independent voice.” While usually a reliable Republican vote, he wasn’t afraid to break ranks on occasion, like when he opposed Walker on expanding the private school voucher program and cutting funding for public schools.
He also tried to persuade Walker to soften the Act 10 anti-union law, but was unsuccessful and ultimately voted for the measure in 2011.
Ellis joked about his toupee and was known for his booming voice, political acumen, office chalk board covered with budget calculations and sense of humor. He served as majority leader three times and as Senate president twice, including his last four years in the Senate.
Ellis often made headlines for his colorful behavior. In 2013, he angrily shouted down Democrats and banged the gavel so hard that it broke the base during a debate over abortion.
But he was always the first one willing to sit down with Democrats for a beer after a public debate had ended.
Ellis opted not to seek re-election after a secretly recorded video was made public by Project Veritas. The conservative advocacy group recorded Ellis talking in a bar near the state Capitol about an illegal campaign scheme. Ellis later said he didn’t pursue the idea after realizing it was illegal, but that the release of the video was the “tipping point” that drove him into retirement.
When he announced his decision, Ellis bemoaned that “compromise is not valued in today’s Capitol environment.” He signed off with a line from a Beach Boys song: “I just wasn’t made for these times.”
Associated Press writer Todd Richmond contributed to this story.
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