Monday, April 14, 2014


By Dominique Paul Noth

Ellis leaving, but with memorable full head of steam.
After putting a ham-sized fist in his mouth on video – again! –  and insulting his own Republican colleagues even as he revealed his ignorance about voting laws April 9, Wisconsin Senate President Mike Ellis had no other course two days later than to announce he would not run for re-election for Neenah area District 19. 

But the reasons he gave in radio interviews  and to reporters  actually don’t hold up (basically, "it was sure foolish but doesn’t everyone have a right to talk nonsense to a gathering in a bar?"). Such excuses speak volumes about the mendacity that the public has come to associate with politicians.

It took Gov. Scott Walker, a fellow victim of speaking too preeningly to a secret taper, to really pinpoint the hypocrisy game the public has rightly begun to hate. 

Walker says Ellis’ remarks were distressing (perhaps because they included sarcastic comments about Walker being all about Walker). But back in a notorious 2011 chat with someone he thought was billionaire David Koch, Walker was full of boasts and self-delusion about his own importance.  His ego still enlivens the hit parade on YouTube --  in two parts!   

Also that year, as the “As Goes Janesville” documentary later revealed, Walker promised a major donor on video he would push for “right to work” legislation after he got through dismantling public sector unions. The transcript is agonizingly embarrassing

Now with the Ellis case, Walker pronounces a new level of  caution – don’t say out loud what you personally believe.  In other words, lie more adroitly.  He has learned, he says, that anything can be on tape so be careful.  A fair paraphrase: Don’t speak in public all those ugly hopes, planning and thinking you do in private.  

At least Ellis, the Neenah Republican who has been in the legislature since 1970, openly revealed his fears and fly-by-night thought process.  He was already facing a hot and heavy state senate test against a strong campaigner, Democratic Rep. Penny Bernard Schaber.

An advertising image lost.
Everyone who has covered state politics knows his tendency to boast about his prowess off the cuff, sober or not, and he has been exposed on video again and again for such excesses. One Democratic adviser told Schaber months ago that her entire TV campaign should be showing the real Ellis on the senate podium screaming at opponents of ultra sound probes for pregnant women to sit down and shut up. 

Well, now TV won’t have Ellis to kick around anymore. The chosen GOP leader for voter regulation laws was caught on tape suggesting he should use his own fund-raiser to set up a super PAC to raise money against Schaber, even including names of the rich Republican backers (operators of Mills Fleet Farm among them) that would be solicited for money.  He had to know that the idea was illegal – the remaining court firewall is that PACs can’t openly coordinate with candidates. It’s even worse if he didn’t know since he is the senate leader on campaign laws.

In that video he went on to declare himself more important to the Senate than elected GOP leader  Scott Fitzgerald or even that other Scott, the governor.  It’s so devastating a video that there is a short version for people who can’t believe the highlights 
 and then an unedited hour-plus version to confirm the worst. 

Deception exposed him as it did Walker, this time from the right while Walker’s came from a radio trickster.  Even Democrats were glad to see Ellis destroyed but remained troubled by the motives and the source -- James O’Keefe, who claims his Project Veritas pursues corruption wherever the video cameras find it but gets money and attention from notorious hate groups of the right-wing. 

O’Keefe is a proud professional liar, pretending to be something he is not. That’s how he posed as a pimp to get video (heavily edited to fit his pre-conclusions) on ACORN, which helped shutter the national reform community organization for low income families.

In this case, the media reports, Project Veritas pretended to be the son of an Ellis supporter to capture the ugliness on tape at the Inn on the Park bar near the Capitol in Madison, a watering hole where Ellis’ tendency to let down his hair has got him into trouble before.  This is known in the media business as low-hanging fruit. It is also known as using methods that violate journalism ethics.

Among the interested listeners, though he has denied absorbing the details, was state Sen. Glenn Grothman who intends to run for Tom Petri’s US House seat grabbing the same extreme right money that Ellis offended. 

All that loose talk, combined with discussion of GOP bigwigs owning valuable  lake property,  left Ellis no recourse than to abandon the re-election race.  Now he paints himself as another “independent thinker” being pushed out by the Republican Party machinery.

 Given the source of the exposure – O’Keefe and his tactics – there seems some validation.  Ellis took the common sense course – as did several quieter Republicans, more than the media unveiled  – of opposing expanded spending for private voucher schools, which drew the wrath of the powerful lobbyists of American Federation for Children. So did opposition to  another bill close to Sen. Leah Vukmir and other Tea Party groups to gut educational Common Core standards.

So clearly there were big money forces that wanted him out, though they deny coordinating with O’Keefe. But it sure signaled that O’Keefe had a receptive right-wing audience for a stealth attack.  Ellis certainly believes, as he told Wisconsin Eye, that he was set up after multiple efforts. 

 Ellis now tries to paint himself as one of those few  honorable traditionalists  forced out by extremists, saying there was “no room on the street anymore for people to walk down the middle of the road."  But while there have been episodes of math common sense from Ellis, immediately his self-inflation was labeled as nonsense by watchers of the legislature, noting how despite his loose tongue Ellis was given the presidency because he could push  through the party line and was dismissively arrogant in his treatment of opponents.  Remember, this is the same party that elected Bill Kramer Assembly leader despite warnings about his annoying tongue and loose fingers.

Penny Bernard Schaber
 -- GOP scrambling to find
an opponent for a notable campaigner.
Madison reporters were  particularly amused when Ellis likened his work in the Senate to three others departing out of age or sadness with the tone of politics  – Tim Cullen, Bob Jauch (Democrats) and Republican Dale Schultz.  Ideology aside, they were considered true listeners and negotiators. Ellis was not.  But now he seeks to wrap himself in their aura.

Schaber took the high road saying she was sad to see Ellis leave on such a “sour note.”  But she knows the Republicans are scrambling to find an opponent to pour all the ready money into the race (there are four likely opponents already)  and knows that voucher school advocates are particularly poised to fund any opponent.  Schaber’s team laughingly admits they now have to scrap an ad campaign built around Ellis’ video blunders.

But here’s what Ellis didn’t learn and Walker pretends to have learned. Rather than seeking  better hearts and minds to occupy public office,  he needs the GOP to find candidates with tighter lips, obedience  built into their DNA and smiles that never reach the eyes.

For 10 years the author, Dominique Paul Noth, served as editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press until its demise in 2013 and continues to freelance to many publications as well as write for his own websites. A professional journalist since the 1960s he has won multiple cultural and political journalism awards and for nearly two decades was film and drama critic before serving as  senior editor at the Milwaukee Journal. His theater reviews appear at Third Coast Daily.

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