My relationship with Mike Ellis got off to a serendipitous start in 1978.
That was the year that Mike and Lee Dreyfus crossed paths for the first time. They liked each other. Their political lives were idea driven. They both wanted the government that they had been elected to serve to work better in many ways for as many of us as possible.
The tragic, too early death of 6th District Congressman Bill Steiger in the fall of 1978 set off a chain of events that worked to Mike’s advantage. Almost all of the members of the Assembly who had a better call on leadership there and who lived in the 6th District, including the formidable Tommy Thompson, jumped into the special election race to succeed Steiger.
While they were otherwise engaged, the Assembly met and organized for business. One of the choice openings in that arcane, surreptitious process was choosing Assembly members for the always powerful Joint Finance Committee. Dreyfus and his minions suggested Mike for the job.
This gave Mike the firm grip on the handles of power which he never relinquished. It also gave the Dreyfus gang special access to Mike as he moved to the state Senate, where he was always at the table where important decisions were made.
An uncountable number of ideas moved from the ever present blackboards in Mike’s several offices to action that made Wisconsin both better and unique.
He was way ahead of everybody in anticipating and trying to ward off the deleterious effects of the special interests and their money that has de-democratized the country. Mike’s creative ideas on neutralizing both the interests and their money scared a series of governors and legislators to death and were ultimately undermined by the U.S. Supreme Court which seems to be deaf, dumb and blind to the collateral damage that Mike saw so clearly.
His ideas on taxes and education decorated the ubiquitous blackboard for almost four decades. My own special recollection was his seeing that poverty was also a special education problem and that dealing with it as such was likely to produce better outcomes than the structural dismemberment of the public education system ever could.
There was an entertainment element to this long relationship that made it special. Mike always thought fast and funny. His rants on any subject went into the stratosphere and beyond and were never wholly serious.
The devious sting filmmaker whose work has contributed to Mike’s recent decision to decamp obviously didn’t know this.
My most recent conversation with Mike was presumably about dislodging a bill from the clutches of an obdurate committee chair. The discussion rambled and included witty and disarming expeditions into the vagaries of the way various people in power were using or abusing their offices and the way that events good and bad have of derailing and dismembering our best plans and intentions.
As was often the case with these conversations, the real subject seemed to get lost. It never was.
Mike has decided that the game is no longer worth the candle, that the aggravations attached to the office he occupied outweighed the effort needed to create a government that works. That was what he was always about, in his own raucous way.
We probably won’t miss the sideshows, but I am hard pressed to know where the ideas that Mike spawned will come from and how Wisconsin can possibly be off better without him and his wit and imagination in the Legislature.