Former state Senate President Mike Ellis, a larger-than-life presence in the Wisconsin Legislature, died Friday at age 77.
Ellis, a Republican from Neenah, was first elected to the state Assembly in 1970. He was elected to the Senate in 1982 and served until his retirement in 2014.
Senate President Roger Roth, R-Appleton, who succeeded Ellis in the Fox Valley Senate seat, described him as someone who put his district before politics, unafraid to challenge members of his own party and work across the aisle.
"Someone once told me that Mike Ellis wasn’t just the leader of the Senate, he was the Senate," Roth said in a statement. "No matter what was happening in the Capitol, Mike knew about it and was already working it out. He has left a lasting impression on this state because of his strong personality and dedication to public service."
After more than four decades in the Capitol, Ellis declined to run for re-election in 2014 after he was secretly videotaped by a conservative activist group discussing plans for how to set up a PAC to smear his Democratic opponent.
After the video went public, Ellis said he didn't realize that his plan was a violation of campaign finance law and backed off of it.
Members of the state Senate passed a resolution in March 2016 honoring Ellis.
"Why would they want to honor me? Most of them hated me," Ellis quipped when he learned of the vote.
He joked that the Senate might "name the bathroom on the third floor after me."
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, praised Ellis as a friend and mentor who dedicated his career to making Wisconsin a better place to live.
"Everything I learned about leadership and politics I learned from Senator Ellis," Fitzgerald said in a statement. "Mike’s personality and character were only outmatched by his dedication to public service. 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."
Gov. Scott Walker described Ellis as "a giant in the Legislature and a bigger-than-life personality in Wisconsin politics" whose "wit and passion" will be missed.
"We were political adversaries but private friends the entire time," said Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, a former Senate President who spent 44 years with Ellis in the Legislature.
Risser described Ellis as a "well-versed and articulate legislator and a good representative to his constituents."
"A favorite son of the Fox Valley, his sense of service and commitment to our community was unrivaled," said Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, a Democrat who served in the state Assembly for six years while Ellis was in the Senate. "Quite simply, there will be no other."
At the end of his political life, Ellis told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he had no regrets about his career. He lamented the growing partisan polarization in Madison and said he didn't fit in in an environment where there "isn't room for independent thinking and compromise."
In a 2015 interview with the Appleton Post Crescent, Ellis said the only legacy with which he was concerned was having the ability to look in the mirror and say, "I did the best I could."