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Sen. Johnny Ellis sacrificed his private life for public service

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: November 16, 2016
  • Published November 16, 2016

Johnny Ellis announced his retirement this past June after serving 29 years in the Alaska state Legislature. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

Sen. Johnny Ellis almost let out his secret on the Alaska Senate floor years ago, during a speech opposing a constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage. But he held back.

"It was, 'Don't make this about yourself, Ellis,'" he recalled.

At his retirement party in July he came close again. He rose to speak at a supporter's home in South Addition crowded with friends and other elected officials. After 29 years as a legislator, his network is legendary.

Again he lost his nerve.

"It should have been a safe place," he said. "It was a retirement party. But I was reluctant to make it about me in such a public way."

He was nervous and admitted it when I met with him last week at the Downtown Grill in Fairview. Ellis chose the spot, as he always does, to promote a business in his district. We had previously met in another Fairview restaurant to talk privately as he worked through his decision to come out.

"They say everybody has a time to feel comfortable enough to share this information," he said. "It's been a struggle for me. I go back and forth. But I do know in my heart it's a positive thing. If I can share some information about myself that can help someone else, I should."

Recently, rumors reached Ellis through friends and staffers alleging he has AIDS. He believes his political opponents started the whisper campaign. The rumors could have been believable, because he hasn't looked well for some time.

Sen. Johnny Ellis announces on the Senate floor January 22, 2014, that he was treated for prostate cancer. (Richard Mauer / ADN archive 2014)

Ellis has been through two bouts of prostate cancer but says he is now cancer-free. However, multiple sclerosis has taken his mobility. He uses a walker and had to move out of his condo because of difficulty with stairs. He said he does not have AIDS and is coming out partly to clear the air.

Ellis spent his life as a closeted gay man, hiding the truth even from close friends so they wouldn't have to lie or worry about revealing it unintentionally. He considered secrecy to be the price of public service, as being gay could damage his effectiveness for his constituents and his election prospects.

That was surely true when he was first elected to the state House in 1986, at 26 years of age. In his 20s and 30s, Ellis tried to date women, but gave it up as uncomfortable and unfair. Instead, he simply lived alone and gave all of himself to politics.

He said, "I know it seems crazy in retrospect. So I'm not asking anybody to feel sorry for me. I made that choice to not make connections, and to deny that part. I didn't have to talk about my personal life because I didn't have a personal life. I was dedicated to public service. Maybe it was a naïve thought, but it's really what I dedicated my life to."

Friends Vic Fischer, left, Jack Roderick, Johnny Ellis and Tom Begich pose for a photo Friday evening at the Rasmuson Center at the Anchorage Museum. Begich will now represent Senate District J after Ellis announced his retirement this past June following 29 years in the Alaska state Legislature. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

I've known Ellis for more than 20 years. He was the godfather of the Alaska Democratic Party for many years, organizing fundraisers, recruiting and training candidates, and serving as a hub of institutional knowledge.

He and I were raised in a world in which sexuality wasn't a polite topic. Even without politics, Ellis' upbringing would have made it difficult to be open. Alaska has changed for the better since then.

Ellis grew up moving from post to post in an Air Force family, spending formative years in Arkansas, Florida and Germany. Even as a teen he channeled his energy into achievement, trying to bury something about himself he believed was unacceptable. He was a strong student, active in church, and became an Eagle Scout. He prayed to be normal.

Ellis's path turned to politics thanks to a Bartlett High School teacher who sent a group of students to volunteer in the 1976 presidential campaign for either candidate, Gerald Ford or Jimmy Carter. The ladies at the Ford campaign office wouldn't give the teens anything to do, so they went to Carter's headquarters. There the adults gave them a mailing to prepare and trusted the students to stay late and lock up the office.

Student activism took Ellis around the country in Democratic politics. By the time he was out of college he was already a pro. Rep. Don Clocksin hired him as a legislative aide and set him up to take over his seat.

Ellis said Clocksin quizzed him to make sure he would fight for the residents of their low-income, racially diverse district, including supporting services for the homeless, for women and children, and the low-cost medical clinic, the Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center.

"Representing people who can't afford a lobbyist," as Ellis described it. "I always identified with the underdog."

Ellis owned a gift wholesaling company, but he is a career politician, or, to put it positively, he gave his life to serving Alaska. He can point to a long list of accomplishments, including getting $27 million for a new building for the health center and, just this year, helping pass a law making it easier to for the public to obtain Narcan, the drug that saves people who overdose on opiates.

Ellis said his work discouraged him from revealing he is gay.

"It would have affected my district and vulnerable and low-income people in Mountain View and Fairview who had elected me and put their confidence in me, and were expecting me to represent their views and to take care of their interests," he said.

I asked if he regrets remaining closeted for so many years.

"It's a choice I made," he said. "Being gay is not a choice. I know that. But I did make a choice to deny this part of my personal life and just not share that. … I've always had great friends and supporters and wonderful staffers, and my satisfaction was in accomplishments and helping other people who needed help. But yes, it was lonely."

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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