Johnny Ellis was a good man and good at his job. In his lifetime of service as one of Alaska’s most effective political leaders, he improved countless lives. But after he died suddenly last week, the voices I heard talked instead about his sweetness.
Ellis was only 61. He retired from the state Senate six years ago due to ill health. Before that, he served in the Legislature for 30 years. If those numbers don’t seem to add up, here is the key to the equation, and to Ellis’ story: When he was first elected to the state House, in 1986, he was just 26 years old.
Johnny grew up in office. He began as a politically active kid, part of a loosely rooted crowd having fun amid the dynamism of Alaska and its receptiveness, at that time, to youthful energy and new ideas. He grew over decades into a powerhouse in the Senate and Democratic Party.
In the House, Ellis at first served with a team of smart young liberals he called “the rabble rousers” — the names he mentioned to me were David Finkelstein, Kay Brown and Fran Ulmer — as they made waves and headlines with smart, ethical, aggressive politics. But those friends moved on to other things, as life moves us on when we grow, creating different priorities and opportunities. Ellis stayed.
The list of his accomplishments is astounding. Serving in the minority and majority, Ellis concentrated on improving the lives of the mostly low-income residents of his North Anchorage district, finding money for schools, recreation centers, a health center, summer jobs for kids, and many, many other improvements. He also advanced the University of Alaska and state library, archives and museum.
In a political obituary, such deeds can read as points marked on a scoreboard. But knowing my friend as I did, I think of them instead as gifts he gave — essentially, acts of love. He did love his district and its people, and he loved his work.
In that devotion, he gave up other loves.
In 2016, when he retired, Ellis used my column in the ADN to come out, disclosing not only that he was gay but also that he had long avoided having relationships to protect his political effectiveness for his district. In the earlier years, Anchorage wasn’t ready for a gay legislator. To do what he did for his district, Johnny endured a lot of loneliness.
At the same time, however, he cultivated a huge circle of friends. I heard sweet memories from a number of them over the last few days.
Finkelstein shared old pictures of Ellis traveling and playing with children, which he loved.
Tom Begich, who succeeded Ellis in the state Senate and is now the minority leader, shared a recollection by email about working with Ellis on the 1982 Bill Sheffield campaign for governor, where they were assigned to remove paint from the office windows.
“We scraped for nearly three days, getting to know each other as we used razor blades to peel the paint off the windows. On the third day, another campaign worker showed up and said, ‘What are you guys doing?’ We told her we were scraping paint because the lease was going to be up soon. She took a washcloth and water and proceeded to show that all you ever had to do was wash the paint off, as it was water-soluble. Tired arms notwithstanding, we all burst out laughing. But that is how I really got to know him.”
Before becoming more respectable, in their early 20s, Begich, Ellis and Eric Troyer lived with other young people in a couple of shared houses on Karluk Street called the Warehouse, which for years was a center of politics, music and art for a creative, bohemian group. Troyer recalled Ellis cranking up Elton John on the stereo and hopping around to let off stress.
I didn’t know him as well as that, but I realized how thoughtful Ellis could be when I first got involved in community affairs in the 1990s. Although he was an important person who I read about in the newspaper, after the first time we met he always remembered my name and my wife and children’s names, and exactly what I had told him about their doings.
That interest in people made Ellis a center of connection for his neighborhoods and for anyone interested in Democratic politics. He set up fundraisers, recruited candidates, and always called back when you asked for help. He was fierce, loyal and caring.
As Heather Flynn recalled, Ellis knew everyone and everything that was going on, and he offered that information like an encyclopedia of Alaska politics.
That never stopped. After I left Alaska a few years ago, he continued to send me jokes and news by text. On Tuesday, he reached out to ask me for pictures of my current trip to France.
Who takes the trouble to ask for your vacation pictures? Someone who really cares about others and cultivates connections with them.
If you think politics is only about power, anger and narcissism, Johnny Ellis proves you wrong. He loved politics and he was good at it, but the driving force behind his work was a love of people and a wish to make our lives better.
Former Lt. Gov. Loren Leman recalled Ellis in an online post. Leman was majority leader in the Senate when Ellis was minority leader, his political opposite and adversary.
Leman (also my former neighbor and friend) sponsored Alaska’s 1998 constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage (since invalidated by court ruling), which Ellis opposed vigorously — Johnny later told me that, in the emotion of that Senate debate, he nearly came out as gay.
Despite that difference, Ellis reached out in December to ask his old adversary to lunch at Club Paris, along with former Democratic Senator Hollis French.
In his post, Leman recalled Ellis as a legislator the way the rest of us did — thoughtful, engaging and always a gentleman. At the lunch, he wrote, “The three of us enjoyed each other’s company, laughed, had great food, talked a little politics, the role of faith in our lives, and touched on discussing eternity.”
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