Johnny Ellis was a good man and good at his job. During his lifetime of service as one of Alaska’s most effective political leaders, he improved countless lives. But after his sudden death last week, the voices I heard spoke instead of his sweetness.
Ellis was only 61 years old. He retired from the state senate six years ago due to health issues. Prior to that, he served in the Legislative Assembly for 30 years. If those numbers don’t seem to add up, here’s the key to the equation and Ellis’s story: When he was first elected to the State House in 1986, he was just 26 year.
Johnny grew up in the office. He began as a politically active child, part of a loosely rooted crowd enjoying himself amidst the vibrancy of Alaska and its receptivity, at that time, to youthful energy and new ideas. He has become a powerhouse in the Senate and the Democratic Party over the decades.
In the House, Ellis first served with a team of smart young liberals whom he called “the mob agitators” – the names he mentioned to me were David Finkelstein, Kay Brown and Fran Ulmer – while ‘they were making waves and making headlines with smart, ethical, aggressive politics. But these friends have moved on, as life moves us forward as we grow, creating different priorities and opportunities. Ellis stayed.
The list of his accomplishments is staggering. Serving in the minority and majority, Ellis has focused on improving the lives of the mostly low-income residents of his North Anchorage district, raising money for schools, recreation centers , a health center, summer jobs for children and many other improvements. He also advanced the University of Alaska and the State Library, Archives, and Museum.
In a political obituary, these acts can be read as points marked on a scoreboard. But knowing my friend like me, I see them more as gifts he gave – essentially, acts of love. He loved his neighborhood and its people, and he loved his job.
In this devotion, he renounced other loves.
In 2016, when he retired, Ellis used my DNA column to come out, revealing not only that he was gay but also that he had long avoided relationships to protect his political effectiveness for his district. In the early years, Anchorage was not ready for a gay legislator. To do what he did for his neighborhood, Johnny endured a lot of loneliness.
At the same time, however, he cultivated a huge circle of friends. I have heard fond memories of a number of them over the past few days.
Finkelstein shared old photos of Ellis traveling and playing with kids, which he adored.
Tom Begich, who succeeded Ellis in the state Senate and is now the Minority Leader, shared via email a memory of working with Ellis during Bill Sheffield’s 1982 campaign for governor , where they were tasked with removing paint from office windows.
“We scratched for nearly three days, getting to know each other as we used razor blades to peel paint off the windows. On the third day, another campaign worker showed up and said, “What are you guys doing? We told him we were scratching the paint because the lease was coming to an end soon. She took a washcloth and water and showed that all you had to do was wash off the paint because it was water soluble. Despite tired arms, we all burst out laughing. But that’s how I really got to know him.
Before becoming more respectable, in their early twenties, Begich, Ellis and Eric Troyer lived with other young people in two shared houses on Karluk Street called Warehouse, which for years was a center of politics, music and d for a designer, bohemian group. Troyer recalled Ellis throwing Elton John on the stereo and jumping up to relieve the stress.
I didn’t know him that well, but I realized how caring Ellis could be when I first got involved in community affairs in the 1990s. Although he was an important person whose I heard in the paper, after we first met, he always remembered my name and the names of my wife and children, and exactly what I told him about their actions.
This interest in people has made Ellis a hub of connection for his neighborhoods and for anyone interested in Democratic politics. He organized 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 as an encyclopedia of Alaskan politics.
It never stopped. After moving from Alaska a few years ago, he continued to text me jokes and news. On Tuesday, he contacted me asking for photos from my current trip to France.
Who bothers to ask for your vacation photos? Someone who genuinely cares about others and cultivates a bond with them.
If you think politics is all 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 the love of people and the desire to improve our lives.
Former Lieutenant Governor Loren Leman recalled Ellis in an online post. Leman was Senate Majority Leader when Ellis was Minority Leader, his opposite and political opponent.
Leman (also my former neighbor and friend) sponsored Alaska’s 1998 constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage (since invalidated by a court ruling), which Ellis strenuously opposed – Johnny later told me that, in the emotion of this debate in the Senate, he had almost come out as gay.
Despite this difference, Ellis reached out in December to ask his former opponent to have lunch at Club Paris, with former Democratic senator Hollis French.
In his article, Leman recalled Ellis as a legislator as we did – thoughtful, engaging and always a gentleman. At lunch, he wrote, “The three of us enjoyed each other’s company, laughed, ate well, talked a bit about politics, the role of faith in our lives, and discussed eternity.
Charles Wohlforth was a reporter for Anchorage Daily News from 1988 to 1992 and wrote a regular opinion column from 2015 to January 2019. He is the author of a dozen books on Alaska, science, history, and l ‘environment. More than wohlforth.com.
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