Two long-serving WI Republicans to step down amid controversy, challenge

M.D. Kittle
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Apr 11, 2014 7:15 PM
Two long-serving WI Republicans to step down amid controversy, challenge

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. – Friday was getaway day for two long-serving Wisconsin Republicans, with nearly 90 years of legislative experience between them.

One faced the heat of a primary challenge, the other one reeling after the release of a politically injurious hidden video.

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STEPPING ASIDE: Senate President Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, announced on Friday he will not seek re-election, just days after a hidden video showed Ellis talking about creating a political action committee with political friends.

First, a spokesman for state Sen. Mike Ellis, R-Neenah,  confirmed the Senate president will not seek re-election this fall, putting a hasty end to a 44-year legislative career.

Then U.S. Rep. Tom Petri, R-Fond du Lac, who has represented Wisconsin 6th Congressional District for nearly 35 years, said he planned to make a formal announcement on Monday that he, too, will not defend his seat this year.

Ellis was caught on camera talking about setting up a “super” Political Action Committee with the help of friends and a well-connected GOP fundraiser. The PAC would attack his opponent in the 19th Senate District race, state Rep. Penny Bernard Schaber, D-Appleton.

Soon after Wednesday’s release of the video, produced by conservative activist James O’Keefe and his Project Veritas, Ellis said his comments were taken out of context and he has denied that he contacted anyone to put the PAC in place, which would be illegal under campaign finance law. Ellis, who has been a vocal critic of special interests and PACs during his tenure, and who has led the campaign finance reform charge, said he dropped the idea of the political action committee once he learned it was illegal.

The senator, 73, had yet to release an official statement as of this post.

He told the Appleton Post-Crescent that it was time to yield his seat to someone who is better prepared to deal with “new-era politics and the culture of gotcha.”

“The videotape definitely said, ‘Hey, get out of here. You don’t fit anymore,’” Ellis told the newspaper.

The video also said what Ellis said, that he wanted to start a political action committee and have his former campaign fundraiser attack his opponent, that he was the real power in the senate, and that he didn’t think very highly of some of his wealthy neighbors.

Nobody seemed to want to comment Friday on word that Ellis was stepping down.

An official in the office of Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said that the senator expected to release a statement on Friday afternoon, but there was no release as of this post. Fitzgerald did tell the Appleton Post-Crescent that the serve for a conservative replacement for Ellis would commence. “No matter what candidates emerge from this recruitment process, my unwavering commitment is to ensure that the 19th Senate District will stay in Republican hands come November,” Fitzgerald said.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, did not return a call seeking comment, and a spokeswoman for Gov. Scott Walker said the governor had no comment at the time.

One Senate aide told Wisconsin Reporter that Ellis has been pretty down since the release of the video and that his decision to step down wasn’t all that unexpected. Asked whether Ellis was the target of a conservative movement to push out the moderate Republican, the aide said, “Mike’s a strange one to target. He’s been one of the more conservative votes we’ve had here this session. That hasn’t always been the way in the past, but he has stood up for a lot of stuff.”

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CALLING IT QUITS: U.S. Rep. Tom Petri, R-Fond du Lac, will not seek re-election this fall after a 35-year career in Washington.

Petri last week learned that state Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, planned to challenge him for the 6th Congressional seat.

Petri, 73,who began his congressional career in 1979 after a seven-year stint in the Wisconsin state Senate, has been knocked by some conservatives as being a “get-along-go-along” Republican. Grothman, in a news release announcing his candidacy, described Petri as a “decent, genial person,” although lacking a “sense of urgency” to take on the perilous fiscal challenges facing the federal government.

Petri will make a statement on his decision Monday at a scheduled town hall meeting in Neenah, Ellis’ hometown. An official in Petri’s office said there were a number of factors involved in the congressman’s decision to step aside, and that Petri would explain further on Monday.

Petri sounded defiant following Grothman’s campaign announcement, like a candidate ready for another fight.

“My record of pragmatic conservatism will speak for itself.  I respect Glenn and the work he’s done at the state level.  I will run a strong campaign and I expect to win in August and November,” the congressman said in a statement last week.

Republican Party of Wisconsin Chairman Brad Courtney applauded Petri for his service and dedication to the voters of the 6th District.

“Throughout his career, Congressman Petri fought for fiscal sanity and conservative values in Washington against a liberal agenda, and is a strong example of Republican leadership moving our country forward,” Courtney said. “We wish him continued success in his future endeavors.”

Grothman, who said he will move to Campbellsport to be in the congressional district, expressed the same gratitude for Petri’s years of service, but said the congressman’s decision to retire doesn’t change the issues he plans to bring to voters.

“The country’s spiral towards debt, the trend towards government dependency, and the breakdown of the American family are the issues that I’m most passionate about,” the state senator said in a statement.

Contact M.D. Kittle at mkittle@watchdog.org