An Alaska legislator for 30 years, friends remember Johnny Ellis as caring and a coalition builder

Sen. Johnny Ellis fields a question at a Senate Minority press availability in March. (Photo by Skip Gray, Gavel Alaska)

Longtime Alaska legislator Johnny Ellis died Feb. 9 at the age of 61.

As a Democrat representing districts in Anchorage, Ellis served in the state House from 1986 to 1992, when he was elected to the state Senate, and he served there until 2016.

Friends and colleagues have been remembering Ellis as a funny, caring man willing to work across party lines.

Those friends include state Sen. Tom Begich, who succeeded Ellis in office. Begich says the two got to know each other in their early 20s, while scraping paint, of all things, after Gov. Bill Sheffield’s successful campaign in 1982.

Listen here:

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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Tom Begich: So Johnny came by to help us clean out the office after the election. And one of the things we had was the windows. These big bay windows had been painted with big Sheffield, you know, campaign stuff. So I was in there with a paint scraper, like a razor blade scraper scraping off the paint ever so slowly. And so he came and joined me, and these windows were huge. And so for two days, we just sat there scraping paint. And I asked who he was, and we started talking, learned he had come out of, you know, he had been a military, if you will, a military brat. And he had been a Bartlett High School graduate and had gone off to Claremont McKenna College, for his undergraduate work and just come back, jumped into campaign work. And we were scraping paint, like the third day, this lady Candy who used to work the front desk, came in and she goes, “What you boys doing?” She grabbed a wet rag, got the rag wet, and she started washing the water-soluble paint off the windows. And we just all burst out laughing. But had it not been for those couple of days, I would never have gotten to know the guy. We talked about everything, about life aspirations, politics, of course, and the roots of our families. All of that, really by an accident, and ended up becoming fast friends. And we all were roommates in Fairview together in ’83.

Casey Grove: I wanted to ask you about that. I noticed that Charles Wohlforth in his ADN column about Johnny described it as a “bohemian” group of people living together. Is that accurate? What do you think about that?

TB: Well, the house didn’t have a lot of doors, I will tell you that. It was a rundown terrible, terrible place. Johnny had the only room with doors. So I slept in a room that was basically the passageway between the kitchen and the bathroom. You know, that article described him dancing around to Elton John, and he did all the time. He wasn’t very musical, except for as an appreciator of music. The rest of us did play music together, and so we would get people together and do music, there in the back house. We were the what’s called the front house, they were connected by a tunnel underneath them. I mean, a real tunnel like a 30-foot tunnel. The back house was an old warehouse, and it was really the hub of 1970s, what was called back then the “ad hoc Democrats,” and so it had some historic political gravitas. We weren’t ad hoc Democrats ourselves. We were just, you know, young guys living in a place that was cheap. But after that, Johnny eventually moved down to Juneau. And each of us drifted away from the house eventually.

CG: Well, I mean, 30 years in the Legislature, between the House and the Senate, and so maybe this is kind of a big question, but what do you think were Ellis’ biggest political victories in Juneau as a state legislator?

TB: Without a doubt, his number one nameable victory, in terms of a specific thing, was being the architect, with Lyda Green, of the bipartisan coalition in the Senate, because that, as he often said, led to his “savings spree” of roughly $16 billion in the CBR, the Constitutional Budget Reserve. That, in and of itself, did more to stabilize the state’s finances during downtimes than any other single act that a legislature has taken in the last 40 years. He would probably say, if he were with us today, that his greatest contribution was literally being a voice for those who were never listened to, in particular, the disabled community, and disenfranchised communities, young people, the elderly. He would have said that was his greatest victory. But if you want to look at a thing that could be measured, it would be the fact that he saved those communities from hardship by having saved with his coalition roughly $16 billion. Gary Stevens, who’s now the Rules Chair here in the Senate, served with him during that time, often talks about those as golden days or halcyon days of the Legislature, in particular the Senate, because of their ability to work across party lines toward a common goal. And, you know, Johnny’s not with us now, and I would say that’s something that he should be remembered for.

CG: Well, Tom, I feel a little weird asking you about this, but I think it is notable that Johnny, after he retired in 2016, he did come out as gay. And I wonder, did you talk to him about that prior to that? Did he struggle with that? And why did he wait until he was out of office to come out?

TB: We didn’t ever question Johnny about his dating habits when we were roommates. In his personal conversations with me, and these would be when he was in his 50s, I think he struggled with other people’s challenges and felt that if he actually said something, it would help others feel more comfortable, whether they were in public office, or even privately or in dealing with their own preferences in a more open way. I think it was hard for him to do it. You know, he came from a fairly strict background and upbringing. But he was loved by people. And my comments to him at the time were, you know, “People love you, buddy. Do what you need to do.” You know, “Be who you are.” But Johnny, he held it inside. And I think for many of us who are his friends, that was a very difficult thing to see, when we realized that there was, you know, maybe his life could have been easier if the society had been more opening and welcoming to a person who was gay being in politics. But there wasn’t that kind of welcoming environment. Certainly not the ’80s and not really so much in the ’90s. I think Johnny would be pleased with the direction the world is taking where who you love and how you love is a personal decision, that should be honored by others.

CG: It seems like one thing I’m picking up from reading about Johnny and talking to you is how much he really cared about other people. And it seems like he had a great memory for people’s families and things like that. And I wondered if you felt the same way, and what do you think about that?

TB: He clearly did care about other people. He was constantly in touch with us. He always was reaching out. There was an issue that happened when my wife’s mother passed away, he found out about it and sent a note immediately. So for his friends, he was always somebody who reached out, without a doubt. He could be tough, though, too, you know, don’t get me wrong. A person is a person, human beings are imperfect, and he could get mad just as easily if we didn’t, you know, communicate with him on a regular basis. He let us know that he felt neglected. And he was pretty forceful about it. But I think you can’t care about others if you don’t also care about yourself and how you’re treated. Yes, he was a caring man, but he could be a tough man too. He could be. He’d be hard to work with from time to time, because he was so demanding, in terms of, you know, the standards he set for himself and for others, but always with a deep sense of empathy. Absolutely a deep sense of love. For those of us who knew him, and for those who didn’t, frankly.

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Casey Grove is the host of Alaska News Nightly and a general assignment reporter at Alaska Public Media with an emphasis on crime and courts. Reach him at cgrove@alaskapublic.org.