Wisconsin state Sen. Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, has decided to forgo his 2014 re-election bid in light of a recently released and controversial video by Project Veritas. Ellis claims he had been pondering whether to run for re-election for quite some time. Regardless, it’s now entirely clear why Ellis has decided not to seek re-election: the released video reduced Ellis’s chances of being re-elected from a near certainty to a near impossibility. In addition, the video illustrates how money has come to dominate the political process — even among some purported campaign finance reform advocates.
Last week, Project Veritas, which is headed by conservative activist James O’Keefe, released the video of Ellis. This is not the first time O’Keefe has recorded and released controversial videos. In fact, O’Keefe made secret recordings of National Public Radio and Association of Community Organization for Reform Now officials and released the videos to the public. While most of O’Keefe’s videos have targeted so-called liberal organizations or figures, his most recent video targets state senator Ellis, a Republican.
In the video released by O’Keefe, it appears that Ellis violates Wisconsin law, or at the very least intends to do so in the near future. In the video Ellis says, “I am putting together my own super PAC.” Ellis also says, “I have a $400,000 committee and Judi Rhodes will — I’m raising the money, she will manufacture the crap.” Under Wisconsin law, it is illegal for politicians or Super PACs to coordinate with each other. Yet, Ellis’s statements demonstrate his intent to illegally coordinate with a Super PAC. As he said, “I am putting together my own super PAC.”
Now, what does Sen. Ellis have to say to justify his statements recorded by O’Keefe? According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Ellis claims his statements were just “ideas” and that he wasn’t aware that his plans would violate Wisconsin law. In addition, he claims that he later found out that his plans were illegal and decided not to run with them.
Does Ellis’s version of events actually make any sense? After all, Ellis is not exactly new to campaign finance reform. In fact, Ellis is known in the Wisconsin Senate as one the biggest proponents of campaign finance reform. Ellis criticized the type of ads ran by various Super PACs in 2010, saying these ads are “the biggest cancer in our election system.” Although not technically campaign finance reform, Ellis has also supported important reforms that would create an independent agency in Wisconsin responsible for redrawing legislative districts, reforms that would prevent political gerrymandering from occurring in the future. As Ellis said in 2013, “There’s no reason we can’t have a public hearing and explore the options that are available. [Nonpartisan independent agencies creating legislative districts is] certainly . . . working in Iowa.”
This all begs the question: How does one of the largest proponents of campaign finance reform in Wisconsin politics not know that it is illegal under Wisconsin law to coordinate with a Super PAC? After all, I’m a law student who has never taken a course in campaign finance law, and even I know that this type of political coordination is patently illegal. The answer isn’t entirely clear. If Ellis didn’t know that his actions violated Wisconsin law, then he clearly is not the expert of campaign finance reform that he claimed he was. If Ellis is the expert of campaign finance reform that he claimed he was, then it’s clear he knew he was violating the law. My intuition tells me that it is more likely the latter than the former.
Ellis has decided not to seek re-election in 2014. He claims that he isn’t running for re-election because he no longer fits in the Wisconsin Senate. Regardless, it’s clear why he isn’t seeking re-election — he simply doesn’t have a shot at winning. Who would vote for Ellis, a proponent of campaign finance reform, when Ellis broke the very laws he had promised to strengthen?
Aaron Loudenslager ([email protected]) is a second-year law student.