Penny Bernard Schaber
MADISON — Democratic state Rep. Penny Bernard Schaber announced Tuesday that she will take on one of the most powerful and longest-serving lawmakers in Wisconsin, Republican state Senate President Mike Ellis.
Ellis, the second-longest serving state senator, has been unchallenged the three previous elections for the Senate seat he has held since 1982. He represents northeastern Wisconsin’s 19th Senate district, which includes Appleton, Menasha and Neenah.
The race is expected to be closely watched next year as Republicans look to maintain or increase their 18-15 majority. Republicans also have a 60-39 majority in the Assembly, where Schaber has served since 2008.
Schaber said in a telephone interview that she was challenging Ellis because she believes he has lost touch with his district.
“It’s kind of a crazy thing to do, but I’m ready for it,” Schaber said, recognizing that she’ll be the first Democrat to take on Ellis since 1998. “I know this is a difficult race and this will be a very big challenge.”
Ellis said it was too early to start campaigning for the 2014 election, noting that Schaber is only six months into her two-year term. Ellis announced in April that he would seek a ninth term, but he said he won’t start actively campaigning until the Legislature is done with its work for the session next spring.
He said he was prepared to defend his record.
“It’s invigorating,” Ellis said of his first election challenge in 16 years. “I’ve had the phone ringing off the hook from people who want to start campaigning tomorrow.”
At 72, Ellis described himself as a “moderate to conservative but independent voice.” He presides over debate as Senate president and is one of the chamber’s most colorful, high-profile and powerful members.
With a booming voice and flair for the dramatic in public, he’s also a key negotiator behind the scenes with a vast knowledge of legislative rules and the inner workings of the state budget.
He was deeply involved in some of the biggest issues facing the Legislature this year, including working on compromises with Gov. Scott Walker on his voucher school expansion plan and public school funding proposal.
Ellis opposed Walker’s original proposal to allow vouchers in nine districts, with no enrollment caps after the second year, while public school spending would remain frozen. He worked out a deal that allowed public school spending to increase while capping voucher school enrollment at 1,000 students statewide. Ellis also got rid of vouchers for special needs students, which Walker wanted.
However, under the deal voucher schools were allowed statewide under the deal, instead of the more limited growth tied to performance on statewide report cards as Walker proposed.
Voters in Ellis’s district opposed Walker’s original voucher plan, and the deal Ellis struck with Walker wasn’t any better, Schaber said.
“I don’t think Sen. Ellis’ negotiating with the governor did us any good,” she said.
Ellis said the deal was a good one, noting the extra funding for schools and elimination of special needs vouchers.
Schaber also said Ellis was wrong to go along with Walker’s decision to reject federal money to pay for an expansion of Medicaid services as well as voting to ease environmental regulations to make it easier for an iron ore mine to open near Lake Superior.
“He needs to be held accountable,” Schaber said.
Ellis stood by those votes as well.
Schaber, 59, is in her third term in the Assembly. She said one of her biggest accomplishments was helping to pass a bill designed to keep electronic waste out of landfills. Schaber said she’s also working on a bill that will make it easier to deal with dementia patients.
As Senate president, Ellis is one of three members of the Senate Organization Committee, which votes on setting the agenda for the Senate. That gives him tremendous power, largely behind the scenes, in determining which bills the Senate will consider.
The public most often sees Ellis in his role as Senate president.
Earlier this session, as Democrats tried to extend debate on a contentious abortion bill, Ellis banged his gavel so forcefully to shut them down that the wooden base cracked in half.