Johnny Ellis, former Anchorage senator, dies at 61

Born in Springfield, Missouri, Ellis moved to Alaska in 1975 and graduated from Bartlett High School before attending the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Published: Feb. 10, 2022 at 6:03 PM AKST|Updated: Feb. 10, 2022 at 6:13 PM AKST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Former Alaska Sen. Johnny Ellis died on Thursday at the age of 61.

Ellis served in the Alaska Legislature for 29 years before he retired from public service. Ellis served in the House of Representatives from 1987-1992 and became a Senator in 1993, where he served until 2016.

Born in Springfield, Missouri, Ellis moved to Alaska in 1975 and graduated from Bartlett High School before attending the University of Alaska Anchorage. During his time in the Senate, Ellis was chosen by his colleagues as Minority Leader twice and was the Majority Leader between 2007-2010. Sen. Tom Begich won Ellis’ seat after he retired. Begich said in an interview that he was texting with Ellis late Wednesday afternoon.

“To say that I was shocked would be an understatement. I don’t know that anybody expected it,” Begich said. “... As minority leader, member of the majority, majority leader, rules chair, he has a legacy of legislation passed fighting for everything from fair treatment of prisoners and victims to strong support for kids programs, the gifted, the disabled — these are his legacy programs. You know he used to brag about the $16 billion that they were able to save during the high times of oil.”

Ellis represented downtown Anchorage, Fairview, and the South Addition neighborhoods during his time in the Legislature.

“In all he really has left these two legacies, one is in law and the other is in people. His effect on our people who want to serve the public can never be underestimated,” Begich said.

Ellis was a business owner who also served on the board of directors for the Blacks in Alaska History Project, the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation, the Alaska Women’s Lobby, and the Key Campaign to advocate for people with disabilities. Ellis was named the Legislator of the Year by American Civil Liberties Union in 2000, given the 1996 Advocate for Alaska Children’s award, and many others.

Begich said that Ellis championed the Sham Jam, an annual fundraiser dance for legislative staff in Juneau that raises money for disabled individuals. Among those who served as staff members for Ellis was current Rep. Geran Tarr.

“My path to public service started in the office of Sen. Johnny Ellis,” Tarr said. “He used to talk about how he was here in Juneau to be a voice for those without a lobbyist you know, to make sure that everyone was fully represented.”

Tarr was among dozens who worked for Ellis during his nearly three decades as a legislator, many of whom have gone on to become public officials in their own right.

“He was passionate about public service, instilled in those that worked with him. What an honor it was,” Tarr said.

In a press release Thursday, Gov. Mike Dunleavy ordered that all Alaska and U.S. flags fly at half-staff from sunrise to sunset on Feb. 15 in honor of Ellis. Feb. 15 begins the Key Coalition of Alaska’s Key Campaign week, which was legislation championed by Ellis.

“My family offers our sincerest condolences to the family and loved ones of former Senator Ellis,” Dunleavy said in press release. “Johnny was an influential leader in the Alaska Democratic Party and was well respected across the board. As an educator, I respected Johnny as a colleague and as someone who mentored the next generation of Alaskans. He will be remembered as a traveler, learner, history buff and, of course, an accomplished politician.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with additional information.

Copyright 2022 KTUU. All rights reserved.