Mike Ellison learned more about politics as a teenager than most people do in a lifetime.
|Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden was a member of the U.S. House during the year that 16-year-old Mike Ellison served as a congressional page.
An IBEW journeyman wireman running for the Oregon House, Ellison spent his junior year of high school as a page in the U.S. House of Representatives.
One lesson that stuck with him is the contrast between lawmakers who put duty first and those determined to keep their seat at any cost.
That distinction is at the heart of his campaign.
“The first thing I talk about is my belief in servant leadership,” Ellison said. “It’s the idea that you assume public office out of a desire to serve, not for a position of power. It’s leading from within your community, gauging your success off those who elected you and always being accountable to them.”
Longevity itself isn’t an achievement, he stresses as he knocks on doors and speaks to community groups.
“Having watched the process at least on the federal level, I don’t feel like this is something I’m going to want to do for a long time,” he said. “I want to make as much positive change as I can and then re-enter normal life, rather than be motivated to keep winning elections at the expense of the people we’re supposed to serve.”
Ellison means every word, said union brother Kail Zuschlag, who organizes workers in western and central Oregon for Salem-based Local 280.
“With all the crazy politics, no matter which way you lean, everyone talks about how great it would be if a ‘real person’ would step up and make a difference,” Zuschlag said. “Mike is that person. He knows how to work, he comes from blue collar roots, he’s tied to the community and understands the lives of the people here.
In other words, he said, “Mike can’t ‘relate’ to us. He is one of us. He is so genuine in his motivations for bettering Oregon.”
Local 280, Portland, Ore., Local 48, the Oregon Education Association, the state’s Building Trades Council and individual trade unions are among Ellison’s early endorsers in his run for House District 19.
The seat includes part of Salem, the state capital, and extends south and east. It has been in GOP hands for 22 years, but the last person to hold it for multiple terms left the legislature in 2014. New incumbent Denyc Boles, Ellison’s opponent in November, was appointed in January.
From affordable housing to quality, lower-cost health care, investing in public education and fighting for good jobs – “a living wage for a fair day’s work” – Ellison said his views are framed by what he sees “through the lens of income inequality.”
“Americans are being taken advantage of by an economy that’s rigged to direct the money to the very top,” he said. “The new wealth is not being shared with the people generating it.”
Raised in a blue-collar, single-parent home, Ellison rose from material handler to the highest-level journeyman electrician over the past 20 years with Local 280. He wants voters to understand that unions are the key to a healthy economy and thriving middle class, as the IBEW has been for him.
“I will be the strongest advocate unions have in the state legislature,” he said. “The best defense against our rigged economy is organized labor standing together and demanding the wages and benefits we deserve.”
On top of his IBEW training, Ellison has a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and is finishing his thesis for a master’s in renewable energy engineering from the Oregon Institute of Technology.
|Oregon House Candidate Mike Ellison and his wife, Maggie.
Zuschlag marvels at Ellison’s decision to go back to school while continuing a grueling IBEW apprenticeship and raising a young family. “I pride myself on being a hard worker and I couldn’t have done it,” he said.
Looking back, Ellison wishes he’d pushed himself harder when he was younger. “College had always felt like unfinished business to me,” he said. “I always had potential, but I didn’t get a degree back when I should have.”
A high school teacher saw his promise early on, recommending him in 1994 to Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio for the U.S. House page program, which today exists only in the Senate.
After a whirlwind of essays and interviews, Ellison headed to Washington for the fall term of his junior year. His adventure was extended when Republicans swept the midterm elections and took control of Congress. “They didn’t have time to fill all the page spots, so a handful of us got to stay the entire year,” he said.
Pages rose before dawn for classes in the attic of the famous Library of Congress Jefferson Building, studying until the House convened, usually at 10 a.m. That’s when Ellison got the real-life equivalent of a political science degree, shuttling messages on the House floor, racing documents to members’ offices and bearing witness to such historical moments as Nelson Mandela addressing a joint meeting of Congress and President Bill Clinton delivering the State of the Union.
Bitten by the political bug, he took pride in staying on top of the news and gradually became politically active. Today he is a precinct chair for the Democratic Party in Marion County, Ore., and, in 2016, was a delegate for Bernie Sanders at the party’s state convention. That was the year people began encouraging him to run for office.
“No way is my wife going to let me do this,” he told them, laughing at the memory. He was already a busy father of three boys, now 14, 12 and 4, and a full-time project manager/estimator at Northside Electric. But Maggie Ellison, a UFCW member, had a change of heart.
“I called it getting my first major endorsement – the only endorsement that mattered at that point,” he said.
His bosses at Northside Electric also gave their blessing, offering to work around the schedule he’d have as a part-time legislator. It meant that much more to Ellison because he and the owner don’t always see eye to eye politically. “He was all for it, told me to do whatever it took to make it work,” he said.
Whether he ran or not, Ellison was eager to see more “STEM” candidates on the ballot -- people with science, technology, engineering and mathematical backgrounds. He was endorsed in March by 314 Action -- named for the math ratio “pi” -- an organization supporting STEM candidates for local, state and national office.
In pursuing his degree in renewable energy, Ellison saw the value of being a tradesman who could make a dollar-and-cents case for acting on climate change, rather than argue the more divisive issues of the climate debate.
“I wanted to get to a point where, if someone wants to deny the science, the economics would still make sense,” he said.
Building bridges like that is one of Ellison’s gifts, Zuschlag said. “In Oregon, sometimes the blue-collar positions and the green positions don’t align. Mike has the smarts to navigate those political situations and be successful.”
As Zuschlag wrote in a December organizing report, “Left or right, blue or red, purple, or whatever you identify with, I think we can all agree that having a fellow IBEW member with the character and drive of Mike Ellison in a position to help shape our state is an incredible opportunity.”