n 1996, the documentary Vote For Me aired on public tel 1 evision. \(The film’s director, Paul Stekler, is currently chair of the film department at the University of Texas and an occasional contributor to the Me consisted of a series of segments spotlighting different politicians, campaigners, and voters, and one of those segments featured Ellis. It was an appreciative and yet less-than-flatter ing portrait, in which Ellis came across as both charming and cocky. For instance, he stated on camera that fortunately for him, there were more Senators with lower IQs than his own than there were with higher; then the film cut to a scene of Ellis trying to coax for mer Senator Mike Galloway, who seemed like he might well fall into that larger category, to vote with him on a bill. After the film aired, Ellis drew sharp criticism from some of his colleagues, Plano’s Florence Shapiro in particular. Ellis, they said, had betrayed their trust by wearing a microphone onto the Senate floor. “It came close to ruining my career,” says Ellis of Vote For Me. The next session, “It was tough for me to get up and come in this building every day.” One lobbyist told me he thought Ellis may have become a more serious, more disciplined worker as a result; what’s certain is that Ellis has been much more circumspect with the press ever since. “I don’t do day in the life of a Senator any more.”These days, Ellis can be seen serving up a few choice quotes to the Capitol press corps, and then sailing through the gauntlet of reporters back to his office. \(Moreover, it’s not uncommon for Ellis to halfhumorously acknowledge the danger the media poses. After passing the budget out of Conference Committee in May, Ellis thanked the press “for the things they did say, and for the things they did not say. And I hope that the things they say in “I tell you what, I’m now as excited to end an interview as I am to start one. It used to be the other way,” Ellis told me when we finally met in his office. \(Trying to arrange a sitdown interview of more than five minutes with Ellis was a weeks-long experience, which seemed to reflect both his busy schedule and a certain disinclination to speak for more and the Senate had just adjourned after one of the longest days of the session. Ellis sat at his desk signing his way through a stack of honorary resolutions, eating fistfuls of green grapes, and wheeling in his chair back and forth between the desk in front of him and another desk behind him. “Now I’d just as soon end it,” he repeated, looking up at me as he said it. “Anything else you want?” I confessed that there was. I asked Ellis how he would respond if someone were to describe him as cagey. He didn’t miss a beat. “Cagey,” he said. “What does that mean?” “There are those who would write off a whole generation of African American males because such a large percentage of them have been involved in the criminal justice sys tem. Now if somebody’s guilty, they ought to do their time. But I just think there are a lot of people who are in jail because their lawyers ought to be in jail. To a great extent, one’s income determines whether or not they’re [found] innocent: any Democrats wish Ellis would run for statewide office. Former Governor Ann Richards tried to appoint him to the Railroad Commission, and he A. turned her down, saying he preferred his six-figure salary to the Commission’s five-figure one. In explaining his the U.S. Congress, Ellis has in the past given various reasons: his salary, his family, his love for the Texas Senate. “I don’t have thick skin, that’s probably why I wouldn’t want to run for higher office,” he told me. He also said he doesn’t want to give up his legal and investment work because “I like to do two things at one time. I operate better that way.” In the meantime, Ellis seems to have fully recuperated from his low moment in 1997. “He really is at the top of his game. He’s Tiger Woods. He’s winning all the tournaments,” says Ellis’ chief of staff Deece Eckstein. “We may never see a session like this again.” This was, in more ways than one, Rodney Ellis’ session.Yet he is still reluctant to talk about it. The last thing Ellis told me was not to write anything mean about him. 10 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 6/8/01
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