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Political kingmaker Tom Ellis dies

Tom Ellis, the conservative political strategist who played an important role in the rise of Jesse Helms and Ronald Reagan, died in July at age 97.
Tom Ellis, the conservative political strategist who played an important role in the rise of Jesse Helms and Ronald Reagan, died in July at age 97. News & Observer file

Tom Ellis, the conservative political strategist who played an important role in the rise of Jesse Helms and Ronald Reagan, has died at age 97.

Ellis, a crusty, shrewd, pipe-smoking Raleigh attorney, was a master chess player in Tar Heel politics for more than a half a century.

He helped build North Carolina into a two-party state. He was Helms’ political alter ego. And he was a kingmaker who made the careers of U.S. senators, federal judges and a Raleigh mayor.

But Ellis’ most lasting political influence may have been his role in rescuing the presidential prospects of then-California Gov. Reagan in 1976, thereby helping shape American history.

He also helped engineer the rise of tough, negative television advertising. He was a pioneer in the use of direct mail to raise money across the country. And he readily exploited the state’s racial divisions for political gain.

In Ellis’ stark world view, all was fair in what he saw as a struggle for the country’s soul.

“Damned if I’m willing to turn (America) over to the liberals, commies or anyone else,” Ellis said in a 1979 interview. “If we don’t protect our freedoms, we’re going to lose ‘em to the communists some day.”

Political partnership

From the portraits of Robert E. Lee and other Confederate leaders that hung on his law office wall, one might have thought that Ellis was a Southerner.

But he was actually born in Alameda, Calif. At age 13, his father, a sales representative, changed jobs and moved to Delaware. After making friends with some Tar Heels while working at a summer job at Virginia Beach, Ellis went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After serving as a Navy lieutenant in World War II, he graduated from University of Virginia law school before settling in Raleigh in 1948, where he eventually became a partner in Maupin, Taylor and Ellis, Raleigh’s oldest law firm.

At first glance it was easy to underestimate Ellis. He had a professorial air, a slightly pudgy frame and a hesitant, inarticulate speaking style. But the bland exterior camouflaged a strategic mind, a ruthlessness that struck fear into the hearts of his opponents, and a gruff manner that caused even longtime colleagues to call him “Mr. Ellis.”

“In my opinion, it was genius,” said Carter Wrenn, a longtime political associate. “It was like the rest of us were doing arithmetic and he was doing calculus.”

Ellis cut his political teeth in the 1950 Senate race — one of the most infamous in Southern history. In the Democratic primary – North Carolina was then a one-party state — Sen. Frank Porter Graham, the liberal former UNC president, was defeated by Willis Smith, a conservative Raleigh corporate attorney. The Smith campaign used red baiting and race baiting to defeat Graham in an election that bitterly divided the state for a generation.

Ellis was a younger researcher in the Smith campaign, digging up Graham’s connections to left-wing groups.

The Smith campaign is where Ellis met Helms, then a young Raleigh newsman, who was also supporting Smith. It would begin a political partnership that would last a half century.

The pair became poker-playing buddies, and Ellis began encouraging Helms — by the 1960s a well-known Raleigh TV commentator — to run for political office. For six years as the pregame steaks sizzled on the grill at a log cabin outside Raleigh, Ellis said he worked on Helms: “My pitch to him, was: ‘Jesse, we got to save the country. You can be part of that.’ ”

Helms could not see himself as a statewide candidate. But Ellis thought Helms was a candidate who could do well among the conservative Democrats of Eastern North Carolina, where Republicans had traditionally lost elections.

Both Ellis and Helms switched to the Republican Party in 1970.

Ellis became certain of Helms’ electoral appeal when the two men lunched at the cafeteria at the downtown Hudson-Belk department store. The country women who worked the food line treated Helms like a celebrity.

Ellis managed Helms’ election to the U.S. Senate in 1972, and was his key strategist for the rest of Helms’ career. In helping Helms get elected in 1972, 1978, 1984 and 1990, he played a role in defeating such Democrats as U.S. Rep. Nick Galifianakis, Insurance Commissioner John Ingram, Gov. Jim Hunt and former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt.

“My idea in politics is to try get somebody in who represents my views,” Ellis said, “which I think of course is the American view.”

At the time, North Carolina was still influenced by old-fashioned courthouse political organizations that relied on grassroots politics and political patronage.

To counter the Democratic organization, Ellis created his own machine. The Helms organization, called the National Congressional Club, was a high-tech political organization located in a suburban North Raleigh office park.

The club bypassed traditional organizations by relying on TV commercials to appeal directly to voters. Many were tough comparative ads that portrayed Democratic opponents as out of touch with mainstream America.

To finance the TV campaigns, Ellis turned to direct mail solicitations — made possible by new computer technology — that allowed for personal appeals to be made to tens of thousands of conservatives across the country.

Exploiting race

The National Congressional Club would send fundraising appeals warning conservatives that militant blacks, homosexuals, labor bosses, and bra-burning feminists were about to take over the country.

The club raised an estimated $100 million for conservative candidates and causes before it went out of business in the mid-1990s.

In perhaps his most influential moment, Ellis helped save Reagan’s political career in 1976.

Helms would get the public credit, but it was Ellis who directed the effort.

Reagan was challenging President Gerald Ford in the GOP primaries then. Ford had won all the primaries, and Reagan was under heavy pressure to pull out when North Carolina held its primary in March that year.

Viewing Reagan’s national campaign as inept, Ellis took command of the North Carolina primary, raised a campaign war chest, and emphasized Reagan’s conservative views — especially his opposition to the Panama Canal Treaty. He used a 30-minute videotape that Reagan had made for GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964 to air on statewide television.

He also used a racially-tinged pamphlet, which said that Ford was considering Massachusetts Sen. Edward Brooke, the only African American in the Senate, as a possible vice presidential candidate.

The Reagan campaign ordered a halt to the flyers’ distribution, saying Reagan never campaigned on race. Ellis swallowed hard and accepted the rebuke in silence.

The North Carolina victory resurrected Reagan’s career. Although Reagan did not capture the GOP presidential nomination in 1976, it launched him to the White House in 1980.

“Without his performance in North Carolina, both in person and on television, Reagan would have faded from contention before Kansas City, and it is unlikely that would have won the presidential nomination four years later,” wrote Lou Cannon, a Reagan biographer. (Kansas City was the site of the 1976 GOP National Convention.)

The Reagan victory helped lay the groundwork for the election of the two George Bushes as president.

Reagan later nominated Ellis to the Board for International Broadcasting overseeing Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, which beamed broadcasts into communist countries.

Ellis asked his name to be withdrawn after Senate Democrats questioned his role as a board member of the Pioneer Fund, which sponsored genetics research into questions of whether blacks were inferior to whites.

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Racial cues were part of Ellis’ stock-in-trade — from tying Jim Hunt to the Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1984 to running the famous “white hands” TV ad which accused Harvey Gantt of favoring racial quotas that hurt white workers in 1990.

“I think he was a pioneer in revolutionizing politics — direct mail fundraising and negative TV ads,” said Gary Pearce, a longtime Democratic strategist. “He was also a master at exploiting race.”

The Helms organization was so powerful that he could hand-pick senators, such as John East in 1980 and Lauch Faircloth in 1992. Both unseated sitting Democratic senators, Robert Morgan and Terry Sanford.

He not only fought Democrats, but he fought moderately conservative Republicans for control of the party. In 1976, first lady Pat Holshouser was reduced to tears when her husband, Jim Holshouser, the first Republican governor since the 1800s, was booed at a state GOP convention because of his support for Ford. Ellis declined to stop the humiliation.

Even years later, Ellis would contemptuously refer to Holshouser, saying, “Jesse dragged this mountain Republican across the line.”

He angered Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Broyhill by running a more conservative candidate, former U.S ambassador David Funderburk, against him in the 1986 GOP primary. Broyhill won, but was weakened in the general election, losing to Sanford.

Ellis, in fact, was only a nominal Republican. Ideology, not party, mattered.

“When the Congressional Club was doing well in North Carolina, we had more conservative Democratic members than Republican members,” Ellis said.

There were limits to Ellis’ power. His main foray into state-level politics failed in 1980, when he backed I. Beverly Lake for governor and Bill Cobey for lieutenant governor.

His effort to raise enough money to take over CBS in 1985 generated a lot of publicity, but never got anywhere.

Training ground for conservatives

The Congressional Club became a training ground for a generation of conservatives including Carter Wrenn, Charles Black, Alex Castellanos, Mark Stevens, Tom Fetzer, Arthur Finkelstein, Richard Viguerie and Ralph Reed.

Wrenn was 23 and just out of college when a Helms staffer took him to meet Ellis. Ellis looked at him and said, “What do you know about fundraising?”

“I don’t know anything,” Wrenn replied.

That turned out to be the right answer and Ellis hired the young Wrenn to help run the Congressional Club.

At the end of their meeting, Ellis told him what he expected.

“I’ve got three rules,” Ellis said. “If you ever lie to me you’re fired. If you sweep a problem under the rug, you’re fired. And if you ever become a know-it-all you’re fired.”

“Everybody gives him credit for being a political genius,” Wrenn said. “But he had a rare gift for nurturing young people. ... He had a way of getting them to believe they could conquer the world.”

Fetzer was leaving Wake Forest University in the summer of 1979 when he got a gig as a bartender for a fundraising party hosted by a Raleigh Republican. At one point Ellis came up for a drink. They chatted and Ellis finally said, “I want you to come see us.”

A few months later Fetzer went to work as executive assistant to Wrenn at the Congressional Club.

“He was one of the towering political figures in North Carolina in the 20th century,” Fetzer said, “and did more to affect the trajectory of politics in the state and the country than just about anybody.”

“Very few people who did not serve in public office or serve in high position have such a dramatic impact on their state and country.”

Fetzer would go on to be Raleigh mayor, and Ellis would help get him elected.

U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle first met Ellis in 1970 when he dated Ellis’ daughter, whom he later married.

“He never, ever sought the limelight,” Boyle said. “He was always willing to be in the background and let the other person get the credit.”

Losing ground

Helms and Ellis may have been brothers in arms and old poker pals, but they were also two strong-willed personalities who frequently clashed with one another.

The Helms political machine broke apart in the mid-1990s for several reasons. There was a disagreement concerning whether the Congressional Club was sending out fundraising letters without Helms’ approval.

There also was a disagreement over Helms’ daughter, Jane Helms Knox, losing her job as principal of St. Timothy’s Episcopal in Raleigh. Ellis and Wrenn, members of the church board, voted to uphold the church rector’s decision to fire Helms’ daughter.

“We felt it was the only fair way to resolve this without tearing the school apart,” Ellis said. “It worked for the school, but there was no way to explain this to Jesse Helms.”

Ellis and Helms later reconciled, but by that time, their political organization had gone out of business.

Even without his political machine, Ellis remained influential in political circles. Ellis helped get one of his proteges, Fetzer, elected Raleigh mayor. He was a behind-the-scenes strategist in a legislative redistricting fight. And he helped get several of his proteges, including his son-in-law, appointed to the federal bench.

By the beginning of the 21st century, Ellis was becoming discouraged. Helms was ending his political career. (He would die in 2008.) The Reagan Revolution was winding down and had not accomplished all that Ellis had hoped.

Too many “liberal Republicans” had moved into the state, he said. Conservatives had made too many compromises.

“It’s been gradual,” Ellis said in a 2001 interview. “We’ve been losing ground.”

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