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He took two elections that were almost certain defeats 
and turned them into victories. The first saved Ronald Reagan’s 
political career in 1976 and the second saved Jesse Helms in 1984.” 

- Carter Wrenn, former staff director of the Congressional Club

Executive Profile

True Believer

Tom Ellis, the strategist who got Jesse Helms elected, likely is the most influential politician never to hold office

By Ned Cline

Tom Ellis was a 19-year-old freshman football player at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire one subfreezing December day in 1939 as he watched classmates craft an ice sculpture on the campus lawn.

“That darn thing was still there the next May, hadn’t melted a bit,” Ellis recalled recently. “I wasn’t really satisfied at Dartmouth anyway, and when I saw that block of ice hanging around for so long I knew it was time for me to get out.”

And he did. He came as far south as Virginia Beach the next summer and met some friends who spoke of the virtues of North Carolina in general and the University of North Carolina in particular. In the fall of 1940, Ellis became a Tar Heel.

It would be too simplistic to say that the rest is history. It would not, however, be an exaggeration to say that as a North Carolinian Ellis helped make and change history in this state. Republicans and other conservatives here can be thankful for that blustery New England winter that drove Ellis this way.

Among North Carolina’s political insiders, Ellis is an icon who either wears angel’s wings or carries a devil’s pitchfork, depending on one’s particular political perspective. Outside those insiders, however, he’s still not a household name because he has functioned for decades primarily as this state’s stealth political fighter pilot.

Ellis is to conservative political thinking what Arnold Palmer once was to golf: the master with a sweet stroke who knows how to win.  

A Raleigh lawyer by profession and a respected political strategist by avocation, Ellis is arguably the single most significant promoter of conservative philosophy in this state in the last half century. He has truly altered the course of history in North Carolina and beyond, seldom with fanfare and never for personal gain. He genuinely believes in the conservative cause. He’s 83 now, but age hasn’t curbed his zeal.

That’s just one side of the man. There is another, known only to his family and close friends because that side is even more private than his political alliances. He is a person of deep religious faith, a disciplined and caring father and grandfather, founder of a private school, devoted golfing and jogging buddy, mentor and confidant, and a man who shuns all things extravagant. His “aw shucks” personality is as genuine as his political philosophy.

He has kept most of the same golf partners for decades. “We just keep the same group until one dies off, then replace him,” Ellis says with a truthful grin. His partners call him a serious golfer, as determined to win as in politics. He once (but only once) shot a 70. He formed a jogging club 40 years ago at N.C. State, and has stuck with it. He has been participating in a regular Bible study course for more than 15 years.

Ellis lives in a house he built in 1956 on what was then a dirt street one block off Glenwood Avenue in Raleigh. He is notorious for driving used cars, most notably a dilapidated Volkswagen beetle that eventually died only after the rusted frame literally began dropping engine parts onto the street. He reluctantly sold the vehicle for $10. He and his wife now drive Cadillacs, but never new ones. When she insists on a newer used model, he takes her older one for his own.

“Clothes, cars, and cash never mattered much to him,” former Raleigh Mayor Tom Fetzer says of Ellis. “He never collected a dime for all his years of political work even though he is a strategic genius of unquestioned integrity with an intuitive connection to the populace.” When he spent large amounts of time on political activities, Ellis routinely asked his law partners to reduce his share of their firm’s annual income. 

Ellis’ former campaign associates conservatively estimate he dedicated the equivalent of six full years to campaigns during the last three decades, all without pay. “The media has portrayed him as an uncaring person with a short horizon,” says Raleigh political consultant Mark Stephens, “but he is just the opposite. He is a visionary, thoughtful and generous, cares deeply about his family and others and in his heart does what he honestly feels is best for America, both personally and professionally. He has been a wonderful mentor to many.”

Most of the accolades about Ellis, not surprisingly, come from Republicans. But not all. “I love Tom Ellis,” says Ken Eudy, a Raleigh public relations company owner and former executive director of the N.C. Democratic Party. “He is a good friend and a straight shooter. You can always count on him to be honest.”

It is a truism to say that Ellis created Sen. Jesse Helms — thus the angel wings or pitchfork assessment — because without Ellis, there would never have been a Sen. Helms. Ellis convinced Helms to run for that high office and crafted the successful Helms campaigns. The two were joined at the political hip for more than 30 years. That relationship has soured now, for reasons unrelated to political philosophy because they’re still in tandem on that, but Helms willingly gives Ellis deserved credit for his victories.

“Without Tom Ellis, I would never have been a senator,” Helms said recently, acknowledging that the two don’t see much of each other now even though they’re both in Raleigh. “I like him and would still trust him with my life.”

While it is generally agreed among friends of both Ellis and Helms that the two complimented each other in campaigns because they were committed to a common cause, it is also conceded that Ellis is likely stronger without Helms than Helms is without Ellis. “Would Paul Newman have been such a good actor if he had not had a good director?” one friend of both men asks rhetorically.

Ellis was the braintrust behind creation of the National Congressional Club that raised and funneled many millions of dollars into and mapped strategies for the Helms campaigns over three decades.

Helms, however, is just one of the winning hands in Ellis’ political deck of cards. Others in this state have included Sen. John East, Sen. Lauch Faircloth, Lt. Gov. Jim Gardner, Cong. Bill Cobey and Fetzer, the former Raleigh mayor.

As significant as some of those have been in shaping this state’s political landscape, with Helms the focal point, Ellis’ most important winner for conservatives was Ronald Reagan. Ellis has seldom received much recognition for his role in Reagan’s political survival, but that doesn’t negate its national impact or the cunning way he successfully carried it out.

Without Ellis, there likely would never have been a President Reagan. In 1976, Reagan had lost all the early Republican presidential primaries against Gerald Ford and North Carolina was his last hope. Prospects here appeared dismal as Reagan’s national political advisers clawed for support against Ford and the state’s entrenched Republican establishment led by then Gov. Jim Holshouser.

The Reagan prospects just weeks before the North Carolina primary were so depressing that the candidate had privately prepared himself for defeat and, running out of campaign funds, decided to leave the state after losing and return to California, turn in his rented airplane and drop out of the race.

Ellis had other ideas. He felt Reagan’s national campaign staff didn’t understand the electorate in North Carolina and not so diplomatically ordered Reagan’s national campaign aides to back off. Ellis effectively took command of the campaign in the state, privately and quickly raised money for some last minute straight-talk TV ads — which Reagan’s sulking staff thought were silly — and talked up conservatives issues he felt would resonate with voters here. It worked. Reagan, in a shocker to almost everyone but Ellis, won here and his candidacy was saved.

It took Reagan another four years to win the presidency, but the victory in North Carolina kept him as a viable candidate. Without Ellis snatching victory from defeat, Reagan would have quit, perhaps never to run again. Many others across the country, of course, helped Reagan later win the White House, but it was Ellis that kept him on political life support.

“I can’t really place a value on all I learned from Mr. Ellis,” says Carter Wrenn, former staff director of the Congressional Club. “But he took two elections that were almost certain defeats and turned them into victories. The first saved Ronald Reagan’s political career in 1976 and the second saved Jesse Helms in 1984 (in a hard fought campaign against then  Gov. Jim Hunt).”

“My only interest has been to get conservatives elected,” Ellis says of his quiet campaign roles. “I think I did that. That’s all I wanted. I know it sounds trite, but I just thought I could make a difference.”

“I guess I have always been conservative,” he adds. “Those are the principles that built this country and made it great. I know you have to have a national government, but sooner or later you’ve got to have a reckoning. Little by little, I think we’re inching toward socialism and that will lead us to destruction. It’s all in what you believe in and what you care about.

“The problem is that too many politicians run on popular approval and they listen to whoever is holding the biggest megaphone. I think (President George W.) Bush and (political advisor Carl) Rove are reading the opinion polls right now. I still have faith in the people and believe if you are doing the right thing, most voters will support you. I don’t like political phonies.”

Ellis’ political opponents have called him many things, but phony is never one of them. Genuine is the word most used to describe him, regardless of political persuasion. And despite his concern about what he calls the leftward flow of the political pendulum, his passion that right will prevail is more pronounced than his pessimism.

That trait started a long time ago. He didn’t learn conservative philosophy at his daddy’s knee, but his first lesson did come at home.  Ellis’ father, William Robert Ellis, was a vice president of Hercules Power, the company that later became DuPont Corp. As an engineer who helped design the Hoover Dam, the senior Ellis was schooled in the rabid anti-New Deal philosophy of the DuPont family. The father’s job and ties to company headquarters brought the family from California, where his son was born in August 1920, to Wilmington, Del., in the mid-1930s.

Shortly after enrolling at UNC and beginning his study of finance, Ellis went home one weekend and began discussing a labor law class in which he had been told that management oppressed workers in big businesses. “My father sat me down and told me what the score was,” Ellis says. “He explained that I had it all wrong.” That was the beginning of the Ellis conversion to conservatism. Sixty years later, it’s still strong.

While a student in Chapel Hill, Ellis met his future wife, Jinette Hood, a student at St. Mary’s College in Raleigh. Her father, a Virginian, was as conservative as Ellis. In 1964, with a UNC degree in hand, he married and took his new wife to California during his two-year stay in the U.S. Navy where he taught radar courses. He calls it a two-year honeymoon.

Determined not to return to the frigid north, Ellis enrolled at the University of Virginia Law School and excelled, earning a degree in three years in 1948. “I liked the South and wanted to stay here,” he says.

Choosing Raleigh to start a career, Ellis opened a solo law office. In 1950, he teamed with attorney Joe Cheshire in a two-person firm and promptly made his first venture into political activism as a researcher for U.S. Senate candidate and fellow Raleigh lawyer Willis Smith in his campaign against Sen. Frank Porter Graham. That is when Ellis first met Jesse Helms.

That campaign, bitter to the end, convinced Ellis of two things: he was determined to continue in the political arena and he needed a new law partner. Cheshire was as strong for Graham as Ellis was for Smith.

Ellis then joined what would become one of Raleigh’s most respected law practices at Maupin, Taylor and Ellis. The firm’s major clients over four decades have been railroads and other large corporations where partners earned the title of “union busters,” although Ellis was always as diligent in representing indigent individuals as big businesses.

A year ago, with senior partners and longtime friends Armistead Maupin and William “T” Taylor effectively retired, Ellis left the firm to join Haynsworth Baldwin Johnson & Greaves with offices in Cary and Greenville, S.C. The Haynsworth name may register with conservatives. Partners in the law firm are relatives of Clement Haynsworth, the conservative South Carolina lawyer who Richard Nixon unsuccessfully tried to appoint to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Ellis still works almost every day at the law office. Among the pending cases he is in the thick of at present is the legislative redistricting battle in North Carolina.

The Ellis influence can also been seen beyond the ballot box. While he never accepted a dime of pay for any of his political work, his shadow looms large over federal courts. His recommendations for federal judges have resulted in at least three sitting jurists in North Carolina: Terrence Boyle (Ellis’ son-in-law), Mac Howard and Frank Bullock. “Jesse (Helms) asked me after he won the first time what I wanted and I told him nothing except I would like to recommend some good people for judgeships,” Ellis says.

“He has always treated me like a son,” Boyle says, “and his force of impact on this state and nation is tremendous. His pedigree is like a CEO, but he has never wanted anything official. He has won virtually ever hand he has played, but never picked up the pot. He has a compelling drive and force of will for his beliefs. That’s a tribute to the man.” Boyle, like many, addresses him only as “Mr. Ellis,” a term of endearment. 

Judge Bullock, a former member of the law firm with Ellis, calls Ellis an inspiration to others in law and politics. “He’s a great visionary, a tenacious representative of his clients who always works to achieve what others think is not possible,” Bullock says.

“I’ve been blessed to have him for 60 years,” Jinette says. “He’s quite a patriot and I’m very proud of all he has accomplished.” She says she agrees with his politics and listens to his views “most of the time.”

Ellis’ political and moral disciplines extend to his son, Hood, an attorney, and his daughter, Debbie, who is an artist and Judge Boyle’s wife. The siblings live in Edenton along the North Carolina coast. Ellis encouraged them to move to a small town. “Bad things get to small towns a little later,” Ellis says with reference to his grandchildren. When the grandchildren visit their grandfather, they frequently get what Jinette calls “little lectures” on societal topics and life’s issues.

“He has been a wonderful role model for me and many others,” son Hood says. “No one has impacted me more than he has. I suppose at one time I challenged him on some things, but I have learned that if you just do what he says, chances are you’ll be right.”

Ellis’ friends and associates are unanimous in mentioning integrity, fairness and honesty when asked for their assessments. “He’s the truest friend anyone could ever have,” says retired insurance executive William Gilliam. “I’ve known him 60 years and never met a more honest man.”

Joe Knott, a Raleigh lawyer and leader of Ellis’ Bible Study group, calls Ellis “highly principled” with a passion for his country, his church and issues of right and wrong. “We don’t talk much politics,” Knott says. “For me to talk politics with Mr. Ellis is like me talking basketball with Michael Jordan. I can’t compete. But he is certainly one of the brightest stars and the voice of conservative allegiances in this state.” 

The best Ellis assessment, however, may be from Bob Harris, a 45-year-old physically challenged individual with a degenerative muscular disease who has been bedridden since 1981. Ellis first gave Harris a job, then when he could no longer care for himself, Ellis led the effort to secure electronic equipment essential for Harris to maintain a viable life. 

“I can say Mr. Ellis is the finest gentleman I have ever known and my life would have turned out a lot differently if I had not met him,” Harris volunteers, speaking through a computer, his only means of communication. “I don’t think anyone else would have given me a chance. He was also great to my mom when she was dying. She respected him for that, and so do I.”

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