Tension is not unusual in this city.
On Tuesday afternoon state senator Tim Cullen of Janesville sent an email to Democratic colleagues announcing his resignation from the Democratic Caucus. The announcement comes after the Democrats had just this week taken back control of the body by a narrow one-vote majority, following a recount in a close recall election.
In the email, Senator Cullen makes clear he decided to leave because Senate Majority leader Mark Miller passed over him while handing out committee assignments
"Sen. Miller’s decisions are an insult to me and the people of the 15th Senate District," Senator Cullen wrote.
He attached a PDF file of committee assignments, listing the names of his colleagues and bullet points with their prospective chairmanships and vice chairmanships of various Senate committees. Under his own name, there was a blank space next to the bullet point, indicating no assignments.
"Sen. Miller has made clear that he does not value or need my presence in Senate Committee leadership and, quite obviously, in the Senate Democratic Caucus," Cullen wrote.
"He has made his decision, and now I will make mine. As of the sending of this email, I am no longer a member of the Senate Democratic Caucus. I will decide over the next few days or weeks whether to become an Independent. I will not become a Republican."
At a press conference in his office, Cullen told reporters he was leaning toward leaving the party altogether to become an independent and would decide "long before the November elections."
Nor did he rule out the idea of crossing party lines to vote with the Republicans on some issues. "Time will tell," he said. "It depends on the issue. But I don't see myself ending up consistently with either side."
"Not much is going to occur between now and November anyway," Cullen added, since the Senate is out of session.
With new Senate districts that favor the Republicans, the Democrats may lose their slim majority before they have a chance to do any meaningful work, he pointed out.
Sitting at his desk, with a "Wisconsin 14" logo on a firefighter's hat on the wall behind him, Cullen described his break with his colleague, Senator Miller, with whom he fled to Illinois in 2011 as one of the fourteen senators who left to delay passage of Governor Scott Walker's union-busting Budget Repair Bill.
Does Cullen's defection mean that the Wisconsin 14's spirit of solidarity is gone?
"These are a whole new series of events and that's now a time in the past," Cullen said.
Still, he added, "I think going to Illinois was the right thing to do. Where I differed was I thought we stayed too long."
Cullen briefly considered running against Walker in the recall election, describing himself as someone who could reach out to both sides. A friend of former Republican governor Tommy Thompson and a leader of a failed effort to negotiate a compromise with Walker on collective bargaining, he was seen by some Democrats as an unreliable ally.
But in the effort to reach out to Governor Walker to try to strike a deal to save collective bargaining rights for public employees, he maintains, "we were close."
Still, he made clear, his decision to leave the caucus centers not on policy differences but on what he describes as an unprecedented insult in denying him a leadership position.
Before going public, Cullen told reporters, he tried to work things out behind the scenes. That effort came to nothing, he said, when Miller apparently hung up on him during a phone conversation on Saturday morning. "At a certain point there was no one on the other end of the line," he said.
The message was clear, Cullen said: "that he can treat me however he wants and I'm supposed to just take it."
Senator Miller's office released the following statement: "“I am disappointed in Senator Cullen and the decision he made today. Senator Cullen turned down the chairmanship of the Committee on Small Business Development and Tourism. He told me that if that was the committee offered to him, he would rather chair no committee at all. It was an important committee as small business is the economic engine for Wisconsin.”
Asked whether his defection, in such a polarized political environment and with such a closely divided Senate, might be demoralizing for voters who have been fighting with Democrats to overcome Walker and the Republicans, Cullen said "I don 't think it should be demoralizing at all."
"I walk in a lot of parades," Cullen added, describing a general lessening of combative, passionate responses from constituents--both for and against him--along recent parade routes.
"The state has calmed down," he said. On the Fourth of July, he said, "People yelled out to me, 'I hope you guys can work together up there.'"
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Republicans For No Health Care."
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