State Sen. Tim Cullen, a moderate Democrat from Janesville, broke with his party’s caucus Tuesday, saying he may become an independent over what he felt were political “insults” by the Senate majority leader. Cullen said he made his decision, announced to the rest of the caucus by email, after Sen. Mark Miller, D-Monona, slighted him with committee assignments. Every senator in the caucus was given at least two committee leadership positions. Cullen has none. Miller said in a statement Tuesday that Cullen turned down an “important” committee overseeing small business and tourism. The immediate result of the defection is not known. Democrats took control of the Senate on July 16 by a 17-16 margin and are still moving into new offices. State Sen. Rich Zipperer, R-Pewaukee, is stepping down Aug. 6 to take over as Gov. Scott Walker’s deputy chief of staff, so even if Cullen leaves the party, Democrats will still hold a slim majority: 16-15-1. The Senate isn’t scheduled to meet until January, and 16 of 33 seats are up for election in November. Cullen said he did not know why he was ignored for leadership positions that appealed to him, but imagined it had to do with his independent nature and track record of working with Republicans on certain issues.
The 68-year-old senator returned to Madison in 2010 after a 24-year break from politics. He was among the 14 Democratic senators who left the state during the historic protests at the Capitol in 2011. But Cullen, along with state Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, worked to find a compromise with Walker — a compromise Miller never backed. His moderate stance, and frequent partnership with state Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, did not sit well with some in his own party. Cullen said Miller initially offered him what he considered a token committee chairmanship — tourism and small business. He rejected the position and was negotiating with Miller for a more important role when he said the majority leader essentially told him to “take it or leave it. This was not an accident,” Cullen said. “I was not accidentally overlooked. It was blatantly, intentionally, intending to insult me and the people of the 15th (Senate District).”
Cullen said that during his last discussion with Miller, the Democratic leader hung up on him. Miller refused to talk to reporters Tuesday, but issued the following statement: “I am disappointed in Sen. Cullen and the decision he made today. Sen. 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.”