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Had lunch last week with former state Sen. Tim Cullen, the Janesville Democrat who's making no secret that he wants to take on Gov. Scott Walker in 2018.

He's been traveling around the state meeting with local folks to gauge their enthusiasm, and insists that so far, he's encouraged by what he's hearing.

Cullen is the Democrat who joined with former Republican state Sen. Dale Schultz of Richland Center awhile back in a bipartisan attempt to get the Legislature to consider redistricting reform, taking the drawing of legislative and congressional districts out of the hands of the politicians in favor of an independent board.

When legislative Republicans refused to even hold a public hearing on their plan, the two senators held their own hearings around the state, which drew several hundred people to back their proposal. Still, it had no effect on the legislators in the Capitol. Both Cullen and Schultz decided to retire from the Senate in 2014.

Cullen's political history is quite interesting. He was elected to the Wisconsin Senate in 1974 and was re-elected for three more terms. He served as the majority leader for three sessions before being wooed away by then new Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson in 1987 to serve as his secretary of Health and Family Services, an eyebrow-raising appointment to say the least, but one that added to Cullen's reputation of being willing to reach across the aisle. He served for nearly two years before taking a private job as vice president of Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Wisconsin.

Then in 2010, after Blue Cross was dissolved, he ran for his old Janesville Senate seat and won. That put Cullen smack in the middle of the volatile debate over newly elected Gov. Scott Walker's Act 10 and the Democratic senators' decision to leave the state in an attempt to delay its enactment. Cullen afterward wrote a book about that experience in which he describes the drama that went on behind the scenes.

There's a portion of Cullen's book, "Ringside Seat," that describes how Walker uses others to achieve his ends. When the Senate Democrats were in Illinois, Cullen received a personal call from Walker. Cullen was perplexed by the call because all the governor did was ask about his health and make other small talk. There was no discussion about Act 10 or any other political issue. 

But, as Cullen found out later, Walker used the call to claim he had reached out to the Democrats, plus Walker had "proof" he made a call to the Janesville senator because it was now on his phone log.

I've got a hunch that's one of the reasons Cullen wants to take on the governor in 2018, an election in which Walker has signaled he'll again be a candidate. But Cullen's got other, more tangible, issues like Walker's handling of the Lincoln Hills School for Boys, which has been under a cloud since allegations of inmate abuse, child neglect and misconduct in office surfaced in December 2015. 

The former senator is aghast that as governor Walker has never visited the institution, yet closed the Ethan Allen School for Boys in Wales shortly after taking office in 2011 and put all those kids together, many of them from southeastern Wisconsin, in an outpost in far-off northern Wisconsin. Walker has no idea of the lay of the land or what goes on there, Cullen said.

He's also critical of the governor's handling of the state transportation budget. Not only has Walker borrowed heavily to pay for road building, he has transferred a total of $865 million to transportation from the general fund, money that could have gone to the University of Wisconsin and public education, had transportation been required to raise its own revenue from gas taxes and fees.

Cullen told me that he had no intention of returning to elective politics, but when he and Schultz went on their bipartisan campaign around the state, many stopped to tell him he was the kind of person who needed to run for governor. That, coupled with his frustration over the Democrats' failure in recent state elections, has convinced him.

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He's 72, but doesn't see that as a problem. Bernie Sanders, after all, is 75 and he appealed to young people everywhere, Cullen countered, and Sanders' issues and the kind of race he ran are what he hopes for, too. He's even been looking for possible running mates who would join him as lieutenant governor. One he has talked to is Sarah Lloyd, the feisty progressive family dairy farmer from near Wisconsin Dells who gave Republican Congressman Glenn Grothman a run for his money in November.

Cullen realizes running against a candidate like Scott Walker with Walker's access to unlimited campaign contributions from out of state will be a challenge.

Nevertheless, he hopes to make his race official in spring and is quite convinced that he can be the next governor of Wisconsin.  

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com and on Twitter @DaveZweifel

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