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Cullen breaks with Democratic caucus in state Senate, may become independent

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Sen. Tim Cullen

Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, speaks on the Senate floor.

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."

Cullen said he preferred leadership positions on the education and health committees, given his experience and expertise. He said he was willing to serve as a vice chairman of the education committee, and possibly fill spots on the business commission and transportation projects committee.

Several Democratic senators did not return calls Tuesday, but state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, said he hoped Miller finds a way to bring Cullen back into the fold.

"Tim has a lot of knowledge and a lot of experience, and that is something any leader needs in his caucus," he said.

Cullen briefly sought the Democratic nomination in the recall of Walker before bowing out due to lack of funding.

He was first elected to the Senate in 1974 at the age of 30. He quickly became known for his political acumen. He eventually rose to the position of Senate majority leader, where his opponents dubbed him "The Prince of Darkness" because he seemed capable of working political magic.

He was also known as a moderate who could make deals with Republicans. In a controversial move, former Gov. Tommy Thompson picked Cullen to be Health and Social Services secretary.

"What's weird about this is Tim is a really easy guy to work with," said Senate Minority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau.

Fitzgerald said he has placed a call to Cullen to see if there is a way for him to work with Republicans on some issues.

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Related to this story

Some prominent Senate Democrats called on new Senate Majority Leader Mark Miller on Wednesday to repair his strained relationship with Sen. Tim Cullen and bring the Janesville Democrat back into the caucus a day after he announced he was breaking from the group.

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