State Sen. Tim Cullen of Janesville announced Tuesday that he is leaving the Democratic caucus after being snubbed on committee assignments, erasing the Democrats' new majority in the Senate.
In an email to his Democratic colleagues, Cullen wrote "Sen. [Mark] Miller has made clear that he does not value or need my presence in the Senate committee leadership and, quite obviously, in the Senate Democratic Caucus."
In a news conference in his office Tuesday, Cullen said he would not become a Republican, but might decide to become an independent.
The Democrats had just wrestled control of the Senate from Republicans in the June 5 recall elections -- results that were not finalized until Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) decided two weeks ago not to go to court to contest his loss. His challenger, Democrat John Lehman, was sworn in July 16, giving the Democrats a 17-to-16 edge in the Senate.
Cullen said the Republicans did not coax him to their side. "The Republicans have not offered me anything, and I have not talked to them."
Cullen was first elected to the Senate in 1974 and served as the majority leader three times, the post Miller now holds. Cullen served in the Senate until 1987, when he left to become the state's Secretary of Health and Social Services under Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson. He was reelected to the Senate in 2010.
Although he's always been viewed as a centrist, Cullen was among the "Wisconsin 14" who left the state in 2011 to stall Gov. Scott Walker's attempts to end collective bargaining rights of public sector unions.
A reminder of that time -- a firehat with a "Wisconsin 14 Cullen" badge on the front -- sat in his office Tuesday afternoon.
When a reporter asked him about it, Cullen said: "I have many friends in the Senate Democratic Caucus and I'm certain I will continue to have them. So that's not a concern of mine," he said. "These are a whole new series of events, and that's now a time in the past."
Cullen added: "I do still believe that going to Illinois was the right thing to do."
The issue appears to have been a personality clash with Miller, who did not give Cullen any committee leadership posts. Cullen said Miller had tried to resolve the matter behind the scenes unsuccessfully for more than a week. Cullen said that Miller hung up on him during a phone call last Saturday.
"We're certainly not the closest of friends," Cullen said.
Miller could not be reached for comment, but an online statement reads: "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."
It's unclear what, if anything, Cullen's decision will mean for either party. The Senate is not expected to come back to session until after the November elections, which could once again shift the balance of power. Sixteen of the Senate's 33 seats are up for election, though not all of them are contested. Cullen, who said he wants to run again, is not up for reelection until 2014.
The situation is further muddied because Sen. Rich Zipperer (R-Pewaukee) announced last week he will resign his seat next month to join Gov. Walker's administration.
Cullen seems to be excited at the prospect of going his own way.
"I'm my own man, which is maybe where I need to be," he said and later added, "I don't see myself ending up consistently with either [party]. I'll just be doing what I think is right."
In addition, Cullen said that the political atmosphere in Wisconsin has calmed down. He said he walks in a lot of parades and both the vitriol and enthusiasm of comments, for and against him, have waned. Instead he's heard a lot of comments that amounted to: "I hope you guys can work together up there. I'd never heard that before."