MADISON (AP) - Democrats have been running the state Senate for a little more than a week and already they're fracturing after one of their own decided to quit the caucus Tuesday.
Sen. Tim Cullen of Janesville said Majority Leader Mark Miller offered to make him chair of a new small business and tourism committee. Cullen said he refused, telling Miller the committee isn't important and he wanted to deal with health care and prison issues.
Miller released a committee chairmanship list on July 16, the day Democrats officially took control of the Senate after winning a one-seat majority in last month's recall elections. The list showed every Senate Democrat had a committee chairmanship except Cullen. Their last conversation about it on Saturday ended with Miller hanging up on him, Cullen said.
"I said it was an insult to my district and the line went dead," Cullen said. "(Miller) blatantly, intentionally intended to insult me."
Cullen said he will no longer meet with other Senate Democrats and won't feel obligated to vote with them. He said he was pondering leaving the party all together. He won't become a Republican, he said, but he might turn independent.
Miller issued a three-sentence statement saying Cullen told him he would rather chair no committee than lead the small business-tourism panel.
"It was an important committee as small business is the economic engine for Wisconsin," Miller said. "I am disappointed in Senator Cullen and the decision he made today."
Cullen, 68, a moderate, served in the state Senate from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s and went on to serve in former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson's cabinet. He returned to the Senate in 2010, painting himself as a throwback compromiser in a bitterly partisan world.
He took office in January 2011, a month and a half before Republican Gov. Scott Walker introduced a bill to strip most public workers of their union rights and fled to Illinois with the rest of the Senate Democrats in a futile attempt to block a vote. While the Democrats were in hiding he tried to negotiate with Walker's administration to soften the bill, ultimately to no avail. He has also become fast friends with moderate Republican Sen. Dale Schultz of Richland Center. Cullen said Miller may be looking to punish him for trying to negotiate on collective bargaining, his relationship with Schultz and his moderate stances.
Schultz released a statement saying he doesn't worry about matters within the Democratic caucus, but he affirmed his friendship with Cullen. Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, one of Cullen's closest allies, said he's "puzzled, surprised and deeply disappointed that Sen. Miller didn't find a meaningful and productive committee assignment for a valuable member of the state Senate."
The infighting makes for fascinating political theater but probably won't amount to much outside the Capitol.
Senate Democrats officially gained a 17-16 majority on July 16 when John Lehman of Racine was sworn in after defeating Republican Sen. Van Wanggaard in recall elections last month. Democrats tried to oust six Republican officeholders, including Walker, as payback for the union changes, but Wanggaard was the only Republican who lost his seat.
The Democrats' edge will grow to 17-15 next month after Sen. Tim Zipperer, R-Pewaukee, leaves to join Walker's staff. That means that even if Cullen becomes an independent, Democrats would still hold a 17-15-1 majority.
Senate control means little right now. It isn't scheduled to reconvene until January and the balance of power in the chamber could swing back to the GOP in November's elections.
Still, Minority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said the GOP sees a potential ally in Cullen.
"Tim is an easy guy to work with," Fitzgerald said. "If he truly is frustrated with the caucus, maybe there's a place for him to work for us."
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