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Walters: Cullen says 'private citizen’ can do more to serve public

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September 9, 2013

When he announced his retirement last week, veteran Democratic Sen. Tim Cullen of Janesville corrected anyone who naively dreams that being elected to the Legislature gives you a chance to make positive differences.

“I am not proud of or pleased by the fundamental conclusion I have reached: that I can make a bigger difference in my community as a private citizen than I can in the ugly political environment we see now in Wisconsin government,” Cullen said, announcing that he will not seek re-election in the 15th District.

 Cullen is not just any state senator. His initials stand for “Tried Compromising.” The former Senate majority leader tried to negotiate an end to the walkout of all Democratic state senators in the 2011 war over collective bargaining. He sought a compromise over new mining regulations.

 But Cullen’s calls for negotiations have been swatted away by Republicans, who control the Capitol, since Cullen rejoined the Senate in 2011.

 Cullen said he has seen how the Capitol should function—as Senate majority leader in the 1980s and then secretary of the state health-care agency for Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson—only to be driven unproductively crazy by the current system.

 In other words, Cullen told reporters, he met the enemy—and it’s his fellow elected officials.

“I have concluded that we cannot look to Washington or Madison to focus on the needs of the powerless,” Cullen said. “Washington and Madison care all too much about the moneyed and powerful.”

Plus, Cullen added, “I’ll be 70 in February. I think I’m in the fourth quarter” of life.

 Instead of working within the system, Cullen will use his personal wealth to try and close the gaping economic maw between Janesville-area haves and have-nots.

He’ll work on education, health care and poverty outside of—and not through— governments.

 Professor Cullen, tell us what’s wrong with the Legislature. We’ll takes notes because there will be a civics test in November 2014, when voters elect the next governor, attorney general, half of the 33 state senators and all 99 Assembly members.

 --No compromise: “Compromise is the fabric of our personal lives. … It’s the way people lead their lives—except in the state Capitol. You come to Madison, and ‘compromise’ is a borderline four-letter word.” Republicans who compromise are called RINOs—Republicans In Name Only—and Democrats who want to negotiate complex issues are labeled “sell-outs,” Cullen said.

 --Too powerful leaders: “Today, leadership dominates, runs elections, raises money. Legislators, by the time they get here, have lost a lot of freedom. Leadership positions prevail, and you cross it at your peril.”

-- Reapportionment—the every-10-years practice of whichever party is in power redrawing district lines to make sure it stays in power—creates districts so safe for one party or the other that, “More and more legislators only have to worry about a primary.”

“If they had to worry about a general election, they’d have to compromise,” Cullen added.

 --Anonymous groups spending large amounts in elections: “Unlimited, undisclosed” money spent by shadowy third-party groups is a problem that only leaders in Washington can fix, Cullen said. But, he added, there is a window for state officials to act because, “The public ought to at least know who is giving the money—even though the amounts can’t be stopped.”

Cullen said he wasn’t giving career advice to his “terrific” friend, Republican Sen. Dale Schultz of Richland Center, who faces a primary challenge from Republican Rep. Howard Marklein.

 Schultz voted against GOP leaders on mining bills and Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s budget, so party leaders sent him a “message” with a primary, Cullen said. Schultz’s Senate district borders Cullen’s, and the two often travel the state.

“This ends up being a very personal decision,” Cullen noted. “In the end, you have to decide what’s best for your life.”

Cullen’s retirement statement, however, could just have easily been read by Schultz.

Clarification: A past column noted that first-term Republican Rep. John Jagler of Watertown got the Assembly to pass a bill with tougher penalties for speeding or recklessly endangering garbage collectors and sanitation workers. Actually, Jagler did much better than that; he got the full Legislature to pass that bill, which Walker signed into law.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. This column reflects his personal perspective. Email stevenscwalters@gmail.com.



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