Cullen tells Rotary Club about book on state politics
A former Wisconsin Senate Democratic majority leader and cabinet secretary to Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson talked about his book “Ringside Seat: Wisconsin Politics, 1970s to Scott Walker” to the Stevens Point Rotary Club Wednesday, June 15.
Tim Cullen served in the Senate from 1975 to 1986, then replaced Stevens Point’s Bill Bablitch as Senate majority leader for 4-1/2 years before joining the cabinet of Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson as secretary of the Department of Health and Social Services and then worked for Blue Cross for 20 years before retiring and returning to the state Senate in 2011.
Cullen said a Democrat joining the administration of a Republican governor, or vice versa, was nothing unusual in Wisconsin during the terms of the 12 governors prior to Walker. “It was something you should do,” he said. “We were all working for what was best for Wisconsin.”
In his cabinet position, Cullen ran the Department of Health and Social Services, including the prison system.
Cullen said that Thompson asked him to run the department, but wanted Cullen’s promise that there would be no surprises so they always talked about possible changes, which included welfare reform and regulation of nursing homes.
Cullen said he loved the job in the cabinet, but after 16 months in the position, he was approached by Blue Cross to take a job as vice president in charge of the Evansville office, which he accepted in 1988.
He worked for Blue Cross for 20 years, then ran again for the state Senate. “Politics has changed in 40 years,” he said.
The six Republican and six Democratic governors who preceded Scott Walker all governed near the center and resulted in a containment strategy, with Republicans governing “center right” and Democrats governing “center left.” “Walker has governed more from the right,” Cullen said.
The 12 prior governors also used citizen participation by having Blue Ribbon Commissions study possible changes in government and make recommendations, while citizen study commissions have been left out with Walker’s changes.
Cullen said Republican Gov. Warren Knowles “wore out Bill Kellett” with commissions on public education, efficiency in state government and establishing cabinet-appointed government. Kellett also did the groundwork on the University of Wisconsin System combination, while Gov. Patrick Lucey completed the merger, Cullen said.
“It was a very different time,” Cullen said, because Walker is not using Blue Ribbon Commission studies, “he’s dropping bombs with changes on Chapter 10, mining, gerrymandering districts and voter ID.”
At Blue Cross, Cullen said he was running business units rather than working as a lobbyist, but he could see bi-partisanship was slipping in government. Groups used to have a lobbyist who worked with both parties, he said, but Blue Cross had two lobbyists by 2000, one for Democrats and one for Republicans. By then, he said, many groups only supported one party.
In 2010 the state and nation were in the middle of a recession, and Walker came in promising jobs and moved government to the right, Cullen said. “People had problems with public employees, they were jealous of them, and he worked to divide public employees from private employees.”
Prior governors, whether Democratic or Republican, were business friendly, and Cullen said he believes “Walker is an aberration. I don’t believe Wisconsin is a divided state. The people here are friendly. I think we will go forward. I reviewed the 12 previous governors on how they governed and worked to keep Wisconsin unified.”
Cullen said he believes there is not a more unifying event in Wisconsin than when the Green Bay Packers win the Super Bowl. When the Packers won the Super Bowl in 2011, any predecessor to Walker would have been with the Packers throughout the celebration. “This governor enacted Act 10 five days later.”
He said the Act 10 proposal itself created a problem for him because the legislation was suddenly proposed and the only way Democratic senators felt they could delay its passage was to let citizens know what was in it by going out of state so they wouldn’t be available to vote on it.
However, Cullen said, he received a phone call from the family of Bill Bablitch and was asked to serve as family spokesman and announce Bablitch’s death in the State Capitol that morning. Cullen said he was aided in getting out of the Capitol before the Senate met by Sen. Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, in the spirit of mutual respect that had been shown in previous years.
A governor has to tell wings of the party they’re not going to get everything they want, Cullen said. Previous governors had to govern with 60 percent of the vote and said that, not with 51 or 52 percent of the vote.
Cullen recalled Thompson saying “you can’t govern Wisconsin based on ideology.”
Cullen answered a question from a Rotary Club member saying he would rank Lee Sherman Dreyfus, the former University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point chancellor “pretty high” on his list of governors. “He fit the mold of the 12 predecessors,” Cullen said. “He understood the role of the UW System in economic development.”
Proceeds from Cullen’s book will be donated to the Janesville Multicultural Teacher Opportunities Scholarship Program, which Cullen established in 2007. The program gives minority students from Janesville scholarships of up to $5,000 a year if they agree to commit to getting education degrees and teaching in Janesville for three years.