Tim Cullen’s book predicts, laments Walker era
Mike Royko wrote the definitive book on Chicago politics. First released in 1971 and republished many times, “Boss” tells the story of iconic and infamous Mayor Richard Daly. It’s often been said that anyone who wants to truly understand American politics has to read that book.
The Gov. Scott Walker years aren’t over in Wisconsin. And history usually reveals itself slowly. So we can’t be sure the new book, “A Ringside Seat,” by recently retired Wisconsin state Sen. Tim Cullen is definitive. But we can be pretty sure.
Cullen, a Democrat from Janesville who served in Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson’s cabinet, tells stories like a 1970s beat reporter writing a series of features for Life magazine. Like Mike Royko, Cullen spins stories that are factual and fascinating. For Cullen, the central story is Wisconsin history in his new book, Ringside Seat. This history starts in the ’60s, meanders often, then predicts and laments the Walker era.
Ironically, the story begins in Illinois, where Cullen and thirteen other Democratic state senators from Wisconsin fled in 2011 to delay a vote on the Republican governor’s anti-union restrictions. Cullen had just been re-elected to the Senate following a quarter of a century away from the Legislature. He’s the last vote out of town during Walker’s tumultuous first weeks in the governor’s office, when huge protests encircled the Capitol building in Madison.
Cullen asks for and gets help from a Republican, makes an improbable run for the border, and drives back roads to Illinois.
I get the feeling Cullen started his book while hiding in Illinois during February of 2011. He effortlessly recalls the episode like a story he’s told a million times. Like most of his stories in the book, this one meanders toward before slamming into the Walker years.
Cullen draws his contrasts less like a politician and more like a historian or journalist. Everything remembered, every little thing in context. This is history writing with guts, told at a brisk pace and in fascinating ways.
Royko’s Boss was about race and class, and most of all political power. So is Cullen’s book. Ringside Seat deals with race and class differently than many do today. Some will say a little naive, but it’s clear and practical and true.
After eleven years as a leading Democratic lawmaker, Cullen joins Thompson’s cabinet as health and human services secretary. He is the point person for welfare and prison reforms. He sees injustice: too many poor and black people in prison for nonviolent offenses. He wins reforms. Cullen takes no credit. He just tells what happened.
Clean and open government get thorough treatment in Ringside Seat. So do gerrymandering, partisanship, press freedoms, campaign finance and governor Walker. The book sustains its fast pace, even when a particular story seems small or insignificant.
The author’s singular focus makes it so. Cullen is telling a history filled with fascinating yarns, and he makes every connection crystal clear. He makes every point count. Every image fits the screen and the book’s title.
Cullen sets out to explain today’s hyper-partisan Wisconsin politics. He blames much on “huge chunks of campaign money from the left and the right.” He says this modern reality causes the “are you with me one hundred percent of the time” politics we see today. More efforts to gerrymander safe districts are just one result.
That is Cullen’s accomplishment. His stories ring true and often are hilarious, but every one makes its point. Two stints as a senator, during two shockingly different eras, make Cullen’s observations important.
Book proceeds will fund scholarships for local kids of color who pursue teaching in Janesville. That makes Cullen a statesman.
I’m not easily impressed by politicians. Like most Wisconsinites, that’s particularly true these days. This book impresses me. It’s insightful and fresh. And it’s a must-read for any of us who want to understand how a state so steeped in clean government tradition landed in the Scott Walker era.