Aug 2012: Looking for Paul Ryan in Wisconsin

This column was first published today at CONSTRUCTION

Will the Real Paul Ryan Please Stand Up?

 

GOP vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan may have trouble carrying not just his Democratic-leaning home state of Wisconsin, but also a hometown increasingly critical of his policies and track record.

“It’s not a lock that he’ll get the Janesville vote,” Yuri Rashkin, a local politician who lives a few blocks away from the candidate, told me by telephone from his hometown. “Paul Ryan goes to D.C. and proposes legislation that even people here who vote for him would never support.”

Rashkin’s got a good sense of the mood in Janesville, having spent several months canvassing Wisconsin’s 44th District in advance of a state house primary election in August. The two-term Janesville City Council member lost the vote, but the Democrat gained insight into where locals stand on Ryan, who has represented Wisconsin’s first congressional district since 1999 when he was first elected at age 28.

While many disagree with Ryan’s policies, locals have nevertheless reelected Ryan six times “because he’s a good ol’ local boy,” says Rashkin.

Not any more.

“There are two Paul Ryans,” John Heckenlively, the candidate’s last Democratic opponent for Congress, recently told The Progressive. “The Wisconsin Ryan, who glad-hands everyone and tells them what they want to hear. And the Washington Ryan, who votes against people of his district.”

That’s changing.

On a personal level, the congressman is well-liked as a neighbor in this picturesque town of 63,500 residents, historic homes, and now a platoon of secret service agents constantly surrounding Ryan’s wife Janna and three children. (Literally, they’re surrounded. Their Georgian Revival mansion at 700 St. Lawrence St. is blocked off to through-traffic. And when Janna walked into the local Carousel Consignments she was shadowed by secret service agents, says Rashkin.)

Paul Ryan’s Road

Born and raised in Janesville, Ryan still lives down the block from where he grew up, next door to his cousin, across the street from his uncle, and a block away from a brother.

Ryan gets his hair cut at the local barbershop and frequents backyard barbeques—which is how he first met Rashkin. As the two chatted about local affairs, it was clear that Ryan remained ingrained in the community, rattling on about local businesses and businesspeople. He even bothers to get his coffee card stamped at the Stop-N-Go, clerk Dani Barker told the Chicago Sun-Times.

“It’s always like, ‘Hey, here’s my coffee.’ I stamp his card and he says, ‘Thank you,’” Barker said. “He never has anyone go get his coffee for him.”

Nice guy. Family man. Churchgoer. Plays with the kids. Hunts. Remembers your first name. “But what’s Ryan actually done for Janesville?” asks Rashkin.

“He’s very ideological but not very practical,” he answers. “If he did become VP, he may be more interested in macro economics than in addressing the needs of people who have elected him.”

Janesville, despite being represented by the chairman of the House Budget Committee, has suffered more than its fair share of economic hardships in recent years. A 500-year flood hit in the summer of 2008, then the nearby General Motors assembly plant closed days before Christmas 2008 and left 5,000 locals out of work (including some of Ryan’s childhood friends), and in 2009 Chrysler relocated 850 engine jobs from the district to a new plant in Mexico.

Soon afterward, Rashkin ran into Ryan in town.

“What’s next forJanesville, locusts?” Ryan quipped.

The closures haven’t helped the congressman’s popularity. “Mention Paul Ryan to a union person, they start spitting,” says Rashkin.

Ryan’s ultra-conservative social and economic policies are raising eyebrows in Janesville

Indeed. John Dohner, president of Local 95 of the United Auto Workers in Janesville, had this to say to The Progressive: “Paul Ryan is a phony and a disaster. The people I know aren’t fooled by his smile or surprised by his votes. They see him as a slickster, not a friend.”

Robert Borremans, head of the Southwest Wisconsin Workforce Development Board, has also criticized Ryan’s lackluster efforts to bring more money for job training. “I think his emphasis on smaller government is negatively impacting workforce services,” Borremans recently told Reuters.

Brad Dutcher, head of the local autoworkers union, criticized Ryan’s sharp cuts in safety-net spending amid the auto layoffs. “Those people needed help from Paul, and he failed us,” Dutcher told Reuters.

That’s not quite fair to some of Ryan’s failed efforts to help the local auto plants, however. When GM announced the closure of its Janesville plant, Ryan met with company executives and lobbied the Obama administration for economic-development funds, notes Reuters. Ryan also broke with fellow Republicans—and seemingly his own Ayn Rand-inspired libertarian philosophy—in voting for the $15 billion auto bailout of GM and Chrysler. Mitt Romney, meanwhile, was fuming against the bailout and writing op-eds such as the infamous The New York Times piece, “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”

Still, more and more so, Ryan’s ultra-conservative social and economic policies are raising eyebrows in Janesville.

“Up until this past couple years, when he became budget chairman and actually put forward a budget, I don’t think people really did have a sense that he had ideas like ending Medicare as we know it,” Peter Barca, the Democratic minority leader in the Wisconsin State Assembly, recently told McClatchy Newspapers.

“We’re mostly Democratic country here,” Nancy Wixom added while sipping coffee at the Sizzlin’ Grill downtown. “Being the age I am; I’m a little concerned about some of it.”

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About Stephen Kurczy

Stephen Kurczy is a New York-based journalist for the Financial Times Group. A former desk editor for The Christian Science Monitor, contributor to The Economist, and associate editor for The Cambodia Daily, he has covered elections across three continents, but this is his first U.S. presidential race. He blogs and tweets.

View all posts by Stephen Kurczy →

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