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Republican vice presidential nominee has nearby roots

August 14, 2012 | 05:02 PM
Over the weekend, Paul Ryan was nominated as Mitt Romney's vice presidential candidate. Ryan has been the U.S. Representative for Wisconsin's 1st congressional district, which includes Walworth County, since 1999.

By John Halverson


Look at a map of Janesville and you'll find Paul Ryan's home slightly right of center.

Take a ruler to that map and the brick house he purchased in 2010 is a couple of inches from the Rock River that bisects the city.

An inch away from his current home is the one he moved from and another inch away is the one he grew up in.

Spin the ruler around and within easy walking distance you'll find the library, the courthouse, the hometown newspaper, the high school he graduated from and the Catholic church he attends, as well as the homes of eight other Ryans.

At 5,800 square feet with six bedrooms and eight bathrooms, Ryan's house is hardly a starter home. But it's far from an "estate" which is what the New York Times called it. Driving around town, you wouldn't point it out as being ostentatious compared to neighboring homes.

Liked at home

While Ryan is seen as far more than slightly to the right politically, he's not a divisive figure in his hometown.

According to the New York Times, his parents were enamored by Les Aspin, a Democratic lawmaker who was defense secretary under President Bill Clinton and kept offices in Janesville.

That isn't unusual in a community where people are proud of their own no matter their political persuasions.

Janesville is a union town. It has historically voted Democratic ≠and launched the careers of State Sen. Tim Cullen and former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold.

But Ryan's electability has been an exception to that liberal leaning. That's in part because his family, while among the elite in Janesville, is well-liked and approachable.

Until recently, at least, he was in his hometown enough to regularly attend church services and to appear at social occasions like graduation parties.

The tragic tipping point

A recent New Yorker profile traces Ryan's personal awakening to a day in high school when he found his father's body. "I went to wake him up," Ryan is quoted as saying, "and he was dead."

"It was just a big punch in the gut," he said. "I concluded I've got to either sink or swim in life."

That realization that life is short — neither his father, grandfather nor great-grandfather reached 60 — launched Ryan into a whirlwind of high school activity. He joined clubs and was elected junior class president and prom king. He was also named Biggest Brownnoser, the New Yorker said.

"I just did a lot of reading, lots of introspection," he was quoted as saying.

Politically, Ayn Rand, the prophet of individualism, was an early influence, though Ryan is quick to note that he disavows her atheism.

When Ryan was just 27, he ran for the House. While the Ryan name surely helped him win, it didn't hurt that Ryan was not the sort of politician, or person, who encouraged hostility.

After the election, the cachet of the Ryan name gave way to his most politically-noticeable calling card — his support for radically changing the country's economy from what he calls encroaching collectivism to a return to a so-called individualism.

The public persona

In public, Ryan is the type of person who commands a room. Even if you didn't know who he was, you'd think he must be someone important. He's tall and with a face made up of horizontal blocks that looks like it could be ready-made for Mount Rushmore.

While he wore an open collar shirt and no sports jacket during his speech in Waukesha Sunday, his usual attire leans toward suits, conservative ties and dress shirts — a preppy look that says Young Republican. While Romney still looks stiff, without a tie and his sleeves rolled up, Ryan seemed comfortable in the business casual style adopted by recent presidential candidates.

There's an air of self-confidence people seem to see as genuine. If he doesn't know your name, he's still quick to recognize you with an easy, "How are you?"

Ryan seems especially at ease in a back-and-forth question and answer session like the one he took part in when area chambers of commerce met recently in Burlington. Facts spewed out of him like the policy wonk he is, but he was also quick to smile and self-effacing.

While he isn't Chris Christie when challenged by a member of the audience, he was quick to tell a critic in Burlington that he "knows a thing or two about economics" — and delivered the zinger in such a way that it silenced the critic and brought a rush of laughter from the crowd.

That easiness with people seems at odds with a remark in the New Yorker article. Ryan said when he applied for a job at a fast food restaurant in high school, he was told he lacked the social skills. Perhaps, he was just waiting for a larger audience.

There were some in the Republican ranks who are wary of Ryan because some of his economic policies are controversial. But apparently his willingness to be bold — and make the election a mandate for economic revolution — won the day with Romney and/or his handlers.

Perhaps they saw Romney as a later day Thomas Dewey, a buttoned-down and overly-cool Republican candidate, who lost by running an overly-cautious campaign against an incumbent Democratic president, Harry Truman, who was unpopular in the polls but had an engaging personality.

There also ought to be some concern that Ryan's ability to be both articulate and personable will make Romney look like the second-best man on the ticket.

The fact that those who know Ryan, especially those in his hometown, universally like him despite policy differences, makes him a formidable campaigner.

From here to there

While Ryan has remained in the spotlight throughout his seven terms in the House, his economic policies have had a rocky road. When President George H.W. Bush championed Ryan's plan for reforming Social Security, it met a lukewarm reception.

"You've got to prepare the country for these things," Ryan said to the New Yorker. The lesson of Bush's failed launch of Ryanomics: "Don't let the engineers run the marketing department," Ryan said.

A pared-down, more politically-acceptable version of Ryanomics won new supporters when the Tea Party wing of the Republicans took office in 2010.

At first Ryan, who became the House Budget Committee Chairman, had hoped that he could get along with Barack Obama's. The president's initial response to Ryanomics and Ryan himself was at least conciliatory.

"He's a cerebral guy who likes policy and he's from my part of the country," Ryan told the New Yorker. "At the beginning, I did have some hope."

Temperamentally, they also seemed compatible. Until now at least, neither has been prone to the sniping talk show-ready type of political warfare that's been in vogue the last few years.

But that potential yin-yang political relationship fell by the wayside when the administration started to attack Ryanomics and reached a crescendo when Ryan was given a prime seat at an Obama speech only to be shredded by the president's rhetoric.

Ryan seemed genuinely shocked by that rebuff, the New Yorker said.

"I was expecting some sort of counteroffer of some kind," Ryan was quoted as saying. "What we got was the gauntlet of demagoguery."

Clearly, the response to Ryan's economics from the left is to be expected.

But it has its nitpickers from the right as well. One conservative columnist said the Ryan's plan "might be the most annotated suicide note in history."

Whether a suicide note or a ticket to the White House is still to be determined.

At home after the announcement

Ryan's house in Janesville was surrounded by so much media last weekend that when the Janesville Gazette tried to photograph it you couldn't see the house behind the TV trucks.

The streets around his home are narrow, the neighborhood quiet. It's the proverbial "good place to raise a family." So the ambush of national media must have seemed like Godzilla stomping down the streets of New York City.

"It's kind of surreal," one neighbor told the Gazette.

Another neighbor told the paper that she feared her block would change for the worse.

"How does Mrs. Ryan come out and get her mail?" she was quoted as asking.

It seems a moot point, for now at least.

The Ryans will be getting their mail on the campaign trail for months to come.

And, when it's over with, they could have a new address with a Washington DC zip code.


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