JANESVILLE, Wis. — The small Wisconsin city of Janesville, a heavily union town that’s long been a reliable vote for Democratic presidential candidates, including Barack Obama, isn’t the obvious place to produce and support a revolutionary from the right such as Rep. Paul Ryan.
Ryan has taken on a national role as the GOP’s ideological standard bearer in the past few years. In adding Ryan to his presidential ticket, Mitt Romney has aligned himself with a leading Republican voice for shrinking government safety-net programs and largely privatizing Medicare and Social Security.
But Ryan backers in his hometown tend to talk about him more as a good local guy than as the national leader of a conservative movement to transform the federal government. And it’s questionable whether his presence on the ballot will be enough to overcome Obama’s lead in Wisconsin, where polls generally show the president ahead of Romney by about 6 percentage points.
David Canon, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said adding Ryan to the ticket should help Romney gain 1 or 2 percentage points but probably not enough to carry the state. Ryan is just one of eight members of the U.S. House of Representatives who are from Wisconsin, and he isn’t particularly well-known to voters statewide, Canon said.
“It’s certainly going to help Romney, but Wisconsin is such a polarized state right now,” Canon said.
A national Gallup poll released Wednesday showed no appreciative bounce so far for the Romney campaign in naming Ryan to the ticket. Still, Canon predicted that the addition of Ryan will motivate some Republicans in his native state, particularly in his home area of southern Wisconsin.
Ryan’s family has been prominent for generations in Janesville, a small blue-collar city of more than 60,000 people staggered by the closure of its General Motors assembly plant four years ago.
Janesville residents have known Ryan as their congressman for the past 14 years. For much of that time he voted as a fairly standard Republican, supporting Bush-era policies for federal spending such as the bailout of banks and automakers, as well as Medicare prescription-drug coverage.
His great-grandfather started a national construction firm and as congressman, the younger Ryan has supported Davis-Bacon Act protections of union wages on federally funded projects. At the same time, he backed Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s push to cut collective bargaining rights for public employees.
People in Janesville have an experience with Ryan that’s different from the rest of the country.
Nancy Wixom’s granddaughter and Ryan’s son are in the same class at St. John Vianney Roman Catholic school in Janesville. She said she’d known the family for many years and saw Ryan at school functions and around town in a T-shirt and ball cap, maybe going to a performance of the local Rock Aqua Jays water-ski show team.
Ryan is a solid, churchgoing guy, she said, who’s true to his word and would do a good job as vice president. Still, she paused when she was asked about Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” budget plan, which is what vaulted him to prominence and a shot at the vice presidency.
“Being the age I am, I’m a little concerned about some of it,” she said. “And I have some doubts about his stand on women’s issues.”
Wixom’s friends aren’t Ryan fans. They just shook their heads when the conversation turned to the possibility that he could be a heartbeat from the presidency.
“We’re mostly Democratic country here,” Wixom explained, sipping coffee at the Sizzlin’ Grill in Janesville’s faded downtown.
Ryan nevertheless has won re-election easily since he was first elected to the U.S. House in 1998 at the age of 28. He’s tended to have only token opposition. For four elections in a row, through 2006, Ryan had the same marginal opponent, who didn’t even raise any campaign money to challenge him.
Janesville sits at the far western end of his congressional district, which includes conservative Milwaukee suburbs near the state’s eastern edge. In 2010, Ryan won more than 80 percent of the vote in conservative Waukesha County, running against John Heckenlively of Racine, an unemployed local Democratic official who jumped in at the last minute because no one else was running and who tried campaigning without a car. Ryan brought in 64 percent of the vote that year in Rock County, where Janesville is.
He’ll be on the ballot again in November; if he wins the vice presidency, the state will hold a special election for the 1st District seat.
Peter Barca, the Democratic minority leader in the Wisconsin State Assembly, used to represent the same congressional district that Ryan does now. He said the scope of Ryan’s desire to slash federal programs had become fully clear to voters only gradually.
“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,” Barca said.
Local Ryan supporters such as Ray and Helen Flood, while saying that the government needs to stop spending so much, don’t mention his “Path to Prosperity” budget plan until they’re asked about it.
They focus on Ryan’s personal characteristics: They like him because he is smart, doesn’t get rattled and is a family man who comes home to Janesville three days a week and doesn’t rent a house while he’s in Washington the rest of the time.
“You know what I like about him? Four days a week he sleeps in his office,” Ray Flood said.
Ryan in 2004 helped lead an unsuccessful effort in Congress to create private investment accounts for Social Security benefits. But he really started his path to national conservative stardom in 2008 with his “Roadmap for America’s Future,” which preceded the budget plan he put out as House Budget Committee chairman after the 2010 elections.
It calls for greatly reducing future federal spending on Medicaid – the health care program for poor people and those with disabilities – as well as limiting how much future retirees could get through Medicare health coverage. Retirees would receive lump sums of money to buy private insurance or to participate in traditional Medicare programs.
John Beckford, the president of the business advocacy group Forward Janesville, said he’d heard Ryan make what he thought was a convincing argument around town on the federal budget deficit that “we deal with these problems now or the solution gets really ugly.” Not everyone agrees with his plan, Beckford said, but Ryan doesn’t belittle his opponents.
Ryan pledged in 2008 to stop taking earmarks – money Congress allocates for specific projects or organizations – but he does support funding in his district, which relies on government dollars to help its economic recovery. Ryan condemned Obama’s stimulus package but he wrote letters backing stimulus programs in Wisconsin.
Kevin Murray, a retired firefighter in Janesville, said Ryan supported federal grants to help the department with equipment and staffing. But over time Ryan’s positions on issues such as Medicare privatization have cost him union support, Murray said.
Murray said he couldn’t support Ryan’s policies and that he disagreed with giving tax cuts to wealthier Americans.
But Murray, whose father taught math to Ryan in school, said he had nothing bad to say about Ryan the Janesvillian.
“I took my father with me to Washington, D.C., for the national firefighters lobby day out there. Paul always had time for us. That’s the kind of guy he is. Right off the bat, he gives my dad a big hug: ‘Hi, Mr. Murray, how are you doing?’ ”
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