By Tom Still
MADISON – A group of Wisconsin natives who worked on Capitol Hill in the early 1990s would gather on Sunday afternoons at a Washington, D.C., hotel to watch the Green Bay Packers and marvel at a brash young quarterback named Brett Favre.
Today, Favre is coaching high-school football in Mississippi. One of the uprooted Packers’ fans who huddled around the television screen to watch him years ago could become the next vice president of the United States.
Paul Ryan’s selection as the running mate for Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican Party nominee for president, doesn’t especially surprise those who have known the Janesville native since his years as a young policy wonk in Washington. In fact, they agree, the Paul Ryan they knew 15 or 20 years ago is the same Paul Ryan they know today.
“He’s always said that while Washington may be a part of my life, I’m not going to become a Washingtonian,” said Drew Petersen, one of the displaced Packers fans who would gather on Sundays years ago to talk football, Wisconsin and politics. “He’s never forgotten that, at the end of the day, people back home have to believe in you and what you’re doing.”
Petersen, now head of external affairs and communications for Madison-based TDS Telecom, is typical of those who have known Ryan and followed his rise from a speechwriter at the conservative Empower America group in the early 1990s, to his election to Congress at age 28 in 1998, to his status as one of the most identifiable – if sometimes controversial – leaders in Congress.
Whether he’s arguing Medicare reform on Capitol Hill or fishing on Wisconsin’s Big St. Germain Lake, friends say, Ryan’s approach is unflinchingly consistent.
“He doesn’t say anything he doesn’t mean, and he doesn’t promise to do something he doesn’t intend to deliver,” said Mary Stitt, a longtime Republican campaign fundraiser from Wisconsin who met Ryan shortly after he joined Empower America, a think tank created by the late U.S. Rep. Jack Kemp, R-N.Y., himself a vice presidential candidate.
Stitt has been Ryan’s campaign fundraiser since 1997. What impressed her immediately when she met young Ryan? “His intellect, and the fact he’s an honest broker,” she said. “That’s something that has never changed.”
Ryan has served 14 years as a member of Congress in a district once viewed as politically purple, meaning it could just as easily swing into the Democratic column as the GOP. Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District was represented for more than 20 years by Democrat Les Aspin, who served as President Clinton’s defense secretary. It was carried by President Obama (51.4 percent to 47.5 percent) in his 2008 victory over Republican John McCain.
Straddling the Wisconsin border with Illinois from Racine and Kenosha on the east through Rock County on the west, the 1st District ranges from inner-city neighborhoods to small farming towns. It has seen more than its share of economic upheaval, especially in the wake of the General Motors shutdown in Janesville and the rippling effects through the region’s automotive supply industry.
Even a swing district with plenty of blue-collar Democrats, the conservative Ryan has remained a popular choice.
“I think it’s because you always know where he stands,” said Petersen, adding that part of Ryan’s appeal is a personality and sense of humor that puts even ideological opponents at ease.
Not all of them, of course. Ryan’s “Roadmap for America’s Future,” released in early 2010, and his impassioned calls for Medicare reform have made him a Democratic target. He’s relentlessly free-market in philosophy – as was his mentor, Kemp – and staunchly pro-life. Democrats have already taken to calling the Romney-Ryan ticket “Robin Hood in reverse,” claiming it solidifies the GOP’s willingness to reward the rich at the expense of the middle class.
However, Ryan’s selection brings generational appeal – he doesn’t turn 43 until late January – and may help Romney in Wisconsin, which could deliver 10 electoral votes to the Republicans for the first time since 1984, as well as other swing Midwestern states.
Ryan’s greatest asset may be his ability to express conservative ideas without falling into the talk-show trap of demonizing those who disagree, a trend that has polarized politics and generally turned off voters. If those who know him are right, Ryan will stay true to form and put issues and consistency ahead of rhetoric – something the Romney campaign could use right about now.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.