On a muggy May morning, 150 people gathered in a frigid, air-conditioned room in the Holiday Inn Express off the interstate in Janesville to hear Representative Paul Ryan.
Ryan, chair of the Budget Committee and rising star in the GOP, is doing a series of town halls in his district and this one was in his hometown.
Ryan may be on the short list for the VP right now, but he’s too smart (and too young) to throw away his future on a Romney ticket. After the sterling performance on May 4, he does seem to be positioning himself for the 2016 race.
But for now, he remains a local boy who’s doing well for himself and for his hometown. Ryan will once again win his district handily this fall.
At the Holiday Inn conference room, the Congressman charmed the older crowd. There were no kids in the audience. The only people who appeared under 50 were Ryan staffers or the press.
Many in the audience probably live on the social security their representative wants to cut for future retirees in his “Path the Prosperity” budget.
The latest unemployment numbers had just come out, and they weren’t good. Amongst all Wisconsin metro areas, Janesville had the highest unemployment rate, at 9.2 percent.
Janesville, Racine, Kenosha—the historic manufacturing cities in Wisconsin’s First Congressional District that Ryan represents—have unemployment rates topping the state’s average.
And while manufacturing as a whole, in the state, is on the uptick, the stats are grim in southeastern Wisconsin. Since 2000, Rock County, where Janesville is located, lost 54 percent of its manufacturing jobs.
But big job losses were not a big topic in Janesville today. Instead, people asked about Hugo Chavez.
Why are we paying Hugo Chavez for oil?, one elderly man asked. Or Saudi princes?
The problem, huffed one man with a long gray ponytail, is the influx of people from Central America who are immigrating here illegally.
One woman stood up and said, Israel has been a great friend. What’s your stand? Another woman wanted to more about the basics of foreign aid. She said she was shocked to find out the U.S. government gives money to Palestine. Why, she asked, are we funding our enemies?
Ryan was able to answers all these questions deftly.
Thanks to new technology, “We could become the Saudi Arabia of natural gas,” said Ryan.
To the man concerned about the immigration, Ryan first soothed him. “Turn off the TV,” Ryan said. “Read a book.”
The 24-hour news cycle isn’t helpful, he added. He mentioned how people with Hispanic surnames are likely victims of identity theft by the “criminal immigrants” and how Hispanics, too, feel the problems of our immigration woes. Ultimately, immigration reform can’t be done in one big sweep and should be broken down into smaller bills.
Ryan assured the crowd we are still close friends with Israel but also mentioned financial commitments to the Palestinian Authority due to the peace process.
One fellow brought up the issue of campaign finance reform, and got a round of applause. “The Supreme Court didn’t help us one bit,” he said, referring to its 2010 Citizens United ruling, which has unleashed a lot more cash into the election process.
We have McCain-Feingold, Ryan said, “Don’t you think it’s working?” The crowd wasn’t sure if he was joking, so Ryan said, “I’m being facetious.”
Ryan glided over the issue of corporations having free speech rights, saying “The Supreme Court says people have free speech rights.”
He touted his own record of posting his donors online. And though he didn’t mention it, he’s not one for earmarks.
He supports more transparency, as long as it means that the federal government isn’t too involved. “There will always be attempts to influence power,” he said. “The antidote is not to give all of our power and money to Washington but to keep it for ourselves and for our communities so there’s less influence peddling there in the first place.”
“Money,” said Ryan, “always follows power.”
So who gives to the powerful chairman of the Budget Committee? According to opensecrets.org, for the 2012 election cycle, Ryan has gotten the majority of his money from out of state—57 percent. He gets twice as much money from Chicago than from the Janesville-Beloit area. Also notable: lots of retirees give to Ryan.
One fellow tried to trip up Ryan with a question about Ayn Rand. Could Ryan be trusted, now that the Congressman is starting to disown the atheist author?
“This is kind of fun,” Ryan said. “You know you’ve made when you have your own urban legend and this is mine.” Ryan says he read Atlas Shrugged when he was young, but “just because you like a person’s novel doesn’t mean you agree with their entire worldview.”
Finally, someone asked about health care, specifically whether or not Ryan advocates extending the COBRA deadline of 18 months. “There are more people waiting for BadgerCare than for Packer tickets,” this audience member added.
Ryan launched into his “ObamaCare” boilerplate response.
Toward the end, Ryan finally called upon Jamil S. Kahn, a retired lieutenant colonel of the U.S. Marine Corps, who had been waving his cane in the air while others raised their hands. Khan, who served in Vietnam, made an impassioned plea to not make cuts to the disabled vets budget. Khan also called for an end to the war. “Please stop funding the war in Afghanistan,” he said. “We are not going to win. We need to get that money back to our neighborhoods.” Khan’s ideas were met with cheers from the crowd.
And this is was the one brief moment when Ryan seemed tone deaf. After thanking Khan for his service, the Congressman agreed that the consensus is the war in Afghanistan will end. As for the money spent there? “It’s borrowed money,” Ryan warned. “We need to watch this.”
Apparently, there is no peace divided in Ryan’s budget. The troops may come home, but not the money.
After the town hall, Ryan took a few questions from the press. I asked him about jobs, since it didn’t come up at all. (Jobs did come up at other town halls.)
It’s a problem, he said. “We are not growing our economy as fast as we should and I would argue it’s because of our government policies today.”
For laissez-faire idealists such as Paul Ryan, government is always the problem when it comes to the economy.
Outside the hotel, a dozen or so local folks were protesting. It was a very calm scene and the dozen or so cops working the Holiday Inn beat did not have much to do.
“I think Paul Ryan and his budget plan will ruin our state and ruin our country,” said Vivian Creekmore, a retired social worker who lives in nearby Milton, which borders Ryan’s district.
Creekmore’s big concern is health care. “My husband is a diabetic and no one will insure us,” she said. “We are in the high risk insurance pool in Wisconsin.” They pay thousands of dollars in co-pays and deductibles.
“We just found out that my husband’s family has a genetic blood clotting disorder,” she said. “My daughter had to get genetic testing to see if she had it, and we had to pay for it out of pocket.”
“And we are relatively well-off” she said. “But not Paul Ryan well-off.” (Ryan is not the wealthiest man in Congress—he’s in the middle.)
I asked Creekmore to explain Ryan’s popularity.
“He’s the popular rich boy,” she said. “Everybody wanted to go to prom with him.”
Plus, there are no major news outlets in his district, she said. “The local media is owned by hard core Republicans, so there’s not a negative word about him.”
Politicians want to talk about jobs—it’s a talking point for both major parties. But they aren’t asking about jobs in Janesville. They are, however, talking about economic insecurity. They use race and immigration, energy independence, and terrorism to discuss it. And Paul Ryan soothed their fears.
In these times of uncertainty, people want to believe in a philosophy that erases doubts. As prom season approaches, who better to deliver the message than the guy everyone still wants to go to prom with?
If you liked this story by Elizabeth DiNovella, the Culture Editor of The Progressive magazine, check out her story "An Interview with Lizz Winstead."
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