Charting Ryan's rise, from junior prom king to political star

Jennifer Steinhauer, Jim Rutenberg, Mike Mc Intire and Sheryl Gay Stolberg / New York Times News Service /

Published Aug 14, 2012 at 05:00AM

JANESVILLE, Wis. — Rep. Paul Ryan’s childhood home here was not overtly partisan. His parents were enthusiastic supporters of Rep. Les Aspin, a Democrat, yet adored President Ronald Reagan from their glimpses of him on the evening news. But the death of his father when Ryan was only 16 punctured his life of math tests and bike riding, and in that fissure, the seeds of his worldview were planted.

“Paul went to work at McDonald’s and began to pull his own weight, and becomes class president the same year,” said his brother Tobin. “It is remarkable that he chose a path of individual responsibility and maturity rather than letting grief take a different course.”

Ryan’s self-reliance followed him to summer camp, where as a counselor he learned to canoe and hike, and into young adulthood, where he took up deer hunting, a fact noted in his engagement notice in 2000 in The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “Ryan is an avid hunter and fisherman,” the paper reported, “who does his own skinning and butchering and makes his own Polish sausage and bratwurst.”

It followed him into college, where he immediately took a passionate interest in the canon of conservative economic theorists and writers — Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and Ludwig von Mises — who inspired the up-and-coming generation of libertarian-minded activists and lawmakers.

It followed him to Congress, where his brand of conservative economics, honed in Washington’s conservative policy and research groups, eventually inspired the tea party freshmen in the House for whom Ryan has served as seer, cheerleader and workout buddy.

And, finally, it captured the imagination of Mitt Romney, who named Ryan as the Republicans’ presumptive vice-presidential nominee on Saturday.

In Ryan, he has found not only a sympathetic life story to animate his campaign — which he seized upon when he spoke on Saturday of how Ryan’s father’s death “forced him to grow up earlier than any young man should” — but also a politician who fills in what many see as the gaps in Romney’s conservative bona fides.

Ryan is a strict supply-side budget expert and social conservative who counts fans across the Republican spectrum. He has been a driving force, if not always a visible one, in the party’s biggest fights with President Barack Obama, including last year’s budget impasse that took the nation to the brink of default.

Ryan’s enormous influence was apparent last summer when Rep. Eric Cantor, the second most powerful House Republican, told Obama during negotiations over an attempted bipartisan “grand bargain” that Ryan disliked its policy and was concerned that a deal would pave the way for Obama’s easy re-election, according to a Democrat and a Republican who were briefed on the conversation. (On Sunday, an official in Cantor’s office disputed the characterization.)

Ryan’s remarkable rise from small-town prom king to the No. 2 on the Republican presidential ticket reflects a combination of sheer will and patience, with the ideological leanings that began in Janesville and were cultivated in Washington finally finding their moment on a raised platform in Norfolk, Va., on Saturday morning.

A Janesville childhood

Ryan, the youngest of Paul M. and Betty Ryan’s four children, was born in 1970 and grew up in Janesville’s historic Courthouse Hill neighborhood, where he still lives. A passel of neighborhood kids graduated from riding bicycles to the usual antics of high school.

Roz Thorpe, who raised her family across the street from the Ryans, said her own son and young Paul annually canvassed the neighborhood for donations to the charity promoted by Jerry Lewis. “There was this whole group of kids, and they just had a great time,” Thorpe said. “Paul was maybe a little more serious than the others.”

An uncle started a neighborhood Fourth of July parade decades ago, and Ryan’s father was a respected lawyer in town.

Not quite a nerd (he was a bit too cute for that) and not precisely a jock (his soccer career lasted a single year, his high school coach said), Ryan was best known for being outgoing, much like his mother. He was studious and interested in the outdoor life, which he cultivated as a counselor at Camp Manito-wish, run by the YMCA.

Ryan’s political views may have been inspired around the dinner table when he was a teenager, according to his brother. “Every night at 6 we had family dinner, and we discussed things,” Tobin Ryan said.

His childhood was interrupted in his sophomore year of high school, when Ryan discovered his father dead in his bed of a heart attack.

“I remember looking out the front door and seeing the paramedics,” Thorpe said. “Paul came to our house and stayed with us for the remainder of the day and was really pretty upset. Paul was always a pretty levelheaded kid. This was a very big event.”

Ryan’s mother went back to college, and with his two oldest siblings long gone from home, he began to rely even more on Tobin for emotional support and guidance.

“He and I shared a bedroom growing up,” said Tobin Ryan, who is five years older than his brother. “I have him to blame for having clouds and little birdies on my wall in my teenager years.”

The next year, Ryan ran for class president and won. He also immersed himself in after-school jobs and other extracurricular activities.

“He just seemed to be involved in a lot of things,” said Patrick Lyons, a childhood friend with whom Ryan still spends weekends barbecuing at each other’s homes. His numerous activities in high school led to an award suggesting that he was, in polite terms, a politically astute suck up.

His brother’s role as confidant remains, and he is perhaps the center of Ryan’s brain trust. “We live a block away from each other,” Tobin Ryan said. “We consult on everything. Paul and I have allowed our lives to become intertwined. Our kids go to the same school. Our wives talk every day.”

A college freshman with a Ph.D. attitude

Paul Ryan was already steeped in conservative economic theory by the end of his freshman year at Miami University in Ohio, where he arrived in 1988.

“He was a normal college student,” Tobin Ryan said, “except when it came to economic policy. He was a Ph.D. student in freshmen’s clothes. I recall him referring to Hayek. I was an economics major myself; I don’t think I was as enthusiastic.”

Ryan’s trickle-down economic theories were already in place, said Professor Rich Hart, who would help Ryan hone his political persona.

“I think Paul came to Miami University with these core conservative beliefs from an economic standpoint,” said Hart, an outspoken libertarian who taught an intermediate macroeconomic theory course that Ryan took in his junior year. “He was reading Locke and Hayek, and I don’t know if he was reading Ayn Rand, but I had certainly read Ayn Rand, and I talked to him about it.”

The two would often meet outside class, not to talk about the course, Hart said, but to discuss political philosophy. “We had these discussions about the role of government. We both believed in the conservative view that government should be limited, because the most important thing is individual freedom, individual liberty, and along with that freedom goes individual responsibility.”

First run for the House

In 1998, as Ryan was making his first run for elective office, a nationally known politician — the party’s vice-presidential candidate two years earlier — came to Janesville to campaign for him: Jack Kemp, Ryan’s mentor, was in town.

The two had become close during Ryan’s years as a legislative aide and policy analyst in Washington. It was a relationship that went beyond the two men’s shared interest in tax cuts and supply-side economics.

“I think he sort of viewed Jack Kemp as something of a second father,” Hart said.

The relationship began when Ryan was in college. In 1991, Hart recommended him for a summer internship in the office of Sen. Bob Kasten, R-Wis., who had worked closely with Kemp.

Kasten remembers Ryan as intellectually curious and interested in policy far more than he was in politics. “He was just interested in the ideas,” said Kasten, who was defeated by Russ Feingold, a Democrat, in 1992. “We never talked about him someday wanting to be a congressman or a senator or a vice president.”

Ryan joined Kasten’s staff full time after graduating from Miami University, working on issues like tax incentives for small businesses and a reduction in the capital gains tax. A few months after Kasten lost his seat, Ryan went to work for Empower America, a conservative advocacy group that was founded by Kemp; Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under Reagan; and William J. Bennett, a former education secretary in Reagan’s administration.

Ryan was drawn to Kirkpatrick’s emphasis on foreign policy and to Bennett’s interest in morality, but he was most animated when he worked with Kemp, said Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota who was among Empower America’s founders and who ran the group. “He worked mainly around Kemp on economic policy,” Weber said. “That was his passion.”

In 1997, Ryan decided to move back to Janesville, where he worked for a time in the family construction business founded by his great-grandfather. He sought a House seat the next year. .

He shared his ambitions with the Thorpes. “We were visiting D.C., and he came to dinner with us one night and talked to us about running,” Thorpe said. “We encouraged him. At that point he had been living there a long time, and it just seemed natural.”

Ryan, campaigning against tax increases and in favor of gun ownership rights, won that first race handily, 57 percent to 43 percent.

Over the years, Ryan’s emphasis shifted. Kemp was not nearly as concerned with cutting government programs as Ryan is today. They agreed on taxes, but their views on spending and the role of government were different.

Over time, Ryan has become much more of a deficit hawk than Kemp, who died in 2009, ever was. But they shared an optimistic outlook and a core belief that politics could be waged in a civil manner. Last year, the Jack Kemp Foundation honored Ryan with its first Kemp Leadership Award, and Joanne Kemp, Kemp’s widow, attended the Romney-Ryan rally in Manassas, Va., on Saturday. Ryan publicly recognized her there, and cited Kemp as one of his mentors.

The tea party finds a voice on Capitol Hill

Ask one of the 87 Republican freshmen who came rolling into Washington in 2010 — many of them with no political experience — whom they most idolize in Congress, and chances are Paul Ryan’s name will come up.

Ryan speaks their language of shrinking government, shares their passion for chin-out communications and is culturally and politically more in sync with newer members, many of them say, than some of the other more senior members, including some in the leadership.

He is, in essence, the leader of a team that followed him to Washington.

“Our class that came was a mandate against what had been happening in the House,” said Rep. Renee Ellmers of North Carolina, who worked as a nurse before being elected. “He has been fighting this fight for years and years, and we were able to come in and help and support him.”

Ryan’s charms have also worked on Democrats, but only to a point. Likeability does not translate to agreeability.

In an interview, former Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, a centrist Democrat, said he was impressed when Ryan reached out to him to discuss tackling entitlements after Bayh made one of his frequent calls for fiscal responsibility.

“He came to visit me in my office and was very nice and laid out some of his ideas about entitlement reform,” Bayh said. Still, complimenting Ryan as “a nice, humble guy,” Bayh added, “I thought some of his ideas went a little too far.”

Indeed, even as Ryan calls for bipartisan agreement on the most important — and thorny — domestic political issues, his own proposals strike at the heart of Democratic orthodoxy. And he has played a central role in nearly all of the big policy fights against the opposition party that have defined the past few years.

His legislation with Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire to create private investment accounts for Social Security benefits became a starting point for talks over Bush’s plan to do so at the start of his second term. Bush ultimately dropped his bid to overhaul Social Security, unable to overcome resistance from Democrats, some Republicans and elderly voters who expressed fear it would gut the program.

That, of course, was only a precursor to his attempts during Obama’s presidency to change the way Medicare is administered and vastly cut government spending while holding a line against taxes.

Even as he was climbing the ranks and emerging as his party’s most forceful spokesman for cutting entitlement spending, Ryan was becoming one of the House’s most prodigious fundraisers. Many donors, especially libertarian-leaning financiers, envisioned him as a future presidential contender.

A man of means with modest tastes

Ryan is famous for sleeping in his office while in Washington, and he enjoys the same no-frills recreational pursuits — hunting, fishing and working out — that he has pursued since before he was married. Janna Ryan, a tax lawyer, put her professional career aside to raise their three young children. Family vacations tend toward backpacking outings.

Much of the Ryans’ wealth is in the form of trusts and inheritances, some of them acquired fairly recently.

Ryan reported two tax-deferred college savings plans, with a combined value of between $150,000 and $300,000. He also reported two investment partnerships worth, in total, between $350,000 and $750,000, mostly containing shares of stock in well-known companies, including Apple, Goodrich, Kraft Foods, Visa and Whole Foods. Both partnerships were formed by Ryan and other family members to manage assets left by his grandparents and an aunt.

Janna Ryan has reported receiving a trust after her mother died in 2010 that is valued between $1 million and $5 million, according to a letter Ryan filed with his latest financial disclosure.

Janna Ryan also has longstanding interests in several mining and oil exploration investments in Oklahoma and Texas managed by her father, Dan Little, a lawyer in Oklahoma. Those investments generated as much as $150,000 in income last year.

Weighing in on a bargain on the deficit and debt

Last summer, as the nation faced a potentially cataclysmic debt default, Obama met at the White House with a handful of congressional leaders in an attempt to reach a “grand bargain” that could avert disaster — and, more important, overcome partisan gridlock to balance the budget over the long term.

During the talks, Obama invited Boehner and Cantor into the Oval Office, where the conversation was said to include possible sticking points, including Ryan’s concerns. But by then, Ryan had articulated his worries on policy grounds, saying he did not believe that the White House and the Democrats were willing to make the spending cuts he viewed as necessary to balance the budget..

And, in an interview with CNN to discuss the talks that July, he said the Democrats were failing to agree to lower overall tax rates Republicans were seeking in return for closing loopholes, which ultimately, he warned, would lead to tax increases. “That is not what we saw coming together with this big deal,” he said in the interview. “And if you don’t get the tax rates down, then it really is a tax increase.”

Similar opposition to the deficit deals proposed by the Simpson-Bowles commission — on which he sat as a member — and a Senate group known as the Gang of Six, have led Democrats to question the seriousness of his calls for bipartisanship. Those questions are certain to feed Obama campaign attacks in the coming weeks.

As a congressman, Ryan has never been up under the heavy fire of a national — or even a statewide — campaign. And as moves into this next heated phase of the presidential campaign, Janesville should become more of a refuge for him than ever.

Up until now, said people around Janesville, it is as if Ryan has never really left.

Like many of the more conservative members of Congress, he had chosen not to take an apartment in Washington, living instead in his office, or occasionally staying with relatives in Maryland. He comes back to Wisconsin nearly every weekend, and often holds town-hall-style meetings.

Ryan is also a bit of a fixture at his children’s school, where he tries to attend events, and his wife takes care of the mundane duties of parenting.

“We try not to talk about politics when he is in town,” Lyons said. “They are not into status or anything like that. To me it’s still just Paul.”