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Janesville: Paul Ryan’s home town, but not his political home turf

🕐 8 min read

JANESVILLE, Wis. – When he leaves Washington on Friday afternoons, Paul Ryan, the Republican representing Wisconsin’s First Congressional District, flies to Milwaukee and gets the Chevy Suburban he leaves parked at the airport. He drives the 70 miles southeast to his home town and, not infrequently, picks up dinner for his family at the drive-through window of the Italian House.

Tortellini, salad and garlic cheese bread are his favorites, according to the restaurant’s owner, who has known Ryan since he was a teenager. The Italian House has a wall, painted to look like red bricks, and graduates of Joseph A. Craig High School, just around the corner, are allowed to chalk their name. “Paul Ryan ’88” is scrawled on a brick about halfway up the wall. His older brother, “Toby Ryan ’83,” is near the top.

The stately Greek revival Ryan shares with his wife, Janna, and their three young children is separated by nothing more than a small patch of woods from the house where he grew up. His daughter and two sons attend St. John Vianney Catholic School, attached to the stone-walled church where he was an altar boy during his childhood and where he still attends Mass many weekends.

As the nation’s most powerful Republicans lean now on the conservative, wonkish Ryan to run for House speaker, his hesitance, in his own portrayal, lies in an inner conflict between the demands of the role and his devotion to his family life back home. Ryan’s attachment to Janesville has been central to his political narrative since he was first elected to Congress at age 28, but there is also an ideological tension that courses through his relationship with his home town.

As Janesville’s most famous native son, Ryan is widely admired as a good guy, a smart man, a caring father, and a member of a sprawling and prominent family. But many in town dislike his politics.

He is a rigorous fiscal and social conservative in an old union town. The mismatch has taken on a sharper edge at times, especially since thousands of the jobs that gave the town its blue-collar hue faded away with the closing seven years ago of a 4.8 million-square-foot General Motors assembly plant that had been turning out Chevrolets since 1923.

Ryan has always been aware of that political misalignment, and he has walked a fine line, being a committed conservative thinker, while avoiding any role as an ideological movement leader. He has sought to build his conservative chops on tax and entitlement reforms, budgetary acumen and, more recently, a right-leaning take on easing poverty.

Agree with his politics or not, people in his home town understand this about Ryan, leading some to guess that he will decide not to seek the speaker’s role.

“A policy wonk is the antithesis of what is needed for the speaker’s job,” Janice Pierce, 61, said on Sunday, coming out of the Citrus Cafe, a popular Main Street breakfast spot. Although she is a liberal Democrat who disagrees with almost everything Ryan represents politically, she said she finds him affable and congenial. She predicted that if he became speaker, “he’d be a casualty within three months.” Hard-line conservatives in the House, she said, “don’t want affable. They want a fighter.”

The First Congressional District stretches far enough north into solid Republican turf that in his eight reelections there has never been much doubt about his victories. It is not a swing district by any measure, but the tensions are evident. A few years ago, hecklers tailed Ryan as he walked down Main Street with his family at an annual Labor Fest parade. And on Election Day 2012, when his name appeared on ballots here twice – as the Republican vice presidential nominee, as well as for reelection to the House – Janesville and even his own ward voted against him for both.

Ryan has not mentioned these home-front dynamics as a factor in his deliberations about whether to run for speaker. In his last public remarks on the subject, just before he flew to Janesville for the weekend, he said that he would talk things over with his wife and colleagues and that he was eager to get home for dinner.

But the reality is that if Ryan were to change his mind and seek the speaker’s gavel, this politician who has been too conservative for his home town would suddenly face the opposite challenge in Washington: suspicion from a rebellious faction within the House GOP that he is not conservative enough.

Back at home, Ryan and people he runs into, doing normal-guy-at-home things around town, have a method of bridging the ideological gaps. They tend to avoid talk of politics, an option not viable on Capitol Hill if he were to become speaker.

He has been stopping in for years at Hunt ‘n Gear, along the Milton Avenue commercial strip that runs north from downtown. He gets his Mathews bow tuned up for hunting season. He has outfitted his daughter, Liza, and older son, Charlie, with youth bows. A few weeks ago, he picked up a gift for friends with whom he had been camping, getting a shirt by a bow manufacturer called Hoyt for a kid named Hoyt. Carrie Hookstead, who owns the shop with her husband, Russ, and was two years ahead of Ryan in high school, said that the only time she has broached politics with him was to mention that a cousin, a conservative recent college graduate, was working in Washington. “You’ve got another one out there,” Hookstead remembers telling him.

On Saturday nights, Ryan and his family – or he and Janna and another couple or two – frequently drive out to the Buckhorn. He has called it his favorite restaurant in the world. One of a breed of revered, old-fashioned Wisconsin eateries known as supper clubs, the Buckhorn features megawatt sunsets over Lake Koshkonong and prime rib and lobster tail that Ryan adores. Chico Pope, who has owned the restaurant with his wife for 19 years, happens to agree with Ryan politically, but can recall only one time he mentioned a political concern. Two days before Christmas 2013, the congressman called Pope and asked whether he could come over to get advice on preparing a holiday prime rib for his wife’s family. While selling Ryan a small amount of meat rub and au jus, Pope asked an immigration-related question on behalf of a friend.

Said Edmond Halabi, who has owned the Italian House for 28 years: “I’m sure that [politics] is the last thing he wants to hear when he gets home.” At the carry-out window, Halabi said, he simply tells Ryan, “Welcome back. Enjoy your meal.”

Inevitably, politics sometimes bubble up. On the Saturday morning in August 2012 on which GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney announced Ryan as his running mate, Halabi was already at the restaurant, so he called his wife and asked her to post something on the restaurant’s Facebook page. “Congratulations to Paul Ryan!!!” they wrote. “We are proud to have someone from Janesville, Wisconsin to represent the USA . . . he is a big fan of the Italian House.”

As a small-business owner, with customers of all political stripes, Halabi knows that it’s best to stay neutral. He thought he and his wife were just praising a loyal customer. So, after a day off that Sunday, when he reopened the restaurant Monday morning, he was astonished. “All day long, we were getting nothing but hate calls, people saying, ‘We will never step in your restaurant again.’ “

Ryan may be out of sync with the prevailing politics, but his roots here are deep. He likes to say that he is a fifth-generation Janesville resident. He comes from an arm of one of three local families known here, collectively, as the Irish mafia for their outsize roles in construction trades going back more than a century.

His family’s home on Courthouse Hill, with its Victorians on a bluff rising above the river and Main Street, belonged to a scion of the founder of the Parker Pen Co., which opened downtown in the late 19th century and kept going until its last vestiges in town moved to Mexico five years ago. And his father put himself through law school on summertime wages from the GM assembly line.

These longtime industries, with workers handing down, one generation to the next, coveted union jobs, created many families like the Ryans, with aunts and uncles and cousins all around. That has made it hard for many to leave Janesville.

It is “his refuge, his heart,” Janna Ryan told the local newspaper, the Janesville Gazette, late in the summer, before House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, announced that he would be leaving Congress, or Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., stepped up to run for speaker and then abruptly stepped down, or before calls crescendoed late last week from across the GOP for Ryan to fill the startling vacuum at the chamber’s helm.

“It’s his oxygen to be here and be with his family,” his wife said.

Over this holiday weekend, his only public appearance was at a Columbus Day event elsewhere in his district. At other times, he has spoken about the home-town tug. In spring 2013, he gave the keynote talk at the annual dinner of Forward Janesville, the main business association. It was about homesickness on the vice presidential campaign trail and the pleasures of being home.

“There’s a reason,” he said that night, “why people come from around the country, from around the world . . . and then become addicted to this town and then stay . . . and plant roots . . . and then their kids stay in this town.

“There’s a reason; you can’t put your finger on it. But if there’s anything that Janna and I learned during this campaign, in this town, a Democratic town and, believe me, I’m a Republican, I know this . . . it’s the absolute warmth, the hospitality, the community, the togetherness. . . . That’s what makes it home.”

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