Local Wisconsin reporters say that as the national media begins to scrutinize Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) life and career following his selection as Mitt Romney’s running mate, they may overlook details such as his inside-the-Beltway focus, the high level of unemployment in his hometown, and his family connection to the natural gas industry.
In the early stages of such reviews, news outlets are often dependent on the campaigns themselves, prior national coverage of the candidate, and even Wikipedia for insight and can miss the kind of information local reporters who have covered the vice presidential selection for years may know best.
Media Matters went to some of those local reporters in Wisconsin and asked for their take on the information voters, and reporters, need most but may miss as they look at Ryan’s career.
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One issue most journalists raised was that Ryan left Wisconsin at a young age and climbed the political ladder in Washington. One local scribe compared him to Dick Cheney in that regard, stating both men rose to the top by focusing on D.C. connections and not in home state political circles.
“The way to understand him is he is Dick Cheney, he is a guy who went to Washington as soon as he could, rooted himself in the establishment, got himself elected as soon as he could and became a major player,” said John Nichols, an associate editor at the Capital Times in Madison. “He is Dick Cheney with very good hair.”
Other Wisconsin news people who have covered Ryan describe him as likeable and accessible to reporters, but something of an unknown even to local voters who re-elect him regularly despite his hometown being hit by hard economic times.
Scott Angus, editor of The Janesville Gazette, the daily newspaper in Ryan’s hometown, described Ryan’s fellow residents as having mixed views on their representative.
“The people of Janesville are probably as divided about Paul Ryan as the rest of the country,” Angus said Saturday, hours after Ryan was announced as Romney’s choice. “A lot of people would view [Ryan’s opinions] as pretty conservative and pretty far to the right and that does not sit well with a lot of people in his district.”
Angus, a 21-year editor of the paper, added, “He has lived here, but he has not worked here much, he has been in Washington working on his career path. I think a lot of people are surprised because he has always said his plans were not to rise to national office. He never had any elected office until he was elected to Congress.”
But Janesville’s recent past is also important, several reporters said, citing the town’s difficult economic situation, sparked by the closure of a General Motors plant in 2009.
“Their unemployment rate is double digits,” said Jeff Flynt, a news reporter at WTAQ Radio in Green Bay. “For a state that is trying to turn around the business aspects of the state the fact that Janesville unemployment continues to be pretty high and you have a guy who is known pretty well nationally and has not found a way to help the plant or put something in its place, that may catch” the national media’s attention.
He added, “Paul’s district has no big city in it. It is small cities, small towns and farms. He has had a congressional career that has gone largely under the radar.”
“There are people in his district shocked to find out he was a big player on budget stuff. He has been able to define his own story.He didn’t really spend any time in state politics and right out of college he went right into interning. While he is a Wisconsin congressman, he is not somebody who came up through the state ranks.”
Columnist Dan Bice of the Journal Sentinel in Milwaukee, offered a similar view, saying “His hometown has been hurt economically, GM pulled out of there and some have said he has not done a lot to help out. The recession has hit Janesville as much as anywhere.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics data on Janesville finds unemployment spiked to more than 15 percent when the plant closed and was above 10 percent as recently as February.
Bice cited several other elements of Ryan’s past that could be of interest to the national debate. He noted ties to a Kenosha businessman, Dennis Troha, who pled guilty in 2007 to illegal campaign contributions to the Wisconsin Democratic Party and to President Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign. Troha had funneled donations to those campaign committees through family members. Troha and his family and associates had also given more than $58,000 to Ryan’s campaigns over several years.
Ryan donated the Troha contributions to his campaign to charity in the wake of the scandal according to the Journal Sentinel.
“People will look into the connection with his father-in-law who is pretty heavily into natural gas and several people have raised the issue of fracking and his support of that,” Bice said about Daniel Little, Ryan’s father-in-law, who owns interests in four companies that lease land for mining and drilling by energy companies.
Another piece of Ryan’s life that was mentioned by several Badger State journalists is his praise for Ayn Rand, the controversial atheist author and her books, Atlas Shrugged and Fountainhead, which promote objectivism, the belief that individualism and self-interest is the key to success and happiness.
“There are things that are sort of known among the intelligencia that could become a little weird,” said Nichols. “For instance, the Ayn Rand stuff. He has read Fountainhead, he has said it inspired him to go into politics, it is hyper individualist, no government at all. Ayn Rand was an atheist and you tie that kind of stuff to the vice presidential candidate and it is a lot to talk about.”
Bice and Nichols both agreed Ryan’s image back home is somewhat different than his D.C. persona as a fiscal hardliner.
“He is a deer hunter,” Bice said. “He is not the sort of guy who is reading James Joyce. He is a smart guy, a clean cut guy.”
Nichols agreed, stating:
“He is a genuinely nice guy who operates in almost an 18th Century, 19th Century view of partisan politics; a very old school, ‘we are all Americans,’ type arguing about fundamental issues but the hyper-partisanship has not really been a part of who he is. He is not thought of as the attack dog who makes the hit on someone.”