JANESVILLE, Wis. — By the time Paul Ryan was 27 years old, he had spent several years toiling as a congressional aide and policy wonk. His highest political rank had been high school class president and representative to the school board.
This, he decided, was the skill set that Congress needed. In 1997, when the first opportunity arose for him to seek a significant public office, the young man in a hurry, whose father and grandfather died at a young age, decided to seize it.
An examination of that first race – 14 years before he would accept the nomination for vice president, as he will on Wednesday night in Tampa — foreshadows the type of candidate Paul Ryan would become. Interviews with his opponent, his family, and his longtime supporters paint a portrait of a canny politician from an aw-shucks town who from the start was determined to take on some of the nation’s knottiest issues.
Ryan ran that first race on changing Social Security and reducing the deficit — not, as many wannabe congressmen do, on the notion that all politics is local.
The urge to get into politics had begun shortly after Ryan graduated from Miami University in Ohio, with degrees in political science and economics. Before that, Ryan’s work experience consisted largely of flipping burgers at a McDonald’s and selling meat for Oscar Mayer.
Ryan moved to Washington and worked for Senator Bob Kasten, of Wisconsin, and a think tank founded by Jack Kemp, the former representative who would become the GOP vice presidential nominee in 1996. By 1997, when Ryan was working as a legislative aide to Senator Sam Brownback, of Kansas, it became clear that the congressman from his home district in Wisconsin was not running for reelection.
“He was at a crossroads,” Tobin Ryan said of his younger brother. “He could have gone back, I think, for a PhD in economics.”
Ryan met with one of his mentors, Bill Bennett, a former secretary of education, and confessed he was thinking about running.
“Dr. Bennett, I have to ask you if this passes the laugh test,” Ryan recounted to the Janesville Gazette. Bennett said it did.
Ryan moved back to Janesville, hastily taking a job with the construction company his family had owned since 1884. He took out a mortgage and purchased a $235,000 duplex with Interstate 90 as his backyard. He drove his green Chevrolet Tahoe around Wisconsin’s First Congressional District, most of the time accompanied by his brother.
“He visited every party official, any local person, any business he could think of. He was out there working everyone and talking to them about his plans,” said Bill Sodemann, a local businessman and active Republican. “I at first thought this guy is nice, sharp. But too young and inexperienced.”
Ryan gained encouragement — and, eventually, the endorsement — from Representative Mark Neumann, who had decided not to run for reelection.
“We had a lot of conversations. I wanted him. I wanted him to do it,” Neumann said. “He felt that he was relatively young at that point. I knew of his skill level, and I was totally confident he was ready.”
Even before Ryan formally entered the race he won the backing of some of the state’s top Republicans, including then-Governor Tommy Thompson and Kasten.
Ryan began to assemble his campaign team, largely by relying on family members (in one campaign ad, Ryan featured about 45 cousins who lived in town). Shortly after he decided he was going to run, he called his brother Tobin, who had been working in London for Bain & Co. (a consulting company and the parent firm of the private equity company Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee, once led; Tobin Ryan said he never met Romney until this summer).
Tobin and his wife, Oakleigh, moved back to Wisconsin with their newborn daughter. Oakleigh ran the campaign office. Tobin usually shuttled his brother around to events, made sure he was on time, and some nights slept on his brother’s couch. Ryan’s mother handled the scheduling, attempting to secure meetings with people across the district.
“It was intense, it was thought-provoking,” Tobin Ryan said. “And it tapped into all the skills we as a family have.”
Ryan hadn’t yet come upon his 10-year high school reunion, but his announcement speech focused on making sure lawmakers don’t use the Social Security trust fund for other purposes and on rewriting the tax code.
“We now have a code that taxpayers and accountants can’t figure out,” Ryan said in that speech, at Kandu Industries, a nonprofit that helps adults with disabilities find work. “The code punishes families, deters risk takers, and punishes success. Basically all of the things that make this country great are discouraged by our tax code.”
As he traveled around the district, he repeatedly touted his “Paycheck Protection Plan” that called for lower taxes, without a full description of how he’d do it. It was a catchy slogan that branded him, much as a decade later his Path to Prosperity and Roadmap to America budget plans would.
Using dense policy proposals, a chipper attitude, and a fresh face, he leapfrogged several party elders — much as he would do 14 years later to become the Republican vice presidential nominee. Within several months, Ryan had managed to clear the field of all other Republicans who were considering running; his only primary challenger was a 29-year-old pianist.
Ryan’s primary opponents underestimated his political chops, saying his nomination would spell doom against a more experienced Democratic challenger.
“If you ask me can Paul defeat [Democratic candidate Lydia] Spottswood, the answer is, ‘No,’ ” former state senator George Petak, a Republican, told the Janesville Gazette as he announced he was dropping out of the primary race. “He doesn’t have a chance. He’s just a kid.”
Yet, Ryan developed a reputation as a happy warrior, a political charmer who can persuade people to his views. And those who have followed his career — and run against him — say that underneath the smiles is a cutthroat political instinct.
“What I experienced was a very affable person who was able to put together a fairly ferocious campaign,” Spottswood said in an interview. “He had learned the ropes, but I think he had learned something much more significant: How to land really hard blows politically while appearing to be a nice person.”
The first time they met, she said, he shook her hand with a force not forgotten.
“I remember this crushing handshake that physically hurt,” Spottswood said. “What it felt like was bullying, but I’m not sure he meant it that way. Maybe he just doesn’t know his own grip strength. But my reaction was, ‘Whoa, that was a bit fierce.’ ”
A Queens, N.Y., native, Spottswood moved to Wisconsin with her husband and three children in the mid-1980s. She founded a community health center and had spent eight years on the Kenosha Common Council. She had run for Congress two years earlier against Neumann, losing narrowly but making her a well-known name in the district.
Spottswood, who was 47 at the time, noted during one debate that she was old enough to be Ryan’s mother.
Early on, Ryan appeared to realize the need to craft a narrative of himself within the minds of voters. Although he spent his years after college working in Washington, writing speeches and working as a congressional aide, when he began to run for office he put the spotlight on his work at his family’s construction firm.
Spottswood said his first ads showed him in a hard hat, with a construction site in the background. Local news reports began referring to him as “a marketing consultant” and a “Janesville businessman.”
Ryan, who was single and had no children, could also subtly leave other impressions, whether by design or not. Some of his first campaign fliers featured him laughing on the floor in a flannel shirt, two children in his lap reading a book.
Ryan’s sister-in-law and her newborn would often travel with Ryan to events, and it would become a topic of conversation when Spottswood showed up.
“People said, ‘You just missed Paul Ryan and his family. He was here with his wife and baby.’ I was like, oh no, he’s actually not married,” Spottswood said. “I’m not accusing Paul of introducing his sister as his wife. But sometimes you can leave those things unspoken and leave an impression.”
On the day after the election, they were featured on the front page of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, with Ryan and Oakleigh both smiling and looking into a baby carriage. (“It looked like a happy family,” Tobin Ryan said. “I said, ‘Can I have my wife and child back now?’ ”)
Ryan criticized Spottswood for not being principled, noting changed positions on gun control and abortion and using words like “flip flop,” “waffle,” and “reinventing.” He labeled her as ready to raise taxes, citing budget votes on the Kenosha Common Council (not noting that the votes were unanimous).
“Lydia Spottswood wants Washington to spend your money, but I think you should keep it,” Ryan said as he looked into the camera in one ad.
Spottswood criticized Ryan for wanting to change Social Security. She called him an “extremist” on abortion because he opposed abortion even in cases of rape or incest, and she said he would slash education funding.
The race took on national importance, in a swing district as Democrats were trying to wrest back control of the House. Vice President Al Gore and Hillary Clinton came to campaign for Spottswood. Kemp and former presidential candidate Steve Forbes campaigned for Ryan.
On election night, Ryan gathered at a restaurant full of supporters for what many expected to be a nail-biting night. Instead, in a district where the previous three races were decided by fewer than 4,000 votes, Ryan won by more than 27,000.
About six weeks after the campaign was over, Ryan sat down for lunch with a reporter from the Janesville Gazette.
Ryan was excited about his committee assignments, on the Banking, the Budget, and the Government Reform and Oversight committees (“To get those as a freshman . . . ” he gushed). He was also planning ahead, with aims that would become familiar: reducing the size of government and lowering income taxes.
“If you don’t have a goal, a vision, a horizon you’re shooting for,” he said, “where are you going?”
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.