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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.”Continued...