JANESVILLE, Wis. — Rep. Paul D. 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.” He added: “Some of his political views did begin to coalesce around the time of my father’s passing.”
His 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, and a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner, who was also there, said he “has no recollection of such a discussion.”)
Yet even if he is viewed as politically pure by the modern-day standards of his party’s base, he is not without contradictions. The nation’s first Generation X vice-presidential candidate, he is an avowed proponent of free markets whose family has interests in oil leases. But he counts Rage Against the Machine, which sings about the greed of oil companies and whose website praises the anti-corporate Occupy Wall Street movement, among his favorite bands.
He also voted for the bank bailout known as TARP and for President George W. Bush’s prescription drug benefit for the elderly, both of which are loathed by Tea Party activists. And even as he delved more deeply into libertarian economic theory in college, his tuition was partially paid for by the Social Security benefits he received after his father died.
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: FUN, FAITH AND POLITICS
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.
“We would talk about what Ronald Reagan was doing, the course of action he was bringing for our country, and Paul was absorbing these things,” he said. “I don’t think it was a great professor who opened his eyes in college.
“The part of his speech that hit me hard was his mentioning that my father said we should all be part of the solution, not the problem,” Tobin Ryan said, referring to his brother’s speech after Romney’s announcement on Saturday in Virginia.
The Ryans are Catholic — Paul was an altar boy — which was “an important part of Paul’s value system,” Tobin Ryan said. “We were raised to develop our faith and beliefs independently.” Ryan, more than his wife, Janna, often takes their three children to church, Thorpe said.
Ryan’s congressional voting record reflects a religiously conservative bent; he was a co-sponsor of legislation that would have declared human life to begin as a fertilized egg, and he opposes abortion, including in cases of rape and incest.
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.”
He added: “We certainly went through a lot and grew even closer through that experience. You saw a normal teenager sort of wake up the next day without a father, an 80-year-old grandmother with advanced Alzheimer’s in the room next door and a mother who decides to go back to college.”
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 (going out to dinner has become harder with the rise of Ryan’s political celebrity). 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.”
IN COLLEGE, A 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.”
Thomas Hall, a professor of economics at the college, said Ryan’s intelligence was matched by his confidence and communications skills. “He was one of the best students in the class,” he said. “He was conscientious, and he was especially articulate, both verbally and in writing ability.”
Ryan’s public speaking “stood out from the other students,” Hall said. “He also had a quiet confidence that stood out. What I mean by that is that he was a confident young man in a pleasant way. He was confident without being full of himself.”
In college, Ryan would take in Green Bay Packers games on television, play on his fraternity’s football team or work out in a gym across the street from the fraternity house.
“I would not call him a partyer,” said Kent Taylor, 40, a sports anchorman in Louisville, Ky., and a former fraternity brother of Ryan’s at Delta Tau Delta. “He was pretty serious and focused all the time and knew what he wanted to do. He was locked into his academics. He was interested in the economy and how it works from an early age in college. I think his seriousness set him apart from other folks in the fraternity and the university as a whole.”
Ryan earned a bachelor of arts degree in economics and political science in 1992, and his political leanings and ambitions were right there on the surface, friends said.
“Paul was always a politician,” said Scott Friedman, a former fraternity brother who was a year behind Ryan. “He was friendly with everybody. He was into debating the issues, and he was into talking about policy and economics.”
Conversations centered less on girls and football and more on the policy issues of the day. “I always knew that he was a conservative Republican, and I knew that he wanted to be a congressman from his college days,” Friedman said. “Typically, the discussions with him were around adultlike stuff. He would talk about trickle-down economics and why that would be a better approach to running the country’s economy.”
As it happened, the university was in the district of a congressman named John A. Boehner, and in 1992, Ryan served as a volunteer on his campaign, putting up yard signs. “He had a much more worldly perspective than other students, in the sense that he was not interested in level, flat conversations about the mundane,” said A.G. Hollis, 41, who owns a real estate company in Chicago and is another former fraternity brother.
FIRST RUN FOR THE HOUSE, WITH JACK KEMP’S HELP
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.”
Judith Nolan, Kemp’s daughter, worked in community outreach at Empower America during the time that Ryan was there. She said her father often turned to the young staff member for advice.
“My dad was so impressed with him,” she said, adding that he often had Ryan act as his researcher. “It impressed me that my dad, who had loved economics and studied it, would turn to someone so young.”
There was also definite pride, she added. “He definitely treated him like a son and would put his arm around him and introduce him and say, `Here’s the future of our party.“’
Kemp’s son Jimmy, who runs the Jack Kemp Foundation, says he sees a direct link between his father’s message of the 1990s and Ryan’s in 2012.
“When Paul talked about America being an idea in his Saturday morning speech in Norfolk, that was very consistent with dad’s message,” Kemp said. “Dad believed in the power of ideas, that humans get their rights not from the government, but from nature and God, as Paul described.”
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.”
His willingness to articulate his beliefs, and stick to them even when they are used as a baseball bat against his party, has drawn admiration too. “Sometimes we talk about what needs to be done together to shrink the size of government,” Ellmers said, “but then we hold back a little on how we message it. He was right out there, he took it all and he put himself right in the forefront.”
For less experienced members, Ryan’s knowledge of the federal budget has also been animating. Many wander into his office for advice on how to vote on bills, or, in the beginning, how to decode them.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, a Republican, said that Ryan even took time to call constituents in his South Carolina district who were displeased with the spate of short-term budget measures used to keep the government running. “There are not many people of his station in Congress who would sit in his office and call someone else’s constituents to explain something.” Ryan, as ajoke,has also offered to pay for and schedule haircuts for Gowdy, who often needs them.
Several members recalled a meeting last year with Obama, who had invited Republicans to the White House for an off-the-record conversation about the debt and deficit. According to some who attended, Obama conceded in the meeting that he understood entitlement programs needed to be changed if they were to be sustained. Ryan then accused Obama of failing to lead on cutting entitlements, as other members looked on in shock and amusement.
That does not mean that Ryan has not had to work overtime whipping members to vote for his budget, which did not cut as much as some of them would have liked. Admiration is no guarantee of agreement, as Boehner, now the House speaker, has learned.
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 E. 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.
In a contrast to life with rank-and-file in the House, Ryan joined Cliff Asness, a prominent hedge fund founder, and a friend of Asness’ for a meal last year at an expensive Capitol Hill bistro, where the three men shared two $350 bottles of Pinot Noir.
“I wanted to pick his brain,” Ryan explained about the dinner date to Talking Points Memo, a website, which obtained pictures of the meal from another diner.
The meeting with Asness, a leading Republican donor, marked Ryan’s entry into elite donor circles: When Ryan presented his budget plan at the Economic Club of Chicago last year, he was introduced by Anne Griffin, who with her husband, Kenneth, is a major donor to conservative causes. Executives working for Charles and David Koch, the billionaire conservative philanthropists, are now among the top donors to Ryan’s campaign committee and leadership PAC, as are employees of the hedge fund founded by the conservative billionaire Paul Singer.
He was celebrated at a New York City fundraiser by Asness and the hedge fund executives Singer and Steven A. Cohen, each a major player in the world of Republican fundraising.
So far during the 2012 elections cycle, Ryan’s campaign committee and his leadership PAC have raised more than $8.5 million during the 2012 cycle, one of the biggest totals in Congress. Ryan has used the money to amass influence among like-minded conservatives in the House, transferring more than a million dollars to other Republican candidates and party committees, and he has partnered with other self-styled “young guns,” like Cantor, to groom and raise money for promising candidates.
But fundraising has also brought Ryan some headaches. Beginning in the late 1990s, a Wisconsin businessman, Dennis Troha, and members of his family began donating tens of thousands of dollars to Ryan’s campaigns, while Troha helped organize a fundraiser for the lawmaker.
In 2005, Ryan signed a letter urging his colleagues to approve a provision sought by JHT Trucking, a company in his district, easing federal trucking rules, and also urged Bush administration officials to adopt the change, which was adopted. The following year, Ryan pressured federal regulators to issue a decision on an application to build a Wisconsin casino, a project in which Troha at the time held a stake.
Ryan had defended the interventions as routine constituent service. But in 2007, Troha pleaded guilty to federal charges that he had evaded campaign contribution limits by using his children to funnel contributions to Gov. Jim Doyle of Wisconsin, a Democrat, and President George W. Bush, in an effort to advance the trucking bill and casino development. An associate of Troha also pleaded guilty to charges that he had worked with Troha to funnel illegal corporate contributions to elected officials, including Ryan.
Ryan was not implicated in the investigations or charged with any crime, and there was no indication he knew the contributions were tainted. Following Troha’s indictment, he donated the family’s contributions to charity.
SERVING HIS DISTRICT AND BUILDING A FORTUNE
Ryan had barely been in Congress two weeks when a crisis hit his hometown: Gillette announced that it was closing its Parker Pen division and moving about 300 jobs overseas.
Parker Pen had long been the pride of Janesville, a blue-collar city where George S. Parker II, an heir to the pen maker’s founder, still lived in an imposing Georgian-style brick house around the corner from Ryan’s childhood home. The closing announcement in January 1999 was bitterly painful, and Ryan’s office let it be known that he was working to help the community cope with the “disturbing news.”
But there was not much Ryan or anyone else could do to prevent the plant from closing, so Janesville absorbed the hit and moved on. And so did Ryan, getting elected six more times and, in a twist that says much about how far he has come since he was elected to Congress at age 28, eventually buying Parker’s 5,800-square-foot, six-bedroom estate.
Ryan and his wife, Janna, purchased the house for $421,000 in 2010, a price they could easily afford. The Ryans have assets that were valued last year between $2 million and $7.7 million, according to Ryan’s personal financial disclosures, putting him in the upper echelons of House members in terms of wealth.
Still, while the Ryans are affluent by any measure, their wealth is not on the scale of Romney’s or of Capitol Hill’s richest, whose assets are in the hundreds of millions of dollars. And the Ryans are not known for conspicuous displays of wealth.
The old Parker house had been vacant for six years and needed a lot of work when the Ryans bought it. Rather than hire an army of contractors, Ryan did much of the renovation himself, neighbors said. State Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, who has known the Ryan family for most of his life, recalled Ryan coming outside to chat with him one day shortly after buying the house.
“The door was open, and he was wearing old clothes and was in there doing the painting and repair work himself,” Cullen said. “That’s just who he is, very much a product of Janesville — down-to-earth, basic people.”
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 whose clients include oil and gas companies. Those investments generated as much as $150,000 in income last year.
Friends say that the Ryans visit Janna Ryan’s relatives in Oklahoma, where she is from, several times a year, but that she generally prefers to stay at home in Janesville. Ryan has also seemed to try to stay close to home despite his rising profile in Washington, sometimes leaving Washington for Janesville on Thursday evenings and delaying his return to the capital until Tuesday mornings.
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 includ 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. He called his hometown paper, The Gazette, on Saturday night to give them details on his decision to join the campaign.
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.”