JANESVILLE, Wis. – Ask the people of Janesville, Wisconsin – Republicans and Democrats – what they think of Speaker-to-be Paul Ryan, and be ready for superlatives: Good neighbor, smart, friendly, a devoted father and an all-around nice guy.
Ask whether they think he can unify Washington, or even improve the economy of a Democratic union town still hurting from the closure of a General Motors plant in 2009, and Ryan’s constituents have their doubts.
“I hope he stops all the bickering and fighting and gets them to cooperate,” said John Brazil, 50, a self-described conservative Democrat and former dispatcher for a power company.
Sitting at the lunch counter of the Citrus Cafe, one of the only locally owned restaurants left downtown, Brazil said he’s never voted for Ryan, but he still respects him as he proudly shows a fuzzy cellphone picture of the lawmaker.
Ryan is a political anomaly in this Rock County city close to the Illinois border – a nine-term Republican congressman and his party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee in a Democratic locale. Dragged into the House leadership race, the 45-year-old is expected to succeed Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, on Thursday after winning the support of various House GOP factions.
Ryan is the Wisconsin favorite son rising to Washington heights – he’ll be second in line to the presidency as speaker- but his constituents are realists who understand the limitations.
Jan Campbell’s father was law partners with Ryan’s father, and she lives across the street from Ryan’s boyhood home. When Ryan was 16, he helped lay a brick patio in Campbell’s backyard.
The city is divided over Ryan becoming speaker, with Democrats opposed to him politically and Republicans worried he will be “bullied, torn and ripped apart,” Campbell said.
But there’s also a yearning for Ryan to “clean up the place” – a reference to Washington – and bring Republicans and Democrats together, she said.
“His philosophy is slightly off from the majority of Janesville, but he’s just very well liked,” said former Democratic state Sen. Tim Cullen, a lifelong resident of Janesville. “I think the community’s very proud of him.”
Ryan’s congressional district runs from the shores of Lake Michigan to the east through farm country outside of the capital city of Madison, located about 40 miles to the northwest. Janesville is on the far western edge of the district.
Ryan, a fifth-generation Janesville resident, lives with his wife, Janna, and their 13-year-old daughter and two sons, aged 10 and 12, in the Courthouse Hill neighborhood, just across a patch of woods and the house where Ryan grew up.
Ryan, whose dad died of a heart attack when he was 16, graduated from public high school in 1988. He followed a local tradition at the Italian House restaurant, located around the corner from Craig High School, and scrawled his name and his graduating year on a brick alongside dozens of names of his current and past classmates.
Restaurant owner Ed Halabi circled the brick in 2012, when Janesville was in the spotlight after Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, picked Ryan as his vice presidential running mate.
“I hope to God we stay above political affiliation and find a way to bring our parties together,” Halabi said. “I think Ryan can be the guy.”
Ryan left Janesville the fall after signing the Italian House brick to attend college at Miami University in Ohio. When Ryan was a junior at Miami in 1990, voters elected a new congressman to represent the southwestern Ohio district – Boehner.
Ryan eventually returned to Janesville, winning election to Congress in 1998. Now he flees Washington every weekend to be with his family.
His home was once owned by George Parker, an offspring of the founder of Parker Pen Co., which began making pens in Janesville in 1889. The factory closed in 2010, a year after GM left town.
On Monday, the home was decorated for Halloween with fake cobwebs in the bushes, six fake gravestones in the front yard and a skeleton dangling in front of the door next to an American flag.
Retired truck driver Joe Linehart, 67, has lived in Janesville since 1985. The city’s gone downhill since then, he said, hurt most dramatically by the departure of the General Motors plant six years ago and the loss of 6,000 jobs after nearly 90 years churning out cars, trucks and SUVs.
“You can’t find a high-paying job here anymore,” Linehart said. “It seems like any more there’s no middle class. It’s the rich and the poor.”
This area’s unemployment rate spiked to 12 percent in the immediate aftermath of the Janesville GM plant’s closure, though it’s since dropped to 4.2 percent, on par with the state rate.
As for Brazil and his friends at the Citrus Cafe, they are hoping for the best, both for Ryan and the city.
“Janesville’s downtown could come back,” Brazil said, almost wistfully. And at the very least, he said, “We’ll get one of those signs outside of town: Hometown of Paul Ryan.”