Paul Ryan began his tenure as the 54th speaker of the House with a well-received speech that placed a great deal of emphasis on the role of the chamber as a representative body. “We are the body closest to the people,” the congressman told his colleagues after being elected to replace outgoing House Speaker John Boehner on Thursday. “Every two years, we face the voters—and sometimes face the music. But we do not echo the people. We represent them. We are supposed to study up and do the homework that they cannot do. So when we do not follow regular order—when we rush to pass bills a lot of us do not understand—we are not doing our job. Only a fully functioning House can truly represent the people.”
Few will argue with that statement, or with the Wisconsin Republican’s suggestion to the members of the House that “if there were ever a time for us to step up, this would be that time. America does not feel strong anymore because the working people of America do not feel strong anymore. I’m talking about the people who mind the store and grow the food and walk the beat and pay the taxes and raise the family. They do not sit in this House. They do not have fancy titles. But they are the people who make this country work, and this House should work for them.”
Excellent rhetoric. But who does Paul Ryan really represent?
When Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Washington, nominated Ryan for the speakership, she described him as “the representative for the state of Wisconsin, the man from Janesville, the honorable Paul D. Ryan.”
Officially, that is true.
He does represent Janesville, a blue-collar town hard hit by the deindustrialization that has extended from the trade policies Ryan backs. But if it was left to Janesville, he would not be in Congress. In 2012, when Ryan was busy running for vice president on Mitt Romney’s Republican ticket, the congressman was on the ballot twice—for the vice presidency and for his House seat.
Janesville rejected him in both races. His neighbors voted against him, his hometown voted against him and surrounding Rock County voted against him. The Romney-Ryan ticket lost Wisconsin by more than 200,000 votes and Ryan won reelection to the House by the narrowest margin of his career. He survived what might have been a double defeat thanks both to a massive money advantage over his Democratic challenger and to the meticulous gerrymandering of his district by Republican legislators who added conservative suburbs from around Milwaukee to offset the votes of the factory towns that had historically defined the district.
In 2014, a Republican wave year in Wisconsin, Ryan again trailed in his hometown.
Why is Janesville so disillusioned with Ryan?
Ryan has deep roots in the city and his family is well regarded there.