Who is Tim Ryan? A closer look at Pelosi’s challenger

Who is Tim Ryan? A closer look at Pelosi’s challenger
© Greg Nash
 
Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) jumped from relative obscurity to the national stage this week when he launched a challenge to unseat House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), whose historic leadership of the caucus has spanned 14 years.  
 
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Ryan has never held a leadership post. He claims he's entering the race reluctantly, only as an effort to reinvigorate the Democrats after a string of brutal election cycles has left them flailing in the minority. 
 
But he bears attributes many Democrats say are lacking in the party's top brass: At 43, he's a generation younger than Pelosi and her top lieutenants, all in their mid-70s. And hailing from the Youngstown region of northeastern Ohio, he represents the very type of blue-collar, battleground-state voters who have shifted steadily to the GOP's camp and helped drive President-elect Donald Trump and the Republicans in Congress to their landslide victories this month.
 
Here's a closer look at Ryan, a seven-term incumbent fighting to topple a Democratic juggernaut.
 
Growing up in Ohio
 
Born in Niles, Ohio, an industrial town 70 miles southeast of Cleveland, Ryan was a standout athlete whose star run as a high school quarterback earned him a spot on the team at Youngstown State University. A blown knee quickly ended his football career, and he transferred to Bowling Green University, where he studied political science with eyes on becoming a teacher.
 
He was bit by the politics bug after pursuing an internship in Washington, where he "fell in love with the public policy side of government," as he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette following his first congressional victory in 2002.
 
A Roman Catholic raised by a devout single mother, Ryan is pointing to his heritage as one impetus driving his decision to challenge Pelosi.
 
"I’m half Irish and half Italian, so I want to fight,” Ryan told The Huffington Post this week. 
 
Ryan is also an ardent proponent of meditation, advocating for "the movement of mindfulness" as a vehicle for escaping the daily grind and alleviating external pressures. 
 
In 2012, he released a book — “A Mindful Nation" — to promote meditation as a way to reduce stress and improve performance across a spectrum of institutions, from schools and businesses to research labs and the military. A gridlocked Congress, he said, could benefit, too.
 
In an interview with the Religion News Service, he quipped that if Pelosi and former Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerDemocrats should be careful what they wish for Blue wave poses governing risks for Dems Nancy Pelosi: Will she remain the ‘Face of the Franchise’? MORE (R-Ohio) were willing, he'd gladly coach them through.
 
"If anybody wanted to try it, I’d be happy to point them in the right direction," he said.
 
Rise to power
 
Ryan's first stint on Capitol Hill came in the mid 1990s as an aide to the late Rep. James Traficant (Ohio), an eccentric anti-abortion Democrat who was expelled from the House in 2002 after being convicted on 10 felony counts related to his misuse of campaign funds and tax evasion. 
 
Ryan, then a young state senator, pounced on the opportunity and entered the race, besting a long primary field that included a sitting lawmaker, then-Rep. Tom Sawyer (D), who was forced into the contest after redistricting consolidated Ohio's map and clipped a House seat from the state. Sawyer's vote for the North American Free Trade Agreement was seen as a crucial factor in Ryan's upset victory in the blue-collar district.
 
Ryan went on to defeat his Republican opponent, Ann Womer Benjamin, a state insurance commissioner, with 51 percent of the vote. Traficant, running as an independent, took 15 percent — a surprisingly high number considering he was running from a federal penitentiary.
 
Entering Congress in 2003, the 29-year-old Ryan was the youngest Democrat on Capitol Hill. 
 
Since then, he's had an easy ride, earning at least 67 percent of the vote in six of his seven reelection contests. The exception came in 2010, a dismal cycle for the Democrats, when Traficant, freed from prison, mounted another third-party run and took 16 percent of the vote. Ryan still won easily with 53 percent, and he glided to reelection this year with nearly 68 percent of the vote.
 
Ryan has also flirted with runs at higher office, but passed on each occasion. In 2006, with Republican then-Sen. Mike DeWine showing dismal approval ratings, Ryan considered a challenge, but ultimately ceded the opportunity to a more seasoned lawmaker in Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownSherrod Brown says he's 'not actively considering' running for president Election Countdown: Trump confident about midterms in Hill.TV interview | Kavanaugh controversy tests candidates | Sanders, Warren ponder if both can run | Super PACs spending big | Two states open general election voting Friday | Latest Senate polls Overnight Health Care: Senators target surprise medical bills | Group looks to allow Medicaid funds for substance abuse programs | FDA launches anti-vaping campaign for teens MORE, a then-House member who defeated DeWine and is now Ohio’s senior senator.
 
 
The Ohio governor's mansion has also been on Ryan's radar. He passed on a challenge to Gov. John Kasich (R) in 2014, but he's said to be weighing a run in 2018. Indeed, some Pelosi supporters say Ryan's bid for the Democratic leader spot is merely "a publicity stunt" designed to raise his profile ahead of that race — a charge he denies.
 
"You don't challenge this kind of power just to raise your profile," Ryan spokesman Michael Zetts said Friday. "This is about changing the direction of our Party and the country."
 
Work on Capitol Hill
 
Ryan is a member of two powerful committees that steer federal spending decisions — the Appropriations and Budget panels — where he's spent a good deal of time promoting college affordability, an expansion in renewable energy and enhanced access to healthcare.
 
As an extension of his healthcare agenda, he's sought to shift federal subsidies away from highly processed foods, and in 2014 he released a second book, “The Real Food Revolution,” to promote better health through better eating.
 
Ryan has been a member of the Democrats' "30-something working group." With no absence of irony, the group was created by Pelosi a decade ago to encourage younger members "to talk and listen to young Americans about the issues they care about and how Congress can better represent their opinions on those issues."
 
Ryan stuck his neck out for Pelosi in 2006 when he backed her unsuccessful push for the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) to replace Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) as her top lieutenant.
 
Along with Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), Ryan also heads up the House Manufacturing Caucus, and his economic agenda focuses heavily on improving the prospects of struggling manufacturers like those in his Rust Belt district. As part of that effort, he's pushed legislation to rein in foreign currency manipulation by imposing tariffs on countries, like China, accused of cheating global markets at the expense of U.S. producers.
 
His policy positions have not been without controversy, however.
 
Ryan was one of the anti-abortion Democrats who initially balked at ObamaCare over concerns that federal subsidies could underwrite insurance plans that offered abortion coverage, joining the 64 Democrats who voted in favor of the so-called Stupak amendment, which was designed to prevent any taxpayer dollars from funding those services. 
 
Liberal Democrats and women's health groups howled, warning that the language was too strict, leading to the elimination of abortion coverage even for those women buying unsubsidized plans. 
 
Ryan has since reversed course. In January of 2015, he penned an op-ed in the Akron Beacon Journal saying he's changed his position after hearing "endless stories about women in troubling situations" — conversations that led him "to a deeper understanding of the complexities and emotions that accompany the difficult decisions that women and families make."
 
"While there are people of good conscience on both sides of this argument, one thing has become abundantly clear to me: the heavy hand of government must not make this decision for women and families," he wrote.
 
He's stuck to that vow. By Planned Parenthood's tally, he voted 100 percent in favor of protecting women's reproductive rights this year. It remains to be seen if his previous record will alienate fellow Democrats in the liberal-heavy caucus as he chases a longshot bid against Pelosi, whose support for abortion rights spans her career. 
 
Fundraising
 
A vital role of any congressional leader is raising money for the party, and by that measure, Ryan is at a stark disadvantage. The Ohio Democrat raised less than $1 million this cycle, well below the average House member, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. 
 
And Democratic critics are quick to note that he paid only half of his $200,000 dues to the party this cycle, while ending the campaign with nearly $500,000 cash on hand, despite an easy reelection contest. 
 
"It speaks to his Johnny-Come-Lately interest in changing things," a senior Democratic official said Friday in an email. "He has swooped in to criticize a system after the fact, but he did not engage or contribute (not just money-wise) when it actually could have made a difference."
 
 
"He takes a back seat to no one when it comes to campaigning for his fellow Democrats," Zetts said.
 
Pelosi, by contrast raised more than $141 million this cycle, including $117.3 million for the party's campaign arm — money that's spread liberally to Democratic candidates around the country.
 
"There is NO comparison to Pelosi," the official said.
 
The Democrats' leadership votes are scheduled for Nov. 30.