Before House Speaker Paul Ryan gavels in his first session as chairman of the Republican National Convention, he plans to visit a recovering heroin addict and charismatic minister about 40 minutes southwest of Cleveland on Monday.
Paul Grodell, pastor at Beyond the Walls Church in Elyria, first met Ryan in October 2012 as the then-GOP vice presidential nominee was about to deliver a speech at Cleveland State University on the scourge of poverty.
Ryan met with a group of ministers from around the state for about an hour, hearing stories about addiction and redemption. At the end, Grodell asked if he could lay his hands on Ryan.
“I spoke some words into his life. It impacted him,” Grodell said. “I saw just the look on his face and tears in his eyes. It was powerful, even the Secret Service guys were tearing up.”
Since then Ryan has visited low-income neighborhoods, soup kitchens, halfway houses and churches all over the country that, like Beyond the Walls, cater to the indigent and the outcast. The goal has been to listen to the stories of those struggling with poverty in order to develop national policies that will help break the cycle.
As Ryan, who declined an interview request for this story, braces for the political spectacle of this week’s GOP convention, Monday’s visit to Elyria serves as a reminder that the reluctant speaker from Janesville is still rooted in the policy world.
It also highlights a side of Ryan that allies say makes him a future presidential contender and presents a foil to the party’s current standard-bearer, Donald Trump, with whom Ryan will share the stage this week.
“Whatever you say about Paul, you just take the opposite of Trump. Trump is egocentric, Paul’s not. (Trump) looks to be vindictive. Paul is not,” said Bob Woodson, founder and president of the Washington, D.C.,-based Center for Neighborhood Enterprise.
Woodson first became acquainted with Ryan when he was a 22-year-old speechwriter on Capitol Hill working for the late Rep. Jack Kemp, whose bleeding-heart conservatism informs much of Ryan’s work today. Woodson and Ryan became close friends over the past four years as Woodson helped arrange the meeting with Grodell and other stops on the national poverty tour.
At one point, while they dined at a popular restaurant in the heart of Washington, Woodson looked Ryan in the eye and asked why he cared about poverty.
“‘I’m deeply concerned about this country and I think we’re missing some valuable insights from the people who are experiencing the problem,’” Woodson said was Ryan’s response. “I can tell he was genuinely touched.”
Agenda focus of speech
Ryan’s anti-poverty strategy was released last month as part of his “A Better Way” House agenda, which will be the focus of a 10-minute speech he plans to deliver Tuesday night at the convention. It frames the problem as the government’s half-century-old “War on Poverty” programs keeping people locked in a cycle of poverty, and offers as a solution the transfer of funding from programs such as food stamps to grants to local community organizations.
Research has found federal programs have reduced poverty levels, especially over the long term, said Indivar Dutta-Gupta, director of the Project on Deep Poverty at the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Equality. The most effective solutions are to reduce unemployment and spur the creation of well-paying jobs, which he said aren’t part of Ryan’s approach.
Democrats see Ryan’s policy solutions as slick repackaging of the same decades-old Republican ideas that enrich the wealthy at the expense of working people and the poor.
Scot Ross, executive director of the liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now, dismissed Ryan’s poverty tour as supplication for his past comments dividing the country into “makers and takers” — which Ryan in March said was wrong of him to say.
“The fact is he said it and his policies reflect it,” Ross said. “He has proven once again that he has a glass jaw.”
Ryan has continued to make visits to low-income neighborhoods since reluctantly becoming House Speaker in October, though with less frequency than when he was chairman of the budget and, for less than a year, the powerful ways and means committees.
The visits were featured in a documentary, “Comeback,” which Ryan once said was one of the reasons he decided not to run for president this year — he didn’t want the film to be diminished as a political play.
Whether Ryan, 46, will run for president in the future is something those close to him hope for, but not something he wears on his sleeve.
“I don’t think ambition is the driving personality trait for Paul,” said Beth Myers, who led 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s vice presidential search. “A lot of politicians lay the groundwork for the future and he’s doing just the opposite. He’s really focused on what he’s doing as speaker.”
The only position Ryan aspired to as a young congressman was chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, which oversees tax policy, said Steve King, who has served as chairman of Ryan’s election committee since his first run in 1998. His attempts to reform the country’s entitlement programs rankled Democrats and burnished his reputation as a policy wonk.
But as former House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio looked to retirement last year, Ryan emerged as the one candidate who could unite the party’s factions. Ryan rebuffed several attempts to recruit him before finally capitulating as other candidates dropped out of the running.
Rising to the top of Republican politics as House speaker has led tea party conservatives to target Ryan.
On Aug. 9, he faces his first electoral test as speaker with a challenge from businessman Paul Nehlen, who hopes to tap the same public animosity toward the status quo that resulted in GOP majority leader Eric Cantor losing to a primary challenger in 2014.
Nehlen, borrowing a page from Trump’s populist playbook, has criticized Ryan’s support for international trade deals and last week took out a newspaper ad reminding workers about the closure of Janesville’s GM plant in 2009. He also has challenged Ryan to an arm-wrestling match and run TV ads featuring his motorcycle and tattoos. Polls show Ryan with a double-digit lead.
Ryan has also faced the challenges posed by his party’s unorthodox presidential nominee. Ryan initially withheld his support, but after meeting with Trump and ensuring they held common ground on The Better Way agenda, including the anti-poverty piece, he announced his support. However, Ryan has also criticized Trump when he was slow to condemn white supremacists and retweeted an image Ryan deemed “anti-Semitic.”
“It’s almost embarrassing no matter what Trump says … he’ll say ‘I know he said this, but I’m still going to support him,’” Ross said. “At that point, it no longer is a moral reflection of Donald Trump, but a reflection of Paul Ryan’s character, or lack thereof.”
Nathan Gonzales, editor of the Rothenberg and Gonzales Political Report, said Ryan has gone from a rising star in the Republican Party to the national face of the GOP, which comes with new challenges and intense scrutiny.
“He’s kept the party on the rails, but I don’t know that it’s going to get any easier,” Gonzales said.
Gonzales said it doesn’t appear that Ryan faces the same political headwinds that toppled Cantor two years ago, but he noted that if Republicans lose a dozen or more seats, that could increase the influence of the House’s very conservative Freedom Caucus, which could push Ryan further to the right on certain issues or pose a challenge to his leadership.
“He’s not out of the woods by any stretch,” Gonzales said.