RACINE COUNTY — Reactions ranged from praise from Republicans to glee from some progressives after House Speaker Paul Ryan announced Wednesday morning that he will retire from politics at the end of his term next January.
Ryan, 48, announced his plans at a closed-door meeting of House Republicans on Wednesday morning before a public announcement at a press conference, according to those present. His tone was described as somber, and he read directly from prepared remarks.
The Wisconsin Republican cast the decision as a personal one, saying he did not want his children growing up with a “weekend dad.” He told reporters he believes he’s leaving with strong accomplishments his party can sell to voters ahead of November elections.
“I have given this job everything I have,” he said. “We’re going to have a great record to run on.”
Ryan, a Republican from Janesville, was first elected to Congress in 1998. Along with Reps. Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy, he branded himself a rising “Young Gun” in an aging party.
He became GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012.
Ryan was pulled into the leadership job by the abrupt retirement of House Speaker John Boehner in 2015. Boehner had struggled to wrangle the chamber’s restless conservative wing and failed to the seal big-picture deals on fiscal policy he sought. Ryan had more trust with the hardliners in the House, but had no more success in brokering the fundamental reform of entitlement he sought. He did notch a big victory with tax reform.
He ultimately had to wrestle with another unexpected challenge: President Donald Trump, a president with little of Ryan’s interest in policy detail or ideological purity. The two have not always had a close working relationship.
Trump Tweeted Wednesday, “Speaker Paul Ryan is a truly good man, and while he will not be seeking re-election, he will leave a legacy of achievement that nobody can question. We are with you Paul!”
Ryan showed an early affinity for elected office. Attending Joseph A. Craig High School in Janesville, he was elected president of his junior class and, as such, was a student body representative to the local school board.
At age 16, Ryan found his father, also named Paul Ryan, dead in bed of a heart attack.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. While in college, Ryan did an internship in the Washington, D.C., office of U.S. Sen. Bob Kasten. And, as a member of the College Republicans, Ryan volunteered for Boehner’s congressional campaign.
After college, Ryan took a job as a legislative aide in Kasten’s office. After Democrat Russ Feingold defeated Kasten, Ryan became a speechwriter for Empower America, a conservative advocacy group started by conservative royalty Jack Kemp, Jeanne Kirkpatrick and William Bennett.
Ryan later worked as a speechwriter for Kemp, the Republican vice presidential candidate in the 1996 U.S. presidential election. Ryan has said Kemp had a “huge influence” on him.
Ryan was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1998, winning the 1st District seat of Republican Mark Neumann, who had vacated his seat to make an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate. He became the second-youngest member of the House at the time.
He has been re-elected to his congressional seat eight times. During that period, he was chairman of the House Budget Committee from 2011-15 and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee from Jan. 3-Oct. 29, 2015.
Then, at the urging of his fellow Republicans in the House, Ryan agreed to accept the post of House Speaker.
Wednesday brought a flurry of written statements reacting to Ryan’s announcement that this is his last term. Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson stated: “Paul Ryan is a person of true integrity who I have had the great fortune to know over the last eight years. He has served Janesville, southeastern Wisconsin and our nation honorably. We should all be grateful for his sacrifice and understand his desire to be a full-time dad.”
Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin stated: “Before I was elected to the Senate, I served with Paul Ryan in the House and have spent many years working with him on behalf of the people of Wisconsin. We know each other well, and while we have different views on policy, I consider him a friend and have a lot of respect for him as a person and a public servant. This was a difficult decision to make, and I wish Paul and his family all the best in the future.”
Gov. Scott Walker stated: “As dear friends of Paul and Janna for more than 20 years, Tonette and I simply say ‘thank you’ to them and their family. On behalf of the more than five and a half million people of Wisconsin, we thank them for their deep dedication and service to our state and our country. While Paul leaves behind a far-reaching, reform-minded legacy and a long list of achievements in Congress, I believe this is just the beginning for him.”
Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, stated, “When I met Paul Ryan in 1998 during his first run for Congress, it was obvious he was someone of incredible talent and amazing ability. Now 20 years later, his record and accomplishments speak for themselves.
“Paul has been perhaps the best congressman Wisconsin has ever sent to Washington and also one of the best speakers to have gaveled Congress into session,” Vos continued. “His commitment to serving the people of Wisconsin and the United States is unparalleled.”
State Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, stated, “It is a sad moment for southeastern Wisconsin and the country. In an often cynical business, one of Paul’s defining characteristics, for me, was his ability to see the best in people, and always be hopeful about the strength of individuals and the country. He knows politics is not a zero-sum, us-versus-them game, and that a rising tide lifts all ships. Paul presents reasoned arguments to advocate for his position rather than attempt to tear down others. These traits are too unusual in today’s politics.”
National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers claimed, “Ryan’s leadership has transformed our nation. His vision to reform our broken tax code sparked a new era of American prosperity and confidence.”
But Randy Bryce, a Democrat running for 1st Congressional District, tried to take credit for Ryan’s decision to leave politics. “After 20 years in Congress rewarding billionaires like Charles and David Koch, Paul Ryan took one look at Randy Bryce and this campaign and is throwing in the towel,” Bryce’s campaign stated.
Bryce, who has been running a high priced and profile race in advance of the August primary, was deluged with interviews by media Wednesday at his Downtown Racine headquarters, his staff reported.
Marina Dimitrijevic, state director of the Wisconsin Working Families Party and a Milwaukee County Board member stated, “Paul Ryan’s quitting before he loses will resonate far beyond Wisconsin, inspiring insurgents to run and be giant slayers like Randy Bryce.”
The progressive group One Wisconsin Now’s Executive Director Scot Ross excoriated Ryan in a statement that read in part, “With few actual accomplishments, Paul Ryan was somehow placed on a pedestal as some gifted intellectual.
“Paul Ryan proved that in America, if you’re born rich you can still achieve your dreams of one day giving yourself a massive tax break if you hang around Washington, D.C. long enough.
“Now he will have more time to spend with his family and contemplate his legacy, the $1.5 trillion in debt he’s left with our children.”
Editor's note: Diane and David Beck have lived every parent's nightmare. Their 18-year-old daughter, Berit, was abducted and murdered on July 17, 1990. The Sturtevant teen was murdered at a midway stop-off point in Fond du Lac, while traveling north through the state on a work-related road trip to Appleton.
Her remains were stumbled upon by a farmer in a ditch outside Waupun on Aug. 22, 1990. Autopsy results indicated the most likely cause of death was strangulation.
Of course, the incident devastated the family. But it also shocked the local community. Diane Beck said she had made a graveside promise to her daughter to fight for justice.
In April 2014, 24 years after Berit's death, investigators announced a break in the case. The State Crime Lab identified the fingerprints of Dennis Brantner, a 64-year-old retired truck driver, as the source of nine previously unidentified fingerprints on items collected within the van Berit was driving, and two fingerprints were found on the van itself.
On March 27, 2015, Brantner was arrested in connection to the slaying.
Prosecuting this case presented many hurdles, Fond du Lac County District Attorney Eric Toney said, including statute of limitations challenges. The law prohibited the state from charging Brantner with other crimes, including kidnapping and false imprisonment, which could have extended his sentence.
Berit’s parents spent countless hours in Fond du Lac courtrooms — the first time during an almost three-week-long murder trial in 2016, which ended in a mistrial.
Brantner pleaded to a second-degree reckless homicide charge Feb. 2. In a packed courtroom on March 1, Toney asked that Brantner receive the maximum sentence of 10 years for the brutal death of Beck.
But the sentence was bittersweet for the Beck family.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone, and I mean everyone — our family, friends, our church and all those who we have never met — who has helped and supported us in prayer on this very long journey. We owe so much to the legal team and all of the departments who had a hand in getting justice for Berit.
Today, April 12, we are celebrating Berit’s 46th birthday. It is a celebration of both the past and present. A celebration of what was and what is. Beri was an exceptional high school graduate with musical talent and honorable aspirations. She was beautiful, smart and very caring of others, and I was her very proud mother. She was not perfect, but she was our daughter, our son’s sister and our parents' granddaughter. She was someone who was truly loved and certainly did not deserve to die the way she did.
I would like to share some things God has taught me through this experience. Even though Beri lived only 18 years, her brief life and brutal death amazingly inspired people to care and unified people to help. This terrible experience inadvertently showed what good people do when someone is in need. Her unique journey on this earth impacted so many lives in so many different ways. Only God knows to what extent. We know, in spite of how painful it was, this experience changed lives for the better. Beri’s human body no longer walks alongside us, but her vibrant spirit continues to live through us. God somehow has made her life and death a manifestation of hope and optimism. Life is truly a gift from God. A gift that should never be taken for granted.
We have not publicly celebrated Berit’s birthday since 1990. But this year there is reason to celebrate again. Finally, some justice and some closure has come to the Berit Beck case — though not nearly enough and clearly not soon enough. After 28 years of praying and waiting, the man responsible for Berit’s death was finally sentenced to a maximum of 10 years “due to the statute of limitations.” This is a law that needs to be changed. Murder is murder, regardless of time gone by. Maybe more time needs to be added, not less time. The statute of limitations is definitely a flaw in the law.
There are no accidents in life — only incidents. Incidents are what God would call opportunities by which He is able to show us that even when bad things occur, they do not happen by mistake. I believe something good is going to come from this. God is always in control and has divine purpose. There are NO unanswered prayers — only prayers that are answered differently than we requested.
The best thing I can do is believe God used this incident to make us stronger and show us how important faith is in both enduring and enjoying life. Please remember God truly loves us and is always beside us no matter what we’re going through. This is perhaps the best reason for celebrating Berit’s birthday. I can only imagine what it will be like to be with her again. Happy birthday, Sweetheart!
— Diane Beck, Berit’s mom
WIND POINT — Racine Unified School Board President Robert Wittke Jr. on Wednesday became the second person to announce his candidacy for the 62nd Assembly District in northern Racine County.
Wittke’s announcement came the day after incumbent state Rep. Tom Weatherston, R-Caledonia, announced that he would not seek re-election this fall. Weatherston has served the district in the Assembly since 2012.
Wittke, of Wind Point, is running as a Republican in the race. The 62nd District includes Caledonia, Raymond, Norway, Wind Point, North Bay, some northern and western parts of the City of Racine and a small part of Mount Pleasant.
A lifelong Racine-area resident, Wittke is a tax and finance professional with more than 25 years of industry experience. He was elected to the School Board in 2016 and now serves as the board president of the fifth largest school district in the state. Wittke is a product of RUSD himself, graduating from Horlick High School. He and his wife reside in the district with two of his children currently attending RUSD schools. His older two children are pursuing careers after graduating from RUSD and the Wisconsin university system.
“These are exciting times for Racine County; we now need to deliver on the promise of jobs, which is my No. 1 priority,” Wittke said in a statement announcing his candidacy. “I want to serve the area by helping shape good policy that will have a positive impact on future generations in Wisconsin.”
Wittke said he enjoys giving back to his community and being involved with today’s youth. He used his experience as a former basketball player at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire to accept an opportunity as volunteer coach for the Case High School boys varsity basketball program for two seasons.
“We have the responsibility to provide our child the opportunity to take their talents to another level,” said Wittke. “I believe we must continue to find better ways to invest in our schools in order to deliver results and build the workforce of the future.”
Wittke will face at least one potential opponent in the Republican primary, which is set for Aug. 14. On Tuesday, John Leiber, former president of the Caledonia Parks and Recreation Commission and a former legislative aide, announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination. The filing deadline is 5 p.m. June 1. The general election is Nov. 6.
Meg Andrietsch, chairman of the Democratic Party of Racine County, said Tuesday that the party will announce a candidate for Weatherston’s seat, “when the time is right.”
Wittke said Wednesday morning that if he is successful in the primary and the general election, he would serve out his term of office on the School Board, which expires in April 2019. New legislators would be sworn in likely in January.
“I want our children to have an even better state to grow up in. That means we must provide a stable economy, career opportunities and wonderful recreational activities. I’m excited to run for this Assembly District seat and would be honored to serve Racine County in this capacity,” said Wittke.