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!”
Climbing the ladder
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.”
Criticism from the left
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.”