He’s hardly a household name in politics and most experts give him little chance to succeed. But Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan announced last week he would challenge House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California for the top Democratic post in the wake of the Democrats’ disastrous showing in the November 8 election.
Ryan, 43, has virtually no leadership experience in Congress and only flirted with runs for the Senate and governorship before deciding to remain in the House. But in many ways, he is a man for the political times – a champion of the depressed Rust Belt economy and a long-standing critic of U.S. free trade policies whose views largely echo those of Republican President-elect Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
Ryan is arguing that for all of Pelosi’s impressive experience over the years – including her prowess as a fundraiser and legislative strategist who helped push through the Affordable Care Act and her tenure as the first female speaker of the House – the Democratic leadership is overdue for a change. He noted that under the current leadership, Democrats had been reduced to their smallest congressional minority since 1929.
The Democrats began the election trailing the Republicans in the House, 246 to 186. With three vacancies, they had high hopes of picking up at least 20 GOP-held seats. In the end, they had to settle for just six additional seats, which hardly put a dent in the GOP majority. Republicans, meanwhile, retained control of the Senate and recaptured control of the White House.
"Vote for me and I will dedicate all of my energy to lead us back into the majority,” Ryan wrote in a letter to his colleagues Thursday afternoon as he formally tossed his hat in the ring. “Our constituents deserve nothing less.”
The battle-tested Pelosi sought to brush aside the nascent rebellion with a letter of her own to her caucus on Thursday, boasting that she has the support of at least two-thirds of the 188-member Democratic caucus. And some of her top supporters dismissed Ryan’s effort as little more than a publicity stunt by a back-bencher.
Pelosi -- first elected to Congress in 1987 -- was clearly piqued when she was forced to postpone the leadership election that had been scheduled for Thursday until after the Thanksgiving holiday to prevent an uprising by disgruntled rank and file members.
Ryan, whose district includes the old steel manufacturing town of Youngstown, is particularly incensed that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and other party leaders focused so much on attacking Trump’s temperament and fitness to serve in the closing weeks of the campaign instead of appealing to white working class voters in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and other Rust Belt states that ultimately decided the election.
“While having a position in Democratic leadership has never been my life’s ambitions, after this election I believe we all need to reevaluate our roles within the caucus, the Democratic Party, and our country,” he wrote.
Here are nine things you should know about Tim Ryan:
- Ryan grew up in tiny Niles, Ohio, and his parents divorced when he was seven years old. He played football in high school and was a star quarterback. He was recruited to play for Youngstown State University, but a knee injury cut his career short, and he transferred to Bowling Green State University.
- After picking up a BA and law degree, Ryan began his political career working on the staff of Ohio Democratic congressman Jim Traficant, the fiery populist and rabble rouser with the bad toupee, and then went on to win a seat in the state Senate.
- When Traficant was forced to step down from his congressional seat in 2002 after being convicted of racketeering and bribery, Ryan declared his candidacy for the seat and went on to victory at the age of 29. Democrat Tom Sawyer, an incumbent congressman who had been thrown into the district by reapportionment, had been favored to win the Democratic primary. But Ryan hammered him for supporting the 1993 North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and for being one of the few politicians in the Rust Belt to favor normalizing trade relations with China.
- Ryan made his mark on Capitol Hill early in his career as a champion of blue collar workers and the Rust Belt, displaying a strong liberal bent on economic and foreign policy issues, while attempting to straddle the issues of abortion and gun control in his conservative Mahoning Valley district. Ryan initially voted for an amendment restricting federal funding for abortions, but in January 2015 he announced that he had “gained a deeper understanding” of the complexities and emotions of the issue and now identified as pro-choice.
- Ryan endeared himself to Pelosi a decade ago by backing one of her closest allies, Rep. John Murtha (D-PA), in his unsuccessful bid against Steny Hoyer of Maryland for majority leader in 2006. Pelosi, who was destined to become the first female House speaker, rewarded Ryan with a coveted seat on the House Appropriations Committee.
- Ryan made the most of his seat on the Appropriations Committee and spent much energy steering earmarked projects to his economically destitute district. He won approval of $26 million in 2007 alone, according to the Almanac of American Politics. But he wasn’t alone in rounding up pork for his state. Ohio lawmakers put $305 million into 2008 spending bills for a vast array of construction, defense and economic development projects.
- Ryan is a strong proponent of meditation to reduce stress. He attended a five-day retreat after the 2008 election where he turned off two BlackBerrys and gradually reduced how often he spoke until he maintained a 36-hour period of silence, according to the Akron Beacon Journal. He is the author of A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit. He was arrested in Virginia in August 2012 on a charge of public intoxication, but he pleaded not guilty, and the charge was later dismissed.
- Ryan serves as co-chairman of the Congressional Manufacturing Caucus, a group of lawmakers who promote legislation and action to strengthen the U.S. manufacturing base, bolster job training and education, and toughening U.S. trade policies. He is the leading advocate in the House to impose sanctions on unfair Chinese currency manipulation.
- Ryan has never served in a House leadership position but began meeting behind the scenes with other disgruntled Democrats after the election. In announcing his decision to challenge Pelosi for minority leader, he circulated a letter to his colleagues late last week noting that Democrats have only been in the majority of the House for two terms during the past 18 years, and the latest Republican rout had set the party back even further. “We owe it to our constituencies to listen and bring a new voice to the leadership,” he wrote.