Wisconsin: the view from Janesville

Just down the hill from Paul Ryan’s home in Janesville, Wis., sits a strip of shops, bracketed to the south by the town’s senior center and to the north by the Tried and True tattoo parlor.

In between, there’s Ryan’s congressional office, his congressional campaign headquarters, and the local outpost of the Romney-Ryan campaign, along with the assorted businesses that make up a typical small town.

And although Ryan might be Janesville’s most famous son, even he gets mixed reviews from these blocks.

Jenny Strickert, the owner of the Bellamare Salon, doesn’t know the Ryans personally, though she’s lived in Janesville all her life and her shop is just a block from Ryan’s office. She already supported the GOP, but a second-hand connection to the local political celebrity has her convinced that she made the right decision: A girlfriend who’s a massage therapist, she says, lowering her voice as if afraid of speaking out of school, has done some work for the Ryan family.

Her pal was a Democrat, but after getting to know the Ryans, switched parties. “She said ‘Jenny, they are the nicest people, and now I’m voting Republican.’”

Across South Main Street, the local campaign office of the Romney-Ryan campaign is a scene of chaos. A knot of volunteers are working phones. There are stacks of lawn signs and plates of sandwiches that might be past their prime. Mike Obershaw, a retired IT director, takes a break from dialing to boast about the hometown congressman’s turn on the national stage.

He was the driver who brought the Ryans to the big rally at Craig High School in August, and says the big stage hasn’t changed the congressman. “When you’re from a small town, it’s exciting to see someone who really represents you up there on the highest level,” he says.

But not all the reviews are so positive. Larry Nehls, a retired snow plow driver, is having a drink at the Time Out sports bar down the street. He sees the Ryans here and there, maybe out for breakfast or running errands. He’s voted for Ryan for Congress before, but probably not this time, and he’s definitely casting his vote for the Obama presidential ticket. “He’s changed a little. Maybe he’s been in Washington too long. Maybe he’s forgetting his ideals.”    

At Carousel Consignments, an antique and collectibles shop packed with Hummel figurines and bins of vintage jewelry, owner Joni Bozart won’t say what her political leanings are – after all, her customers come from both sides. Ryan, she says, is a hard worker.

Bozart thinks she might be the only person she knows who will be sorry when the election is over. While others are weary of the phone calls, the ads, the acrimony, she’s just glad it’s brought feet through her shop’s door.

A group of journalists from South Africa dropped by on a recent visit to the town. “It’s been so fun to meet all these people from all over the world.”

Not long ago, Janna Ryan, Paul’s wife, came in with three Secret Service agents in tow. And did they buy anything? Bozart laughs, as if she’s not sure whether she’s supposed to say.

 

Emily Heil is the co-author of the Reliable Source and previously helped pen the In the Loop column with Al Kamen.

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