JANESVILLE, Wis. — In a hometown “send-off” rally that doubled as a preview of the Republican National Convention speech he is set to give in Tampa, Rep. Paul Ryan on Monday delivered an impassioned description of his family’s journey to the United States from Ireland and outlined his vision for an America in which the role of community trumps that of government.
“We live together in freedom,” the presumptive GOP vice presidential nominee told a sea of more than 2,000 family members, friends, students and other supporters gathered in the gymnasium of his high school alma mater. “And what we do in our communities is we look out for one another. That’s what’s so special; that’s what government can’t replace or displace.”
Ticking off a list of local charities and organizations, including community nursing homes, the Boys and Girls Club, crisis pregnancy centers and the YMCA, Ryan told the crowd at Joseph A. Craig High School, “There are the things we do in our communities that bring us together to help our neighbors in need.”
“You know, they call it civil society,” he continued. “I call it Janesville, Wisconsin. And what is important is that our government respects this, that our government honors this, that our government works for the people, and not the other way around, so that we can do this.”
The school event was as much a chance for Ryan to test-drive his highly anticipated convention speech — which he is set to deliver Wednesday night — as it was an opportunity for him to showcase his roots in this industrial community of 63,000.
In his two weeks on the campaign trail since being named Mitt Romney’s running mate, Ryan, a fifth-generation Janesville native who on Monday joked that he must have “67 cousins” in his home town, has rarely made mention of his personal biography, instead focusing his praise on the presumptive GOP presidential nominee.
That was not the case Monday.
Ryan’s wife, Janna, and their three young children — Elizabeth, Charles and Samuel — made a rare appearance with him as he took the stage to cheers. One of the children was sporting a Wisconsin “cheesehead” hat emblazoned with the Romney-Ryan logo. Ryan’s mother, Betty Douglas, also was at the rally.
Introducing Ryan at the event were several local elected officials as well as the candidate’s older brother, Tobin.
In one of his first times doing so on the trail, Ryan spoke about his great-great-grandfather’s immigration to the United States, telling the crowd that his family’s story “is not that different from most Americans’ stories.”
“You know, back in the 1850s, the potatoes stopped growing in Ireland, so our great-great-grandfather, with the shirt on his back, made his way to Boston, worked his way on the railroad to get enough money to buy a farm,” Ryan said. “And that brought him to the outskirts of Janesville, Wisconsin. And he looked around, and it was summertime, and he said: ‘This looks just like Ireland.’ ”
Ryan cast his family’s immigration to America as a journey to “not just a piece of geography” but rather to an idea.
“The reason our family came here and the reason everybody else’s family came here is because of what this country stands for. . . . You know, it’s the only country founded on an idea, and that idea is precious,” he said.
In his remarks, Ryan also touched on several childhood friends who he said were among the 5,000 people who lost their jobs when Janesville’s General Motors plant was shuttered in 2008. He cited the career training those friends later got at the local Blackhawk Technical College as “the kind of thing we need to do” to help those hit by the economic downturn regain their footing.
And in a line that could well foreshadow the broader message of his convention speech, he told the crowd: “We’re not just picking the next president for a few years. We are picking the pathway for America for a generation.”
Ryan was originally scheduled to arrive in Tampa on Monday, but his trip was bumped to Tuesday because of Tropical Storm Isaac. In his remarks Monday, Ryan urged the crowd to “put in our minds and our prayers the people who have been victims” of the storm.
The school visit appeared to be an emotional one for Ryan, who at times choked up when he looked out at the familiar faces in the crowd. He was welcomed with cheers from the hometown audience, many of whom greeted him by name and hugged him as he made his way through the crowd after his remarks.
But in a reminder of the country’s charged political environment, two older women interrupted Ryan with shouts several minutes into the candidate’s remarks. Ryan supporters blocked them from the stage by holding up campaign signs and drowned them out as they have at recent rallies with chants of “USA! USA!”
“Sounds like we just went to state, doesn’t it?” Ryan quipped of the chanting.