“I think we are mostly just curious,” said Jason Mielke, who helped arrange the trip.
How much would Ryan transform the presidential campaign?
How much would the campaign transform him?
Most people who joined the caravan to Waukesha on Sunday were core members of the Republican Party in Janesville, but they also knew Ryan outside of politics. There was Mielke, a photographer who had taken Ryan’s family portraits a few days earlier; and Rebecca Ayers, whose family had helped look after Ryan’s grandmother when she was sick; and nearly a dozen others from this town of 60,000 in southern Wisconsin, most of whom had stories about Ryan dating back to a lunch, a run-in at the gym or a high school class.
“Everybody here feels like they know him,” Mielke said, “and that’s true whether you love him or you hate him.”
They considered Ryan a politician built in the mold of Rock County: solid, steadfast, respectful, a mystery to no one. He spoke his mind, and his mind rarely changed. His family had owned a construction business in town since 1884, and most of Ryan’s relatives still lived on the block where they grew up. Ryan’s own house on Courthouse Hill was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. He liked to bow hunt for deer in the fall and ice fish in the winter. He was a budget hawk married to a tax lawyer, a man of fastidious routines who monitored his heart rate during workouts, attended Catholic Mass and rooted for the Packers. He was Paul.
Life in Janesville had prepared him for the divisiveness of a national campaign. His home town was split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, and he heard complaints from both. Retired conservatives who lived in the historic neighborhood above the river worried about taxes and Medicare; union workers on the opposite bank had lost manufacturing jobs to Mexico and homes to foreclosure. They knocked on Ryan’s door and stopped him at the grocery store. They knew where to find him and what to expect.
But now even those who had known Ryan longest wondered if some kind of transformation was at hand. Could a politician famous for his exhaustive PowerPoint presentations speak in inspirational sound bites? Could the man who had polarized Janesville become a unifier of the Republican Party?
“These next few months will have an impact on him, on the city, on the whole country,” Mielke said. “We’re just waiting to see how and what.”