NILES, Ohio — Tim Ryan never planned to launch his longshot bid against Nancy Pelosi to be the House Democratic leader. But after Donald Trump cleaned up in his Ohio hometown, a hub of the Rust Belt, the congressman felt compelled to take on his former mentor.
Pelosi, from San Francisco, has already declared victory in Wednesday’s contest for House Democrats’ top slot, saying that more than two-thirds of her Democratic colleagues are committed to support her. But the 43-year-old challenger is still trying to rustle up support ahead of the morning vote.
“We are within striking distance,” Ryan declared on the eve of the vote. “I think a lot of people are going to be surprised tomorrow. We have a lot of support.”
But so far only about a dozen House Democrats have come out publicly for Ryan, though the seven-termer insists that many more have privately promised to vote for him on the secret ballot (the vote total will be made public, but not who voted for who). Among those in Ryan’s camp are a few members of the Congressional Black Caucus, such as Alcee Hastings of Florida, and younger members, such as Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, who want the chance to rise in a chamber that’s been controlled by the 76-year-old Pelosi for 12 years.
Ryan needs something closer to 90 votes to bring down Pelosi but even if he does not win, a high tally for him would signal Pelosi faces a deep divide in her caucus.
During a recent interview at a Starbucks near his house, Ryan reflected on his reasons for running. A Republican had not carried Trumbull County, where the congressman lives, since Richard Nixon in 1972. Just four years ago, Barack Obama won it by 23 points. Trump prevailed by seven points.
“That changed my entire world view,” Ryan said of the 30-point swing. “That rocked me. As I saw the blue firewall collapse, I was like: I need to step up. … I need to be a bigger voice in the party.”
But the Ohio Democrat has some helpful tools to deal with the post-Trump tsunami shaking the political world.
After the 2008 election, Ryan signed up for a mindfulness retreat, becoming such an obsessed devotee of meditation that he wrote a book about it. “I’m actually doing it a little more in the last week,” he said. “Over the last week, there’s been longer sessions. It keeps me sane. It keeps me grounded. It keeps me in the zone.” Ryan goes out of his way to eat healthy, even penning a 2014 book about green eating called “The Real Food Revolution.”
Pelosi has not faced a challenge to her leadership since the Democratic shellacking in 2010. She beat former Rep. Heath Shuler, a Blue Dog from North Carolina, 150 to 43 that year.
When Ryan launched his quixotic bid, he did not even have phone numbers for many of his Democratic colleagues. He made the case over the Thanksgiving holiday. Because he never planned to run for leader, he never focused on cultivating the relationships that could come in handy right now. “Because it wasn’t my thing,” he explained.
History is not on Ryan’s side. The last time a top House party leader was defeated in a contested election was 1964, when Gerald Ford beat Charlie Halleck to become the Republican minority leader.
Ryan describes Pelosi as a mentor and goes out of his way to stress that he didn’t take her on lightly. She’s the only leader he’s ever known in the House — when Ryan got elected in 2002, Pelosi stepped in to succeed outgoing Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.). Pelosi helped Ryan land on the House Democratic Steering Committee, a slot he parlayed into a very valuable seat on the House Appropriations Committee.
“I love her,” Ryan said, as he took a sip of a medium coffee with two shots of espresso poured in for an extra kick. “I was a foot soldier for her. … This is not like some vendetta.”
Ryan has been in a somewhat similar position before. In 2002, he wound up running for Congress against his former boss. Raised by a single mother, he played football at John F. Kennedy High School, a big Catholic school. He was recruited by Youngstown State University, but an injury soon ended his athletic career.
He expected to become a social studies teacher until he spent a summer on Capitol Hill as an intern. After graduation, he took a full-time job on the staff of then-Rep. Jim Traficant (D-Ohio). Two years later, Ryan went to law school. Almost immediately after finishing, at 26, he won a state Senate seat.
Two years later in 2002, Traficant was charged with 10 felony counts, including tax evasion, bribery and racketeering. Ryan joined a crowded field to replace him. Traficant wound up being convicted and expelled from the House. Ryan won the Democratic primary, but Traficant got about 28,000 votes – or 15 percent – as an independent that fall. After Traficant got out of jail, he challenged Ryan again in 2010 and garnered 16 percent of the vote.
If he becomes House Democrats’ leader, Ryan promises to decentralize power and empower committee chairmen. He wants to elevate younger members and compete harder in red districts that have been written off. Pelosi has responded by vowing reforms and more responsiveness to the rank-and-file.
For his part, Ryan earned a reputation in Ohio over the past decade as someone who flirts with tough races but ultimately doesn’t make the leap.
Ohio politicos think he’s challenging Pelosi to set himself up to run for governor in 2018 — the current race allows him to him distance himself from the national party. “No idea,” Ryan said when asked if he will run for governor if he fails on Wednesday. “People are calling me to do it.”
For now, the Ohio Democrat explains, he relishes the role of underdog. “I’m a Catholic and a quarterback,” he said. “Those are the two things that really shape my life. I’d much rather be the underdog than the favorite any day of the week.”