The Washington Post

Janna Ryan steps lightly into national spotlight

Correction: An earlier version of this story said Janna Ryan’s great-grandfather ran for governor of Oklahoma.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), his wife, Janna, and their children greet supporters during a campaign rally at the NASCAR Technical Institute on Aug. 12 in Mooresville, N.C. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The day after her husband joined the Republican presidential ticket, Janna Ryan waved, smiled and shook hands. But when offered the microphone at a raucous rally, she chose not to speak — even when Mitt Romney himself invited her to take the floor.

Paul Ryan’s wife — a former tax attorney, lobbyist and congressional staffer with degrees from Wellesley College and George Washington University Law School — is taking careful first steps into the harsh spotlight that comes with a run for the White House.

Having grown up in a family deeply rooted in Oklahoma’s Democratic politics, Janna Ryan is accustomed to the rigors of political life. But as adoring crowds of Republicans turn out to see her husband, she seems conscious of the size of the stage on which she is now standing.

Janna Ryan, 43, conducted her first interview Sunday with celebrity-friendly People magazine, describing her husband’s work style and personal habits.

“You know, he’s pretty low-maintenance,” said Janna, who is now a stay-at-home mom. “Paul is someone who goes with the flow and has one of the sunniest demeanors and most positive outlooks of anyone I’ve ever met. So I’d say Mitt’ll probably have a lot of fun with him.”

Friends say Janna is a good complement to her husband. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who has known Janna for more than two decades, said, “She is comfortable talking to people at the Sand Bass Festival one day and having dinner with the governor the next. There’s no stiffness to her. No awkwardness.”

That adaptability was honed in her childhood, say those who know her. Paul and Janna Ryan are both from wealthy, well-connected families. His owns a construction company that has been in the family for more than a century. Her uncle, David Boren, is a former Democratic governor and now president of the University of Oklahoma. Janna’s grandfather also ran for governor and started a law firm in the town where her father, Dan Little, still works, according to the Daily Oklahoman. Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.) is her first cousin.

Her father served on the University of Oklahoma board of regents, and her late mother, Prudence, also was involved in civic life, sitting on the Oklahoma Ethics Commission. The value of the trust that Prudence “Prud” Little left her daughter, which ranges between $1 million and $5 million, according to Paul Ryan’s financial disclosure statement, is one of the family’s largest assets.

In leaving her skyrocketing career as a lobbyist who represented clients including the Cigar Association of America and United Parcel Service to raise her children, Janna is following the example of her mother, who also graduated from Wellesley and attended law school before marrying and moving to rural Oklahoma to raise three daughters.

Both Catholic, the Ryans were introduced to each other by a mutual friend in Washington in 1999. They had run in the same circles on Capitol Hill, where he was a staffer before being elected to Congress at 28. When they began dating, Janna had recently broken up with a longtime boyfriend. Their courtship got quickly serious.

“I had known her in other relationships, and all of a sudden my girlfriend was starry-eyed,” said Leslie Belcher, a lobbyist and longtime friend of Janna who worked with her in the office of former Rep. Bill Brewster (D-Okla.). “They are a very compatible couple.”

In an April 2000 article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about their engagement, Paul Ryan bragged that Janna had shared a deer stand with him when he shot a buck as hunting season opened. He proposed to her at one of his favorite fishing spots, Big St. Germain Lake in Wisconsin. They married in December 2000.

“He couldn’t believe he had met someone who was from Oklahoma and was okay with the fact that he hunted,” recalled Jodi Bond, an old friend of the Ryans.

The new vice presidential candidate still enjoys the life of an outdoorsman. According to the state political blog CapitolBeatOK, Paul Ryan joked during a speech in Oklahoma that he and the family visit “three times a year — deer season, duck season and turkey season.” For some reason, he said, “Janna refers to our visits as Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving.”

The Ryans live in his home town of Janesville in a large colonial on the block where Paul Ryan, 42, was raised, surrounded by his extended family. There they are raising their three school-age children, Liza, Charlie and Sam. Janna is also a member of a book club and tends her garden.

“Janna is naturally a very private person, but she has been so supportive of Paul and his big dreams and aspirations for the country,” Bond said.

Belcher added, “You can take the girl out of the politics, you can’t take the politics out of the girl. She does stay very current on policy issues.”

Cole recalled Janna accompanying her husband on a congressional trip to the Middle East in 2010 that stopped in Saudia Arabia, Oman and Dubai and being impressed with the couple. “When I got back from the congressional trip I dropped a line to Dan Little, her dad, telling him that it was like traveling with a future president and first lady,” Cole said. “She is probably as knowledgeable a critic and defender of Paul’s economic ideas as anybody. She is very, very sharp.”

In photos pulled from Paul Ryan’s Facebook page, they are the picture of a happy family, wearing matching Green Bay Packers sweatshirts.

After Romney and Ryan spoke at a rally in North Carolina last weekend, Romney offered the microphone to his wife, Ann, who rallied the crowd: “We’re not gonna take it anymore!” she shouted. “We’re gonna take back the White House!”

Romney then offered the microphone to Janna, who politely declined.

“You sure?” he asked.

Alice Crites, Eddy Palanzo and Philip Rucker in Mooresville, N.C., contributed to this report.

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has been a business reporter, covered presidential campaigns and written about civil rights and race. More recently, she has covered the first lady's office, politics and culture.

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