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Government & Politics

What's Behind Rep. Tim Ryan's Challenge of The Woman He Calls His Mentor?

Tim Ryan campaigned for Hillary Clinton throughout his district, but says he understands the economic insecurity that made Trump attractive to his voters.

Northeast Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan will find out next Wednesday if his bid to become the leader of House Democrats is as much a long shot as conventional wisdom says it is. He’s challenging Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in a caucus vote Wednesday. WKSU’s M.L. Schultze spoke with the head of Youngstown State’s political science department about the unexpected step Ryan took after the Nov. 8 election.

Tim Ryan is only 43, yet he easily won his eighth term in Congress. Back in 2002, he had succeeded the colorful – and ultimately convicted – Congressman Jim Traficant. Traficant’s renegade style gave way to Ryan’s willingness to work within Congress on powerful committees such as Appropriations – a post that promised dividends for the Mahoning Valley.

Yet Ryan’s Youngstown-area voters also went heavily for Donald Trump for president. Youngstown State’s Paul Sracic says that’s not the contradiction it may seem because the region’s voters expect government make their lives better.

“The voters around here when they voted for Donald Trump were not voting for small government. This is sort of a new deal Republicanism. The idea is that government caused the problems in this area by bad trade agreements, for example. Since government caused the problems, government should fix the problems.”

Sracic notes the area went pretty heavily not only for Trump but for Republican Sen. Rob Portman. But “this area has not really become Republican at least if Republican is defined as being for small government.”

He says that explains why Ryan -- a low-key congressman – is stepping out of character in challenging Pelosi.

“If you look at what happened in this election, the Mahoning Valley ... was somewhat Ground Zero and people talk about it that way. ... Here, a higher percentage of people who voted for (President) Obama voted for Donald Trump than anywhere else in the country. Yet at the same time, ... they overwhelmingly voted to re-elect Tim Ryan, the Democrat.

photo of Trump with his airplane
Donald Trump won Ohio by about 9 percentage points, and the Mahoning Valley was among the leaders in the nation of voters who swung from Obama to Trump.

“So I think the logic has been that this is a Democrat who understand these cross-over voters.”

Sracic says this is not Ryan’s first bold move.

He ran for the Ohio Senate right out of law school. He was one of three candidates, and the two frontrunners went negative on each other and overlooked Ryan.

“And he kind of sneaks in. He’s a local candidate, from the area, high-school football star, so he gets elected.”

But he served only half that four-year term when he decided to run for Congress, one of a crowded field out to succeed his former – and now disgraced -- boss Jim Traficant.

'The idea is that government caused the problems in this area by bad trade agreements. ... Since government caused the problems, government should fix the problems.'

He ran “an incredibly energetic campaign. And I still remember him sort of jumping up and down on street corners with signs, out there with his supporters everywhere.... going around listening to Dave Matthews (band)..  in his van.”

Sracic says it’ll take a different kind of energy – and money – to win this internal Democratic race.

“One of the roles of the minority leader is raising money for other members who are running. And that’s where Congressman Ryan can’t match up against somebody like Nancy Pelosi. Certainly there’s not as much money in Northeast Ohio as there is out in Pelosi’s district in California. So that is going to be one of the difficult things because Pelosi has raised money for other people and when you raise money, you make friends.

“There’s also the gender issue. He’s a white male. And the Democratic Party nominates the first female candidate for president. She loses. Do they want to replace the first female speaker of the House and now minority leader with a white male in this environment?”

So why’s he doing it?

“You can’t win it unless you’re in it. And certainly because of this (presidential election) result, because of this cross-over, it made sense I think for somebody like him from the Midwest to come up and try to get the attention of the Democratic Party and say, ‘Look the Democratic party has to start paying attention to these voters. “

Sracic, chairman of Youngstown State University’s political science department, says Ryan has to be aware of another potential down side of his challenging Pelosi, that it could cost him his place on the Appropriations Committee or other leadership positions in the House.