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Rob Zerban poses credible challenge to Rep. Paul Ryan

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Frank Schultz
October 21, 2012

— Rob Zerban has been running for 19 months to unseat Rep. Paul Ryan. Observers think his chances are slim, but they have to acknowledge he’s got the best-run 1st District Democratic campaign to come along in a long time.

Ryan has been virtually assured of re-election for years in large part because the Democrats didn’t run credible campaigns.

Zerban has raised serious money, assembled a professional campaign staff and is getting national media attention—mostly because his opponent is the Republican’s top spokesman on fiscal issues, not to mention Mitt Romney’s choice for vice president.

Despite the exposure, folks on the western end of the district—Ryan’s home turf—know little about the Kenosha-based Zerban.

Zerban keeps his personal story short. He grew up poor in a single-parent home in Illinois, eating government cheese and subsidized school lunches, he says. Government aid sent him to culinary school, and he went on to pull himself up by his bootstraps in the food-service field, eventually founding a catering business in the northern Chicago suburbs and then a spin-off business.

He sold those businesses in 2008, he said, to dedicate his life to public service. He served two terms on the Kenosha County Board and then stepped down last spring to concentrate on the Congressional race.

Zerban says he has built businesses and created jobs, something he said Ryan, with his Washington, D.C., career, has not done.

Zerban is married to Cornelia Zerban, a native of Germany who teaches psychology for Northcentral Technical College in Wausau.

The couple moved to Kenosha in 2004 and reportedly shared a passion for sailing. They sold their 35-foot sailboat last year, a spokeswoman said.

Zerban is soft spoken and not given to fiery speeches, but he is not averse to slinging zingers at Ryan.

Zerban’s news releases and funding appeals have called Ryan “a liar,” and Zerban calls Ryan’s budget proposal “The most irresponsible and destructive budget the United States has ever seen.”

When Ryan recently said he supports term limits, Zerban was quick to issue a statement suggesting that Ryan would drop out of the race because Ryan had exceeded the six terms Ryan thinks is prudent.

Back in March, Zerban sent a news release commenting on Ryan’s answer to a national TV news reporter who had asked about a possible run as vice president. Ryan had said he would have to consider it if asked.

Zerban’s interpretation was that Ryan had lost interest in his constituents.

“It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that Paul Ryan is actively pursuing higher office; he’s spending more time in television studios than here in the district facing constituents. While he’s spent the last two weeks campaigning on the taxpayer’s dime, he’s spent the last 14 years completely ignoring the needs of his constituents,” the release reads.

The attacks have become more frequent in recent weeks and seem to reflect the fact that Zerban is doing something that hasn’t been done since 1998: Running a professional campaign against Ryan.

Zerban jump-started his fundraising by loaning his campaign $120,000, but he has far exceeded that amount, raising more than $1.8 million since from Jan. 1 to Sept. 30 this year.

That money allows Zerban to run TV ads, but it’s nothing like Ryan’s war chest. Ryan has flooded TV channels with ads, backed by more than $4.8 million raised since Jan. 1.

Zerban’s said he was interviewed by MSNBC long before Mitt Romney chose Ryan as his running mate, because of all the interest in Ryan’s budget ideas.

“I think the only thing that’s changed is, there’s been more of them,” Zerban told The Gazette matter-of-factly, will little apparent excitement at getting free national airtime.

But Zerban acknowledged he probably is raising more money because of the exposure.

Zerban mostly mouths the mainline Democratic beliefs and policies, although he is willing to disagree with President Barack Obama. For example, although he endorses Obama’s health-care reforms, he prefers a national single-payer system.

Zerban said his experience of skyrocketing costs for the health insurance he provided his employees also leads him to want to tweak Obamacare to help small businesses provide for their workers.

Zerban would not go there when asked what he will do if Ryan becomes vice president but also wins re-election to the House.

A special election would be held to fill Ryan’s House seat, and Zerban would be the most obvious choice for the Democrats, with no obvious successor waiting in the GOP wings.

Zerban said he doesn’t have time to think about such things, and he couldn’t contemplate a Romney victory.

“I don’t think it’s a possibility,” he said.



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