As Janesville businesswoman Jackie Wood talked about Paul Ryan’s decision Wednesday not to run again for U.S. Congress, she didn’t try to hide her emotions.
Her voice choked up, and she cleared her throat.
“I’m crying. I guess the initial way I felt, it’s kind of a little bit of sadness. Emotionally sad, I guess,” Wood said.
Wood is Ryan’s longtime landlord at his congressional offices in downtown Janesville’s Olde Towne Mall. She’s also a family friend, and she lives just a few blocks from his home in the Courthouse Hill neighborhood.
Wood has known Ryan since he was a boy, and over two decades she has watched Ryan the politician launch his career into the political stratosphere. Alongside that, Wood has seen Paul Ryan the neighbor raise his family just down the street.
She was one of a few local leaders who shared their reactions Wednesday to Ryan’s decision to end his 19-year tenure in Congress at the end of this year.
Over the last few years, Ryan has mentioned in public that he worried about how the pressure of being House speaker would affect his family life.
During a nationally televised address Wednesday, Ryan mentioned losing his father to a heart attack at age 16. He said the main reason he’s ending his run in Congress is his desire to spend more time with his three teenage children, who have lived their entire lives with a U.S. congressman for a dad.
Ryan said if he ran for Congress again and won, “All they will know me as is a weekend dad.”
In an interview with The Gazette, Wood didn’t talk so much about Ryan’s politics as she did of her impression of his humanity.
As a neighbor and friend, Wood said she feels conflicted over Ryan’s plans to step away from his political career.
“I know I’ll still know him, and I’ll see him around, certainly. But I’m crying today and I’m sad because I think he has served us, society, so well,” Wood said. “He’s such an admirable man…strong, honest and smart. I feel sad we as a society won’t have that leadership now. But I know he does deserve to have his life back.”
Dan Cunningham, vice president and lead government lobbyist for Forward Janesville, the city’s chamber of commerce, has known Ryan politically for years, but he talked about the personal side of the congressman—Ryan as soccer dad.
Cunningham recently attended a soccer practice for his son, who plays in the same league as Ryan’s youngest son, Sam. Cunningham said when Ryan arrived to watch Sam practice, a team of Capitol police assigned as his personal security fanned out across the soccer fields.
The heavy security detail has been a part of Ryan’s life since he was elected House speaker in October 2015.
“I’m sitting there thinking, ‘I wonder what his life must be like.’ It’s got to be difficult for him to live that way sometimes, to take that as ‘normal life,’” Cunningham said. “He’s had a really important job, but there’s tough parts that come with that.”
Janesville Police Chief Dave Moore said he has known Ryan for years. Moore and his local police force have coordinated with Washington, D.C., security officials on Ryan’s high-profile appearances locally. Ryan has handled the spectacle of his own security detail with grace and has remained down to earth, Moore said.
“I have talked with law enforcement officers throughout the nation. They’ll tell you some of the politicians become pretty full of themselves. But not Paul. Not ever,” Moore said.
Political opponents in recent months have shredded Ryan, claiming that for the last two years, Ryan hasn’t appeared in person in his own legislative district to deliver a single “town hall” talk to constituents. Opponents say it’s proof Ryan has lost touch with people in his district.
Cunningham and Forward Janesville President John Beckord said they have always known Ryan to care deeply about his home state, and to speak “glowingly” of Janesville.
Beckord said Ryan has ushered delegations of local officials straight to the upper echelons of government to have Wisconsin’s and Janesville’s needs heard.
Beckord said he knew Ryan never would “earmark” government largesse for Janesville or southern Wisconsin, but he said Ryan has been instrumental in legislative initiatives that have directly helped Janesville.
Most recently, Beckord said, Ryan supported designating three census tracts in Janesville, including one containing the former General Motors assembly plant, as “Economic Opportunity Zones,” making them eligible for special tax breaks for development investment.
“He’s helped put Janesville on the map,” Beckord said. “I don’t care about what your partisan point of view might be. His influence was deep and wide. We could never have afforded to buy the exposure he’s done for our community.”