By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter
JANESVILLE – At the Italian House restaurant, Paul Ryan is just another brick in the wall.
But Janesville’s native son — a prom king and junior class president who graduated from Craig High School in 1988 — is arguably the most famous name among the hundreds of graduate signatures scrawled on a brick wall at the restaurant on East Racine Street, a minute or two from the school.
Edmund Halabi, owner of The Italian House, has known Republican rising star Ryan for years, delighting in his professional successes, first as a congressman representing Janesville and Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District, and then as chairman of the House’s powerful Budget Committee and now … possibly a heartbeat away from the U.S. presidency.
“I think we here in Janesville, first of all, are proud to have someone from our community that is going to represent the U.S.A. today and move our country in a forward way,” Halabi said of Ryan, tapped by Mitt Romney as his vice presidential running mate.
Halabi echoes the sentiments of a lot of Janesville residents.
“He’s a wonderful family man. Him and his wife and kids come in to eat whenever he’s in town,” Halabi said. “I’ve watched him grow. I’ve watched him go on to do other things in his life. He just cares about his community.”
Outside the restaurant, resident Bob Williams didn’t speak as fondly of the congressman.
“I think he’s — maybe you have to be this way — but I think he’s a bit of a porch climber,” Williams said.
Williams said he taught at Craig while Ryan was a student there, but didn’t have Ryan in a class.
He defined porch climber as “being at the right place at the right time and accepting any opportunity that comes along.”
Ryan, whose family construction contractor business literally helped build Janesville, may have come from wealth, but he began his working life humble enough.
Yes, it’s true: The would-be VP drove the famous Oscar Mayer Weinermobile — as a meat salesman on summer break in college.
“It was a great job. I actually sold Oscar Mayer products to northern Minnesota. And meat managers in northern Minnesota are up really early in the morning and they’d kick-off at 3 o’clock to go fishing,” Ryan told CNN’s Candy Crowley, reminiscing on the walleye-fishing after work.
Ryan, 2011 Time magazine “Person of the Year” runner up — to, perhaps with some irony, “the protester” — told a high school audience in Colorado on Tuesday:
“I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up, when I was flipping burgers at McDonald’s, when I was standing in front of that big Hobart machine washing dishes or waiting tables, I never thought of myself as stuck in some station in life. I thought of myself on the American dream, on a path and journey so that I can find happiness however I define it for myself.”
For Ryan, it was ultimately exposure to economics and politics that came to define happiness in a career. At 42, he already has seven terms in Congress, where he’s become most famous for his “Path to Prosperity” budget and an austerity fiscal blueprint that has earned the praise of conservatives and the ire of liberals.
Love or hate the policies, much of Janesville — and more broadly, Wisconsin — is excited, or at least intrigued, at the prospect of a Badger in the White House.
An estimated 10,000 GOP enthusiasts came to Waukesha to greet Romney and Ryan at a homecoming rally Sunday.
Even progressive commentator John Nichols, who has been critical of Ryan, tweeted, “Politics aside, I’ve known Paul Ryan for years. He represents my home town. Can’t help but be pleased for him.”
State Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, also spoke well of Ryan.
“He has positions on issues you can disagree with, but he’s a guy who obviously has views that he has thought out. … He’s trying to do something really different in politics, something that political leaders seldom get credit for, and that’s solving a problem before it’s a disaster,” Cullen said.
Harry Banker of Janesville planned to vote for President Barack Obama before the Ryan announcement, but said he was pleased with Romney’s decision.
“I just think it’s a good idea that Paul Ryan got selected because he knows General Motors left here three years ago and he knows what it’s going to take to rebound, to get more jobs here,” Banker said.
That doesn’t mean Banker has heard anything yet to make him change his decision in November, but seemed proud of Janesville’s place in the national spotlight.
“Never, I wouldn’t have imagined in a million years we would have had somebody from Janesville,” Banker said.
Email Ekvall at firstname.lastname@example.org