By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON – Sam Loizzo says he wasn’t the least bit surprised that his former student was tapped as the GOP vice presidential nominee.
A lot of people in Janesville, Rep. Paul Ryan’s hometown, feel the same way.
Loizzo, who taught at Janesville Craig High School for 34 years, said he could see plenty of potential in Ryan, an “enthusiastic” A student in Loizzo’s government class in 1988.
While Ryan’s classmates may have voted the Craig prom king “biggest brown noser,” Loizzo said he saw a rare drive and determination in Ryan – and that was in a school that produced a 101st Airborne Division deputy commander, a U.S. senator and a Wyoming lieutenant governor.
At 28, Ryan, who had already built an impressive D.C. insider resume, having served as a congressional aide for three lawmakers and as a political speech writer, approached his old teacher with a question.
“He said, ‘Sam, I know I may not get your vote but I’m thinking about running for Congress. Do you think I’m crazy?’” Loizzo recalled. “I said in my mind you’d be crazy not to run.”
Ryan ran, and he never looked back.
The upstart won the seat vacated by Republican Mark Neumann, who left to launch an unsuccessful Senate race against then-U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., also a Janesville Craig alumnus.
Loizzo sounds proud of his former student, and says he has a great deal of respect for Ryan and his prominent Janesville family – a construction contracting Irish clan that literally helped build the Rock County city.
But this retired teacher, a Democrat, has no intention of voting for ultra-conservative Paul Ryan and the top of the Republican ticket, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
“I am happy for him and I wish him a great deal of luck, but I want President Obama to win,” Loizzo said. “He is doing things in education that have been beneficial that Paul Ryan would not. I like what has happened in the last few years.”
Loizzo, who retired in 2009, sounds livid about what has happened in Wisconsin over the past year and half under Ryan friend, Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
It was Walker’s Act 10 that gutted collective bargaining for most public employees, and it was Walker’s budget that cut some $800 million out of education spending to balance a $3.6 billion budget shortfall.
Loizzo, a strong advocate of teachers and their unions, took up the cause among tens of thousands of protesters at the Capitol in Wisconsin’s cold winter of 2011.
He’s no fan of the conservative line of deep spending cuts to solve the nation’s ballooning debt, like the plan laid out in House Budget Committee Chairman Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” budget plan.
“We can’t do it just by taxation,” Loizzo said of tackling a U.S. debt rapidly approaching $16 trillion. “We have to cut, but I have a feeling that my priorities are going to be different than his.”
Edumund Halabi, it would seem, shares many of the same priorities as Paul Ryan.
The owner of Janesville’s Italian House restaurant, just a few feet from Craig High School, is like a lot of small-business owners: worried about the economy.
He shares the anger of entrepreneurs who see sustained economic recovery out of reach while lawmakers and leaders seem to do more to hurt than help small businesses – the kind of voters Romney-Ryan have been targeting in their indignation-filled “We Built It” campaign.
Halabi, who came to America from his native Liberia more than 25 years ago, said he sees a passion for small business in the congressman whose family frequents the Italian House.
“Paul is a visionary person. He represents Midwest values, where if you work hard, you earn what you get,” he said. “That talent was cultivated in him from his family business.”
“Small businesspeople are just getting hammered from taxes and all the permits you have to run a business,” he said.
Halabi, unlike Loizzo, isn’t showing his cards on who he’s voting for in November.
When it was announced earlier this month that Romney had tapped Ryan as his running mate, Halabi posted congratulations to the congressman on the Italian House’s Facebook page. That turned out to be a controversial move.
Ryan critics quickly posted things like, “Stay out politics, crawl back into your kitchen,” and “Barf! I will never come in your restaurant again,” Halabi said.
No matter how he votes, the restaurant owner said Ryan’s appeal is bigger than his Republican rock star status and prominence in the national political scene.
“It’s more on a personal connective basis,” Halabi said. “I know the guy, I don’t know him as a Republican. I know him as a person.”
Loizzo said it’s Ryan’s connection to his constituents, to his hometown and his Midwest roots that have shaped his personal and professional life. He recalled a congressman who never closed his House office door to a class of high-school government students, seemingly relishing in the time to reconnect with Janesville folks — not the least of whom was his old teacher. On one trip, Ryan chatted with a student named Amanda for a half hour about deer hunting, Loizzo said.
There are many of the congressman’s constituents, however, who have complained that Ryan has been less than available to the people he represents, particularly his critics.
Still, it’s hard to argue with results. The conservative congressman from a small blue-collar city has handily won re-election six times over his seven terms in the House, beating his opponent 68 percent to 30 percent in 2010.
His admirers say Ryan’s down-to-earth personality has a lot to do with his election success.
“He’s just a likable guy,” Loizzo said.