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Tim Ryan’s Rust Belt Reboot

Nancy Pelosi’s challenger thinks he knows how to win back working-class voters. But does he have a larger vision?

Alex Wong/Getty Images

It’s been two weeks since Donald Trump stunned the world, defeating Hillary Clinton with a surge of white Rust Belt votes, and Tim Ryan is back home for Thanksgiving week in one of the districts that made it happen. The seven-term Democratic representative from Ohio is holding forth at a conference on building healthier communities. But there’s something else on everyone’s mind, and it comes blurting out of the audience early in the question-and-answer session. “Do you have a death wish?” asks an elderly guy dressed in Sunday-best sport coat and tie.

Chuckles work through the luncheon crowd, about 200 strong on a Monday morning—social workers, school administrators, health advocates, and small business owners. Outside the ballroom’s huge windows, the rolling lawns ringing the conference center glint with a fresh half-inch of snow—the first for Northeast Ohio this fall. The speaker clarifies: “About your campaign.”

Ryan, the seven-term lawmaker from this blue-collar congressional district pressed up against the Pennsylvania border, doesn’t need the nudge to understand what campaign he means. A lopsided grin slides up his big, square, boyish face. “No, I do not have a death wish,” Ryan says. “I am Irish, so I do like a good fight every now and then.”

Even back home, Ryan can’t get away from the Washington palace intrigue currently focused on him. Not that he seems especially eager to. He brings it up himself, in fact, just a few minutes later, after a middle-aged woman takes the microphone and says: “Congressman, I don’t have a question, I just have a comment. You’re really awesome.” After the laughter and applause, Ryan, looking slightly embarrassed, quick-draws a quip: “I don’t think Nancy Pelosi thinks so.”

The week before, Ryan had announced what most members of the House of Representatives’ Democratic caucus would look at as a political suicide mission: only the second bid to remove Nancy Pelosi as Democratic leader in her 14 years steering the caucus. “Somebody’s got to do something,” Ryan tells later me later in the day, when we sat down for a conversation between appearances and media hits. “And I’m the 43-year-old from the Rust Belt who understands what we’re doing wrong.”

On paper, the match-upwhich will be decided by secret ballot on Wednesday—couldn’t be more one-sided. Ryan has had no leadership role in the House, and he can’t come close to matching Pelosi’s fundraising prowess. The challenge isn’t without a certain high-wire danger for Ryan. A loyal Pelosi foot soldier throughout his House career, he owes much of his career to her mentorship, and a failure could mean spending the rest of his hill career sidelined and ignored. “This is not the least bit personal,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for her. And she helped and promoted me. But I have a brain, and I have experience, and I need to be true to myself.”

He also has a prime career opportunity even if he loses. Considered one of the rising-star Democrats in Ohio ever since he won his House seat at 29, Ryan’s bid has directed the national spotlight his way. He’s hardly running from it—for Thanksgiving week, his office had rented a mobile TV studio to accommodate interview requests. The publicity will help if he decides, as many expect, to run for Ohio governor in 2018, when term-limited Republic John Kasich steps away.

But his first splash of attention has already left him feeling the cold shoulder. Before announcing his leadership bid, he tells me, Ryan phoned Pelosi to let her know. He left a message. When we spoke, he had yet to hear back.

Pelosi claims she already has the support of two-thirds of the caucus, while Ryan has just three announced backers. (She’s also announced her new leadership team in advance of the vote.) But Ryan sounds buoyant about his chances, as long as House members follow the voters’ lead on Election Day. “They flipped us all the bird,” he says. “Establishment Democrats, establishment Republicans, Wall Street, Middle America—they all gave us the middle finger. They want us to change.”

Ryan’s bone-deep understanding of blue-collar voters is the key to his long-shot bid for Democratic leader—and his political future. And it doesn’t hurt that he comes from Ohio, the all-important swing-state that has a fetishistic quality for pundits and poll watchers trying to game out presidential contests. Here, Clinton’s message failed to connect with working-class voters; here, as in other major “Blue Wall” enclaves like Pennsylvania and Michigan and Wisconsin, they flipped from supporting Obama to Trump.

Ryan, like other Democrats including (most vocally) Senator Bernie Sanders, believes the key to fixing the party’s problems lie here as well. By finding a broader economic message and making it central to Democratic campaigns, he believes they can speak directly to whites in the Rust Belt—and simultaneously reconnect with working-class voters in similar straits across the country.

Throughout the day, I pressed Ryan for specifics, for answers to the big questions that loom over a Democratic “pivot” to blue-collar voters. How, for instance, can an economic pitch geared to Ryan’s district also speak to the multiethnic rising majority in the rest of the country? And does the party really need to scrap its whole strategy after winning the popular vote in a presidential election?

Ryan is emphatic that his vision for the party’s future is just back to the past—a retread of the Democrats’ 1990s game plan to win back so-called “Reagan Democrats” by setting aside progressive priorities and New Deal liberalism. What his vision is is a little harder to define—a work in progress. But the rationale for challenging Pelosi, comes down to simple logic in Ryan’s mind: “We’re not winning,” he says. “If you’re a coach and your team doesn’t win, at some point you’ve got to change the coach.”

If your shell-shocked brain is still trying to understand how Donald Trump became the forty-fifth president of the United State of America, Ryan’s 13th Ohio Congressional District is unquestionably a decent place to start.

Strung between five counties from the Akron suburbs to the Pennsylvania border, the district was heavy industry country in its manufacturing heyday; locals still call the area “Steel Valley,” although the title today is more nostalgia than fact. This is where the heavy-industrial bottom fell out; between 2001 and 2013 alone, the two counties anchoring Ryan’s district, Trumbull and Mahoning, lost almost 19,000 manufacturing jobs. Yet politics here are still greased by union affiliation and endorsements. People are loyal. The district’s most famous representative, mad-dog Democrat Jim Traficant, pulled 15 percent of the vote in 2002 when he ran for re-election from a federal prison cell. (The disgraced congressman’s winning opponent in that race was one of his former D.C. aides—young Tim Ryan).

But traditional Democratic loyalty failed to prop up the blue “firewall” Hillary Clinton had expected to carry her to the White House if all else failed. The two counties anchoring Ryan’s district—Mahoning and Trumbull—are longtime Democrat strongholds. Yet even though Obama took Mahoning by 30,000 votes in 2012, less than 3,000 votes put Clinton over the top on November 8. Trumbull, another 2012 Obama win, went Trump—the first time the county voted Republican since 1972. And what happened here exemplified what happened in key labor-voting districts all across the Rust Belt.

Ryan was raised here, by a single mom in Niles, just outside Youngstown. Much about the 43-year-old and married father of three says “Ohio common man.” He’s equal parts respectful Catholic boy and bro-y ex-high-school football star; stands well-over six feet tall, aging-jock bulky but fit; and he’s inordinately fond of breaking the world down into sports metaphors. Hometown and ethnic pride leak into his conversations; he likes to say he’ll give the Trump Administration a “Youngstown street fight” if the president-elect aims to defund Planned Parenthood or offer the wealthy significant tax cuts. But Ryan also belies the type. He’s a devoted practitioner of mindfulness meditation, a topic he wrote a book on in 2012. A second book in 2014 documented his thoughts on better food choices. Ryan has also shown the ability to adapt: A devoted Catholic, he changed his stance on abortion last year to pro-choice.

Ryan’s national visibility began to rise during the Clinton campaign, when he appeared on a short-list of possible vice-presidential picks, and made it clear he’d like a cabinet position in a Clinton White House. He also became one of Clinton’s more memorable surrogates, stumping around Ohio with an anti-Trump message that became sharper as the campaign went on: “He will gut you and will walk over your cold dead body, and he won’t even flinch,” Ryan said of Trump to a group of union members in his district on October 5th. “He’ll climb over your cold dead body and get on his helicopter.”

By then, Ryan says, he’d begun to sense that folks were ignoring his warnings and leaning toward Trump. The rally turnouts weren’t as large as they’d been in 2008 and 2012. The union events didn’t have the same punch. Ryan would post up outside his district’s plant gates, gripping-and-grinning with shift workers coming off the job. Overwhelmingly, they told him they were going to vote again for their congressman. But when he pressed them about the presidential race, he got a lot of hemming and hawing. “I heard enough of that to be worried,” Ryan tells me. “Still, you think they’re going to quietly vote for Hillary because she’s so competent.”

The election results “rocked me,” he says. But he quickly diagnosed the trouble spots: The campaign and party were too easily tangled in questions about temperament and “identity politics,” and ignored economic issues that have wider interest. The thrust of Clinton’s pitch to voters was about the unreliability and instability of her ego-bloated opponent, he says—not on dollars-and-cents issues. Ryan’s own message to his constituents was notably missing: Clinton wasn’t telling working-class folks that Trump was going to screw them, just that he was the wrong kind of guy to be president.

As a result, Ryan says, there was no broad vision, no national message. “We try too much to sliver the electorate, slice it up,” he says. “We’re going to talk to this group today, and tomorrow, we’re going to talk to that group. There’s no synergy in that, no unifying economic message.”

Ryan’s thinking certainly tracks with that of the populist who Clinton beat for the 2016 nomination: Bernie Sanders. But even the progressive icon recently caught heat from liberals when he declared: “One of the struggles that you’re going to be seeing in the Democratic Party is whether we go beyond identity politics.” What did “going beyond” identity politics really mean? Sanders clarified his remarks in the New Republic, emphasizing the importance of running more diverse candidates as well as prioritizing an economic message.

Throughout the day, I pressed Ryan similarly on the role of identify politics going forward—and whether the party should focus on going after a dwindling chunk of the population. By pursuing them single-mindedly, wouldn’t the party be falling into a 1990s pothole again, ignoring the rising numbers of nonwhite and Millennial voters who lean left of blue-collar whites?

Ryan says his message is more inclusive than that. “When I talk about ‘working class,’ I don’t talk about ‘white working class,’” he says. “I talk about ‘working class,’ and a third of working class people are people of color. If you are black, white, brown, gay, straight, you want a good job. There is no more unifying theme than that.”

Later, I try to get Ryan to be more specific about how he sees the balance between so-called identity politics and working-class appeals. “Do you think the social issues were a distraction during the campaign?” I ask.

“I think social issues are always part of a presidential campaign,” Ryan replies. “We don’t have to run from our progressive social agenda because I think most Americans agree with us on most of it, like on gay rights or even the choice issue. But if they see you talking only about social issues, and their main issue is their pocketbook, their job, their economic anxiety, you just look like you don’t understand them.”

Asked for specifics on the economic message he’d like to see, Ryan points back to his own district and other former industrial strongholds. Ohioans have had to get creative about new industries, he says, ticking off the successful business incubators in Youngstown, the new natural gas plants replacing coal-fire energy, and the additive and 3D manufacturing in cities like Cleveland and Dayton. “Everywhere there are these burgeoning little fresh new parts of the economy, and as Democrats, we should be the ones throwing gasoline on this stuff,” he said. “You need these public-private partnerships with strategic government intervention with layering capital for start-up businesses.”

None of this will persuade critics who see the Democrats’ new enthusiasm for white working-class as a pivot that will come at the expense of pursuing racial justice and gender equality—who see public-private partnerships and “it’s the economy, stupid” campaigns as smacking of the New Democrat ‘90s. But Ryan says that other members of the caucus are tuning into his ideas. “They have been very, very supportive,” he said. “Even the ones who say, ‘I can’t vote for you,’ they say, ‘We love what you’re doing.’”

Should Ryan pull off a Trumpian surprise win when the caucus votes by secret ballot on Wednesday, there will be a lot of blanks to fill in. Ryan admits he doesn’t have a specific game plan in mind for going after particularly vulnerable Republicans in the House in the 2018 midterms. He does want to start from scratch at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, though, reworking it into a model more reminiscent of Obama for America, working year-round on the ground across the country to build up a grassroots network to rival the Republicans’. “The days are over,” he says, “of coming in six months before an election, saying, ‘Oh, we love you, here are a couple kids from out of state, do everything they say, and we’ll be fine.’”

That much, at least, all Democrats can agree on. And Ryan is holding out one more promise he hopes will sway House Democrats to dethrone Pelosi: He vows to hold himself accountable to the simple same score sheet he’s judging her by. “I don’t know if I’ve said this before,” he said, “but I’ll tell you this: If we don’t win the House back in 2018, I’ll step out of leadership.”

Given his long odds on Wednesday, and the Democrats’ equally long odds of wining back the House in 2018, it’s unlikely that his colleagues will ever have to take up Ryan on that promise. But his challenge to Pelosi won’t be the last time the media is all abuzz about Tim Ryan and his Rust Belt reboot.