Ryan has emerged as his party’s star advocate of smaller government, free markets and conservative social policies. Could places like the small, park-studded city where he grew up be healed by the ideas that catapulted him onto the GOP presidential ticket?
Janesville was the home of the Parker Pen Co. from the late 1880s until the manufacturer was sold and gradually left town, laying off a final 140 workers in 2010. But for nearly a century, the main engine of the local economy was a hulking General Motors plant alongside the Rock River. The Janesville assembly plant began to turn out cars in the early 1920s and at its height employed 7,000 people, pulling in family members one generation to the next. It was the oldest operating auto plant in the country when it shut down at the end of 2008. Its closing triggered layoffs of more than 5,000 people and roughly $225 million in lost payroll at the plant and at local companies that supplied goods and services to GM.
Some families have left town. Some that used to enjoy their boats and summer cabins have been turning up at the local food pantry, on Medicaid rolls and in foreclosure listings.
In the days since Ryan became one of the GOP’s two leading men, the people of Janesville, of all political beliefs, have been reveling in the reflected glory of their native son. But already, there are hints of unease about whether, if their congressman were to reach the White House, his fiscal views would serve his community well.
In his budget proposal, the “Roadmap for America’s Future,” Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, lays out a path to curb federal spending and taxes that would redefine Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — the main fibers of the nation’s social safety net and big drivers of federal deficits into the future.
“It can’t possibly hurt to have the vice president of the United States come from Janesville,” said state Sen. Tim Cullen, a moderate Democrat and long-respected local figure who has worked extensively with Ryan and likes him. But of Ryan’s pure faith in the private sector to meet social needs, Cullen said that in a town like Janesville, “it’s a mismatch.”