WASHINGTON—On Wednesday, House Democrats will gather behind closed doors to elect their leader for the next Congress, with Ohio Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan pressing a long-shot bid to oust Rep. Nancy Pelosi.
Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan says he's challenging Nancy Pelosi's leadership in the wake of another underwhelming House election. Video provided by Newsy Newslook
The 43-year-old Niles native says Democrats need a new leader and sharper message—one that truly resonates with working-class voters—after their stunning defeat in the 2016 presidential race. But Ryan faces a formidable, if not impossible, task in his campaign to unseat Pelosi, a political powerhouse who has been at the helm of the House Democratic Caucus for more than 13 years.
The California Democrat says she already has the votes to win another term as House minority leader. Ryan’s allies say she’s bluffing and the race will be much closer than anyone expects.
Win or lose, Ryan will likely emerge with a boost to his political profile in Ohio, where rumors are already flying about his interest in a statewide run in 2018.
Here are five things to know about the Mahoning Valley congressman:
1. The one-time high school and college football star is now big into meditation and healthy eating. Seeking a respite after the grueling 2008 elections, Ryan attended a mindfulness retreat, where he forfeited his multiple cell phones and experienced 36 hours of complete silence.
"My mind got so quiet, and I had the experience of my mind and my body actually being in the same place at the same time, synchronized," Ryan told Time Magazine in a 2014 interview. Ryan has even written a book on the subject, “A Mindful Nation,” and pushed for inclusion of the stress-reduction techniques in schools and other settings.
In 2015, he penned a second book, “The Real Food Revolution,” which calls for a shift away from highly processed, sugar-laden foods and more support for American farmers who grow fresh fruits and vegetables.
2. Ryan’s first job in politics was as an aide to then-Rep. Jim Traficant, the Youngstown Democrat known for his wild hair, working-class credo, and corruption scandals. Ryan replaced Traficant in Congress, winning the seat at age 29 despite being outspent in the Democratic primary 6-to-1. The defining issue? His opponent’s support for NAFTA, the same issue that helped catapult Donald Trump to victory in 2016.
3. Ryan’s biggest campaign donors come from the manufacturing sector, the defense industry, and labor unions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan watchdog.
In the 2016 election, Ryan snagged $150,000 from individuals and political action committees associated with industrial, transportation, and building unions, the center's data shows.. The Boeing Co. was his biggest single source of donations, with employees at that manufacturing giant giving him $14,000 in the last election.
4. Once a vocal opponent of abortion, Ryan switched his position on that hot-button issue last year. His Catholic faith had shaped his views on the subject when he was younger, Ryan explained in a 2015 op-ed in the Akron Beacon Journal.
Some political observers speculated that Ryan’s conversion was sparked by his interest in higher office. But Ryan said his views evolved with a deeper understanding of the issue.
Over 14 years in public office, “I have sat with women from Ohio and across the nation and heard them talk about their varying experiences: abusive relationships, financial hardship, health scares, rape and incest,” Ryan wrote in the op-ed. “I have come to believe that we must trust women and families—not politicians—to make the best decision for their lives.”
5. Ryan may run for governor in 2018, when Republican John Kasich will step down from his gubernatorial perch. Long seen as an appealing statewide candidate for Democrats, Ryan was touted as a possible contender in the 2014 governor’s race and the 2016 Senate contest.
Ryan demurred on both, but his bid for House Democratic leader has renewed speculation about his political ambitions. Since the election, Ryan has been a regular on the cable TV channels, talking up his ability to help the Democratic Party reconnect with its blue-collar base. And his moderate brand of Midwestern politics presents a striking contrast with Pelosi’s West Coast liberalism.
“He’s in the catbird’s seat,” said Steve Fought, a former aide to Rep. Marcy Kaptur, a Toledo Democrat. “He’s got a high profile right now, he’s articulate … and there’s a weak bench (in Ohio).”