Can This Man Rebuild the Dems’ Blue Wall?
Tim Ryan, a brash, blustery, Democratic congressman from Ohio, is probably running for president. Among his supporters: tens of thousands of Trump voters.
When Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown handily beat mini-Trump Jim Renacci by six points in the 2018 midterm election, he inspired many in the party to rethink their slate of 2020 presidential contenders — a list so crammed with coastal elites that it could qualify as caricature. Even the 66-year-old Brown, the self-styled rumpled populist who’s long demurred from having any ambition for higher office, has said he’s now seriously considering a presidential run.
The shift makes sense. The thought of President Beto may enrapture progressives, but if the midterms are any indication of how the Democrats can win back the White House, the electoral path runs through Rust Belt states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, not through Texas (see Beto) or Florida (where even the Obama-esque Andrew Gillum was unable to prevail), and certainly not through California and New York (sorry, Kamala and Bloomberg).
And if Brown’s capturing 53 percent of a Trump state in 2018 is something to crow about, what about a Democratic congressman who, in 2016, won 68 percent of a Trump county?
Meet U.S. Rep. Timothy John Ryan — Irish and Italian Catholic; raised by a single mother in northeast Ohio’s struggling Trumbull County; former quarterback for the John F. Kennedy High School Eagles of Warren, Ohio; alumnus of Bowling Green State University; and husband to an elementary school teacher. The successor in the U.S. House of Representatives to the Mahoning Valley folk hero and foul-mouthed proto-Trump James Traficant, Ryan is a “guy’s guy,” as his wife calls him, who drops his Gs and can talk huntin’ and football and steel tariffs and NAFTA reform and infrastructure bills with Midwestern voters who love such things.
In 2016, of the 300,000 people who voted in Ohio’s 13th Congressional District, 45,000 voted for Trump and Ryan at the same time. Like Brown, that makes him a valuable commodity, and something of an outlier in a party increasingly incapable of communicating meaningfully with working-class white people. It has even earned him an unusual sobriquet on the Hill: “We call him the white male whisperer,” one House Democrat told the Washington Examiner. And unlike Brown, who went to Yale and is married to a Pulitzer Prize–winner, Ryan isn’t just a champion of the working class, he is working class.
For these reasons and more, Tim Ryan is definitely running for president.
“Are you running for president?” I ask him over a Reuben sandwich at O’Donold’s Irish Pub in downtown Youngstown, Ohio.
“No idea,” the tall 45-year-old tells me, clearly enjoying the speculation. “Sorry, I’d love to break news with ya, but… man, these fries are unreal!”
But Tim Ryan is definitely running for president. It’s why in July the eight-term congressman hired Pete D’Allesandro, one of Bernie Sanders’ top advisers in Iowa in 2016, and why in August he headlined the Iowa Wing Ding, a Democratic fundraising event and required engagement for those seeking the presidency.
“It’s about getting people into office that represent working-class people, the people who take a shower after work, that have been forgotten largely in our country.”
And while Ryan won’t yet make it official — at least not until after the House speakership is settled (Ryan is ardently opposed to Nancy Pelosi, of course, having challenged the San Francisco Democrat in 2016 for minority leader, and not doing badly at all, losing 134 to 63) — he’s already making his case. He’s only too happy to explain how a Democrat like him from a place like Trumbull County could win back some of the folks in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania who crossed over to the Republican Party in 2016.
“I think there’s a generational desire among a lot of people in the Democratic Party for change — geographical change,” says Ryan, wiping a bit of Russian dressing from his chin. “A lot of people think it may be better to start recapturing some of the workers that we lost — somebody who knows ’em and has represented ’em. It’s about getting people into office that represent working-class people, the people who take a shower after work, that have been forgotten largely in our country.”
With the midterms over and the 2020 Democratic presidential primary race underway, Democrats may be wise to consider Ryan’s pitch, which is this: Those 80,000 voters in the Rust Belt who shattered Hillary Clinton’s Blue Wall and turned the election did not care about the Access Hollywood tape. They did not care about David Duke’s endorsement or Trump’s insulting a Gold Star family or his flouting of democratic norms. They cared about their communities, which have been in free-fall since the 1970s. Trump knew this, and so does Ryan. And Ryan, as I learned spending time with him on his home turf, wants the Democrats to know it, too, before it’s too late.
Clad in a long-sleeve Cleveland Browns shirt and sipping on a paper cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, Tim Ryan sits in a police cruiser with Patrolman David Weber in Warren, Ohio, the county seat of Trumbull. The destination is a handful of blocks that locals have taken to calling Area 51, both for the bizarre sights routinely on display and the badge number of an officer known for particularly aggressive patrol.
Trumbull County was a Democratic stronghold since the days of FDR. It flipped red in the 2016 presidential election for only the second time in 88 years. Some of the usual explanations for this may apply — the protracted primary fight between Bernie and Hillary that broke up the Obama coalition, a quarter-century of Clinton fatigue, misogyny, racism, the media’s complicity in Trump’s reality TV show candidacy, Russian trolls — but in Trumbull County none come closer than one simple factor: loss.
Warren, Ohio, in the aftermath of the economic crisis, subprime crisis, and opioid epidemic is like an ancient Maya city covered in mangroves. Though Chernobyl is perhaps the better analogy.
Over the past 20 years, Trumbull County has lost nearly 33,000 jobs; during that same period of time, the median household income (adjusted for inflation) has fallen here by $10,000. Thirty years ago, the GM plant in Lordstown, a 6.2 million-square-foot complex, employed more than 15,000 workers. This week, GM announced it will shutter the Lordstown plant next March, axing its remaining 1,500 workers, driving up Trumbull County’s unemployment rate, which is already almost 2.5 percent higher than the national average.
Since 1980, Trumbull County’s population has declined by more than 40,000 people, and continues to slide. In recent years the opioid crisis has ravaged the county at a rate three times the national average, regularly populating the obituary pages of the local Tribune-Chronicle with twenty- and thirtysomethings who’ve “passed away unexpectedly, cause of death pending.”
In Warren, right next door to Ryan’s hometown of Niles, the loss has been acute. In 1970, the population was more than 63,000 people. Now it’s under 40,000 and falling. The city today contains blocks upon blocks of lush woods quartered by the faint lines of what used to be city streets. It’s like an ancient Maya city covered in mangroves. Though Chernobyl is perhaps the better analogy, with the three meltdowns of unemployment, drugs, and the subprime mortgage crisis, the latter leaving in its blast radius hundreds of zombie foreclosures — houses suddenly worth so little that neither the lendee nor the lender is willing to take ownership, leaving these vacant shells to rot until the quackgrass and maple saplings take over.
It’s on one of these decommissioned streets that Officer Weber’s step-niece was dumped dead and naked after overdosing on heroin long before Trump declared opioids a national emergency.
“Instead of calling the police or an ambulance, they gave her the ghetto treatment,” says the 50-year-old cop of the people who were with his step-niece when she died. “I don’t know if you know what that is.”
“No,” says the congressman.
“You throw an OD in a bathtub naked with ice water. It’s supposed to shock ’em awake,” Weber says. “Well, anyway, that doesn’t work. She died. So they put her in the car, drove her down the street, and dumped her in the woods.”
Ryan shudders. “Oh my god,” he says. “Did they find out who did it?”
“No. There was never enough evidence.”
Ryan doesn’t offer any canned sympathies. He just listens, shaking his head, learning from Weber, who has personally felt Trumbull County’s suffering, and who, notably, voted for Trump after twice voting for Barack Obama. “I see all this loss around here, all the problems in my community,” Weber tells me earlier. “Meanwhile, the country’s sending billions to other parts of the world or leaving money on the table in trade deals. So, yeah, ‘America first’ did speak to me.”
In the police cruiser with Ryan, the two avoid all talk of politics. The conversation bounces from the impact of the opioid-overdose reversal drug Narcan on overdose death rates here (down 43 percent from last year) to the recent appearance of marijuana laced with fentanyl, the synthetic opioid that’s 50 times stronger than heroin, which has resulted in ODs being legitimately clueless upon Narcan revival — mere stoners unwittingly caught up in the opioid crisis.
“I’ve heard about marijuana laced with fentanyl too,” Ryan says. “And I said somethin’ about it to a guy in D.C., and he said, ‘That’s not true. I’ve never read anything about that.’ And I said, ‘You know what, this is the exact fuckin’ problem with this goddamned town!’ Now I just talked to some people in fuckin’ Warren who actually experienced this!”
Ryan’s stated aim for the ride-along is to learn about the opioid crisis. “To understand and appreciate what these guys are doin’ every night,” he says. The congressman’s education ramps up around 11:30 p.m., when a call comes over the radio.
“Sixty-one, go ahead,” Weber says into the CB.
“I have an OD off of East Market Street,” the dispatcher reports back, following with an exact address.
“Do you have Narcan?” Ryan asks.
“Yeah,” Weber says.
East Market is quiet and desolate as Weber’s cruiser hangs a right past Schwebel’s Bakery, the peace of the night soon disrupted by the flashing of red and blue ambulance lights against the façade of a shotgun house. As Weber and the congressman get out of the cruiser, an EMT is already working the scene, positioning a man’s lifeless body in the passenger seat of a pickup truck so that the head stretches back over the headrest. The man is 30 years old and wears a red T-shirt and has a bushy brown beard.
“What state is he in?” asks the congressman in hushed tones.
“Comatose — the guy’s lips are all blue, and his skin is all grayish,” says Weber as the EMT prepares a dose of Narcan. “He’s near death.”
Ryan remains a bystander, arms crossed, left hand covering his open mouth, and just watches from outside the driver’s-side door of the pickup as the EMT inserts a syringe with a rubber nozzle into the man’s right nostril, depresses the plunger halfway, and then finishes off the dose in the left nostril.
“What does this cost?” says Ryan after an overdose victim is revived in front of him. “You got three cops here. You got the paramedics. You used Narcan. Takin’ him to the fuckin’ hospital… Somebody’s payin’ for it.”
The breaths are slow, long, and labored, like a suffocating man who’s been given an oxygen mask. The lips return to red, and the gray skin returns to peach as Ryan, mesmerized, hangs his arms over the driver’s-side door.
“Rise and shine,” the EMT says.
“Welcome back,” Weber says.
“What happened?” the man mumbles.
“You died,” Weber says. “You overdosed. You weren’t breathing.”
“I am breathing,” says the man, bleary-eyed and groggy.
“Well, you are now,” Weber says, “because this fine young gentleman gave you Narcan.”
Ryan can sense the frustration of Weber’s colleagues — two officers who lightly questioned the man who called in the overdose and did a cursory search of the pickup. They see scenes like this nightly. Ryan is fairly progressive on drug policy. He called for marijuana legalization at the federal level earlier this year, but he empathizes with the more conservative cops dealing with the fallout from opioids on the street. “What does this cost?” asks Ryan, shaking his head while huddling with the three policemen. “You got three cops here. You got the paramedics. You used Narcan. Takin’ him to the fuckin’ hospital… Somebody’s payin’ for it.”
“We all are,” Weber says.
The ambulance’s engine starts, and the police head back to their vehicles and make way.
“Thanks, guys,” Ryan says. “Appreciate whatcha do.”
That same night, as Weber’s cruiser rolls through Area 51, the talk turns to real estate. While many U.S. cities have fully rebounded from the subprime mortgage crisis, Warren is still in its grip. The city is littered with 1,500 abandoned houses, which have served as venues for criminal activity and dragged down property values for the remaining residents who own their homes.
“Looks like they’re starting to take down some of these homes,” says Ryan, who’s been marveling at some of the slate roofs and wraparound porches that have fallen into disrepair. “It’s a shame, because you can see some of the integrity in these older homes.”
When the cruiser passes by a crumbling Victorian mansion, the congressman gets emotional. “You can see where that was a beautiful fuckin’ home right there!” he says, raising his voice. “Now that’s a fuckin’ shame. That pisses me off. Look at that fuckin’ porch. All that hardwood in there? It’s heartbreaking, it really is.”
“It all started when owners started cuttin’ ’em up, making ’em into apartments,” says Weber of the common practice here of converting single homes into SROs, which leads to neglect and decline and eventually more vacancy and blight.
“What we need,” Ryan says, “is a national three-year plan where we take all this shit down in the country, in all these towns, and hit the reset button, you know what I mean? All these deteriorating commercial buildings in all these old towns, clean ’em up. You’re gonna bring up the housing prices for everybody else that’s left. Just start cleaning up these towns!”
“I mean, all politics is local. No shit!” Ryan beams, beer spilling. “You can quote me on that, and if you stay here longer and I have a couple more beers, it’s gonna get worse.”
A week later, Ryan will turn his expletive-laden soliloquy in Weber’s police cruiser into a bill that would provide federal grants for communities like Warren to address blight. But there’s no chance it will even get a vote in this congress, he says. Next year, after the Democratic majority comes to pass, he’ll reintroduce his Clean Up Our Neighborhoods Act of 2018 and double down on the push.
Matt Martin, who runs the Trumbull County Land Bank — a nonprofit organization working closely with the county treasurer to reclaim vacant homes — stands with Ryan in front of a derelict house when the congressman introduces his bill for the local news cameras. “There’s a real opportunity here to not just knock down houses, but to put families in homes and to put our residents to work renovating and revitalizing our community,” Martin tells me afterward. “I mean, we really need this. Because we’re dying out here.”
Ahead of the midterms, I spend the day with Chris DePizzo, Ryan’s Republican challenger in the 2018 U.S. House race, as he goes door-knocking on Hollywood Street — a white, middle-class block with tidy homes and well-kept lawns on the northeast side of Warren.
DePizzo, a 31-year-old political newcomer who wears sneakers, jeans, and a black polo shirt that matches the color of his Dapper Dan haircut, is carrying placards bearing his name and the buoyant smile of a candidate who believes that Trump’s election was not a blip or an aberration, but the beginning of a rightward shift in the Mahoning Valley that might soon advance his own fortunes.
Indeed, there’s plenty of evidence here on Hollywood Street that those Trump voters DePizzo is counting on haven’t had any regrets about the lever they pulled in 2016.
“Are you a Democrat or a Republican?” asks Barbara Hatoski, 71, holding her screen door open to chat with the would-be congressman.
“Republican,” says DePizzo.
“Good,” she replies. “Then you have my vote.”
Despite Warren’s lack of foreign-born residents, Hatoski cites immigration as one of her top issues.
“Where do you stand on immigration?” she asks DePizzo.
“We need to build a wall, and we need to reform our immigration process.”
“I can’t stand seeing some of those people come here,” Hatoski says. “I’ll tell you what: I taught more illegals than you can imagine when I was a teacher in Bakersfield, California. We gave them everything. We gave them housing, food, their shots, and they’re voting now. It isn’t that I didn’t like them. It’s that it’s costing us a fortune.”
Hatoski’s screed would appear to undermine the premise that the Trump voter here in Northeast Ohio is indeed more complex than the portrayals we often see in national news outlets. But DePizzo argues afterward that she simply speaks to a frustration by voters here of politicians making decisions that benefit one group of people over another, whether in regard to immigrants coming to the United States over the southern border or NAFTA sending GM jobs in the other direction. “Cap and trade is like that too,” DePizzo says. “It’s guys who make things bear the brunt, and states that don’t make things enjoy the benefits.”
In any case, says DePizzo, Trumpists hardly hold a monopoly on culture war politics in the Mahoning Valley. “Mahoning County’s three Democratic commissioners gave a commendation to their Democratic sheriff because he stopped sending officers to the Cleveland Browns games after the players kneeled for the anthem,” he says, a glint of opportunism in his eye. “So those are the kinds of Democrats we have here: Democrats giving Democrats an award for doing something the Democratic Party would have a stroke about.”
It would be folly to dismiss these Democrats as out of step with the national party’s commitment to social justice, however. It’s just that, in their estimation, Democratic politics as currently practiced serve only to distract from the core social justice issues in Trumbull County: drugs, housing, and a lack of access to a living wage. Ryan’s pitch is essentially the same message of economic justice that you might hear from Bernie or Ocasio-Cortez, but tailored for a different constituency.
When I ask Ryan about the “white male whisperer” nickname, he takes issue with the idea that a pro-working-class agenda is exclusive to straight white men. “People try to pigeonhole me with white workers,” he says. “But I’ve been pretty clear that I’m talking about all workers. White, black, brown, gay, straight.”
As for Ryan tailoring that message of economic justice for heartland voters, take the “Fight for $15” — the popular progressive movement for raising the minimum wage. That may play well in coastal Democratic strongholds, Ryan says, but it doesn’t resonate in the Rust Belt, where former steelworkers and autoworkers are bemoaning the decline of wages that kept their families on an upward trajectory for much of the 20th century. “If you’re on Meet the Press and Chuck Todd asks, ‘What’s the economic plan for the Democrats?’ and you lead with a $15 minimum wage, that’s great,” Ryan says, “But if you were making $40 an hour 10 or 15 years ago, it doesn’t speak to your aspiration.”
Earlier this month, Ryan cruised to reelection, handily beating DePizzo by more than 20 points.
Before his reelection, before he took Trump to task on Twitter for the closing of the GM Lordstown plant, Ryan stands holding a beer at Ross’ Eatery & Pub on Route 45, less than a 15-minute drive south of downtown Warren.
In the backroom bar decorated with big-buck taxidermy, past the wood-panel buffet offering meatloaf and spicy breaded green beans, Ryan and other regional leaders are raising their beers to a momentary trend reversal in the economic outlook for Trumbull County: the promise of 1,000 new jobs, thanks to a winning referendum paving the way for TJX HomeGoods to build a distribution center here in Lordstown.
“And I wanna thank Mayor Arno Hill,” Ryan bellows to the assembled crowd, holding a pint of beer in one hand and pointing to the Republican Lordstown mayor with the other. “This guy is a bulldog, and I would get in any foxhole with you any day of the week, Arno.”
It’s a small room, to some eyes intimidating, packed with beefy white men with forearms like canned hams holding pint glasses and beer bottles and decades’ worth of resentment toward Washington. But Ryan isn’t like his colleagues on the Hill. Here in Trumbull County, he’s well-liked among the old auto workers and union guys. They see him as one of their own. And as he continues his impromptu speech about a bipartisan community coming together to close the deal, the congressman offers up an answer to how Trumbull County wound up voting for a guy like Ryan and a guy like Trump at the same time, and how, potentially, Democrats might win them back in a presidential election.
“I mean, all politics is local. No shit!” Ryan beams, beer spilling over the lip of his glass. “You can quote me on that, and if you stay here longer and I have a couple more beers, it’s gonna get worse… Raise your glasses. Here is to the future of Lordstown and the Mahoning Valley!”
For a moment, they all believe in the thing that has betrayed them most often and gravely these past many years: the future. For just a moment, it seems that the future might be brighter than the past. It doesn’t matter if the new jobs pay just $10 an hour. It’s something, more than nothing, and the crowd is eating it up, including the two men wearing Trump shirts who stand and applaud the Democrat from Ohio.