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J.D. Vance calls Tim Ryan a 'Trump Democrat.' Ryan's response? 'Fine. Whatever.'

Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, running for an open U.S. Senate seat in Ohio, speaks to reporters after the polls closed on primary election day Tuesday, May 3, 2022, in Columbus, Ohio.
Jay LaPrete
Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, running for an open U.S. Senate seat in Ohio, speaks to reporters after the polls closed on primary election day Tuesday, May 3, 2022, in Columbus, Ohio.

People often try, but putting a label on Tim Ryan, the Democratic candidate for Ohio's open U.S. Senate seat, is a nearly impossible task.

He's been called a moderate, a centrist, a conservative Democrat, a rebel within his own party, a radical leftist, a sycophant for the Biden legislative agenda, and probably a few names he's been called by Republicans that we can't repeat here.

His opponent in the November election, author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance, likes to call him a "Trump Democrat."

"Tim Ryan, look at his TV ads, look at the things he is doing,'' Vance said on primary election night, after a Donald Trump endorsement helped push him to the top of a pack of seven GOP Senate candidates. "The guy is running as a Trump Democrat."

Actually, though, when it comes to Ryan's Mahoning Valley congressional district, it might be more accurate to say that in 2016 and 2020, Trump was running in Ohio's 13th Congressional District as a "Ryan Republican."

After all, Ryan was there first. He has represented the tough-as-nails Mahoning Valley for 20 years, long before anyone could ever conceive of Donald Trump as a presidential candidate, much less president.

When asked about the label Vance hung on him, Ryan had a simple response.

"Trump Democrat? Fine. Whatever."

"I really don't know what that means, 'Trump Democrat,' " Ryan said in a phone interview as an aide was driving him from Cincinnati to his next campaign event Tuesday. "This is about whether or not you want somebody who wants to get things done to make people's lives better. Or do you just want somebody who wants to burn the house down?

"We've been in the foxhole for many years now, slogging away, doing the hard work,'' Ryan said. "He comes here into Ohio with his billionaire sponsor, saying he has all the answers. And he says he feels 'out of place' in Ohio."

Ryan was referring to an interview Vance did in 2016 with the Wall Street Journal promoting his best-selling book, Hillbilly Elegy, which was about growing up in a dysfunctional family of Appalachian transplants in Middletown. Vance, who was living in San Francisco at the time, said he felt "out of place'' in his native state.

Ryan has never written a book about his life story, and it was not always an easy one. He was born and raised in Niles, Ohio, in Trumbull County, the son of an Italian mother and an Irish father. His mother raised him after his parents divorced when he was seven.

He became the star quarterback at John F. Kennedy High School in nearby Warren and was recruited by Youngstown State University to play for the Penguins, but a knee injury ended his playing days and he transferred to Bowling Green State University.

After graduating from Bowling Green, he went home to the Mahoning Valley to work as an aide to Rep. Jim Traficant, the flamboyant congressman who later went to prison on bribery charges.

When Traficant went to prison, Ryan was in the middle of a term in the Ohio Senate. He decided to run for Traficant's seat and he ended up defeating not only his Republican opponent, but Traficant himself, who ran as an Independent from his prison cell.

That was the old 17th Ohio Congressional District. It was gerrymandered by the GOP and Ryan ended up running in the 13th District, where he has served since 2013.

His record in Congress has made him hard to pigeonhole. He clearly marches to the beat of his own drum, in a district where the voters like their politicians to be pro-union, pragmatic and middle-of-the-road.

"I was with Donald Trump when I agreed with him and I opposed him when I was not,'' Ryan said. He said he was on Trump's side when the former president wanted to re-negotiate NAFTA — the trade agreement hated by Ryan's pro-union base. And he backed him on the creation of the Space Force, which Ryan said he saw as a boon to national security. And, not coincidentally, a boon to Ohio's defense contractors.

But Ryan walked out on Trump's 2020 State of the Union speech when Trump began crowing about the strength of the American economy. He tweeted that night that the economy didn't look so rosy to the people in his district who were working two or three jobs just to make ends meet.

"I've had enough,'' Ryan told reporters when he walked out on Trump. "It's like watching professional wrestling. It's all fake."

As a Senate candidate, running in Ohio in what may well be a very good year for Republicans, Ryan is quick to remind voters that he has taken on some of the pillars of the liberal, progressive wing of his own party.

"I'm the Democrat who took on Nancy Pelosi and Bernie Sanders,'' Ryan said.

Ryan went as far as to challenge Pelosi for the House minority leader after the Trump election in 2016, which saw Ryan's home base flip from blue to red.

In the end, though, he was tilting at windmills; Pelosi won with 134 votes to Ryan's 63.

In 2019, he ran a brief and fruitless campaign for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination that went nowhere fast. But it did offer him a brief opportunity on the national stage at Democratic presidential candidate debates. In one of them, Ryan rumbled with Sanders over the Vermont senator's Medicare for All bill, which Ryan argued would force workers whose unions had negotiated good health care plans for them to give them up.

It ended with Sanders yelling at Ryan — "I wrote the bill!"

Ryan said in the interview — as he has said in at least one TV ad — that he has no time to engage in "culture wars."

"I'm more interested in doing whatever I can to make the lives of Ohio working families better,'' Ryan said. "It's a little bit ridiculous, with these people going after Dr. Seuss, Big Bird."

One "culture war" that Ryan seems willing to engage in is the debate over access to abortions. It's become clear that the U.S. Supreme Court is about to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Ryan's opponent opposes abortion. Vance told Spectrum News in Columbus recently that he doesn't think exceptions for cases of rape or incest are necessary.

Ryan says he was a "pro-life" advocate until he realized that having an abortion is an intensely personal decision and that government has no business telling a woman what she can and can't do with her body.

"Roe v. Wade is nearly 50 years of settled law,'' Ryan said. "And now you have the so-called limited government people trying to take it away.

"Do they want to be the ones who tell the 13-year-old girl who has been raped that she has to bring that baby to term?" Ryan said.

"These are mostly the same people who were crying that having mask mandates to stop the spread of COVID was government interfering in their lives,'' Ryan said. "And, yet, they are telling women that government has control over their bodies. C'mon. And these people don't even see the irony in that."

Will what has worked in the Mahoning Valley work statewide in Ohio, especially in a year when the pundits have Ohio taking yet another right turn and heading into a deeper shade of red?

Mack Mariani, professor of political science at Xavier University, doubts if Ryan can pull it off.

"The headwinds are all against him," Mariani said. "I think voters are going to punish Democrats for the economy. Absolutely pummel them."

Tim Ryan is betting that he can overcome that. Because, he says, he comes from working people and always puts their interests first.

"I'm here to represent the exhausted majority, the people who are tired of politicians not listening to them and working for them,'' Ryan said. "I'm not here to punish people who disagree with me. I just want to keep the focus on working people.

"I drink beer with them; I watch football with them; I am one of them,'' Ryan said. "We're just working-class people."

Copyright 2022 91.7 WVXU. To see more, visit 91.7 WVXU.

Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.