Meet the Man Who's Trying to Force Paul Ryan to Look for a Real Job

Election '16

Once again, Koch brothers cash will face off against a people-powered campaign in Wisconsin this November. The race is for a House seat in the first Congressional District, a seat now held by Paul Ryan. His challenger – the first serious challenge he's faced in 14 years in Congress – is Rob Zerban, a restaurateur and County Commissioner.

Zerban faces an uphill battle against Ryan, who has amassed one of the largest campaign war-chests for a House race this cycle. But Zerban thinks that Ryan's gotten an easy ride so far, with his extreme views having so far been obscured by his media-friendly public persona as a young wonk. (You can find out more about his campaign here.)

If Romney is defeated in November, and Zerban manages to pull off a victory against his better funded opponent, then Paul Ryan, whose private sector experience amounts to a single year working in his family's business, will end up looking for a job next January. He'd surely be a welcome addition to Fox News.

Zerban appeared on this week's AlterNet Radio Hour to introduce himself to those outside of Wisconsin, and discuss how the race is going. Below is a lightly edited transcript (you can listen to the whole show here).

Joshua Holland: I know you're in it to win it. But under Wisconsin law what would happen if Ryan were to win both races?

Rob Zerban: His election to the House would be null and void. He would be seated as vice-president and a special election would be held within 90 days after that.

JH: Were you surprised by Ryan’s selection? It seems like a very risky move for Mitt.

RZ: I agree with you. I think it’s going to cost Mitt Romney the presidential campaign. I also think it’s going to cost Paul Ryan his seat, because once they highlight all the various aspects of the Ryan "kill Medicare plan" people are going to see what they really stand for. I think they’re going to reject it wholeheartedly. I was a little surprised by it.

JH: It’s funny because Democrats in House races around the country are trying to nationalize the race and run against Ryan’s plan. You have a real easy time of that.

Paul Ryan has never had a serious challenge to reelection, has he? You’re the first competitive challenger since his election to Congress in 1998. Is that right?

RZ: That’s correct. I would never criticize somebody’s efforts in a congressional race about what they did or didn’t do, but I am Paul Ryan’s first serious challenger. I’ve raised over $1.4 million in this race already. The last guy who ran raised all of about $12,000. We were getting some strong signals that Paul Ryan was getting concerned about his reelection this time. He had spent three times more on his media buy than he’s ever done before. He raised almost $1 million last quarter and spend almost $750k of it. He had never done that before. It’s the first time people get to go to the polls and cast a ballot on whether they like his plan to privatize Medicare and Social Security. I’m convinced that this will be a winner for us as well.

JH: Tell us a little bit about Wisconsin’s first district. I know it went for George Bush in 2004, but it went for Obama in 2008. I take it that it’s a bit of a swing district.

RZ: It really is a swing district. There was a congressman by the name of Les Aspin who went to the Clinton administration as Defense Secretary. He represented this district for about 20 years before he was tapped by President Clinton. It is a really moderate district. President Obama carried the district with 52 percent of the vote in 2008. Even after redistricting, he still would have carried the 1st district with the 2008 vote totals.

JH: So we have a moderate district, and Paul Ryan -- by any honest accounting -- is a rather extreme conservative. He may be a nice guy and he may not be threatening to some. But political scientists use this analysis known as DW-Nominate scores to look at how lawmakers’ voting history places them on the ideological spectrum in Congress. According to that measure, Ryan is at about the same place as Michele Bachmann, the conspiracy theorist from Minnesota.

Are you making that argument as a central part of the campaign? Or have you determined that the media narrative about Ryan’s supposed “seriousness” is too deeply embedded to dislodge?

RZ: For a long time he’s been able to hide his ideology and his extreme views. He would come into the district and he would talk a very moderate game, and then he would go to Washington and be one of the most partisan legislators there is. For a long time nobody would call him out on this. Now that he’s the one who authored this radical, out-of-touch plan, people can see where he really stands. Now that he’s running as vice-president, he can no longer hide that he was doing this to serve his own personal ambitions, and not to serve the people of the 1st district. These are radical ideas. These are not ideas that come from the people I’m talking to across the First Congressional district -- in Janesville, Racine and Kenosha.

JH: And it’s not just the Ryan plan that would reduce government down to a stump of healthcare, social security and military spending; he also cosponsored a personhood amendment with Missouri representative Todd Akin. He doesn’t believe that abortion should be legal even in the case of rape, incest, or if the life or health of the mother is at risk. People do need to fully appreciate what kind of agenda Paul Ryan is bringing to the national ticket, and also to your district.

You served two terms as a Kenosha County Board Supervisor, but before that you had a couple of small businesses. You say on your Web site that you grew up in a single parent household eating “government cheese.” You’re kind of a classic success story. You went to school on Pell Grants -- which Ryan’s budget would do away with. You come from business experience.

RZ: I am. I’ve lived my version of the American dream. I was only able to do that because our government was there when I needed help. I realize that being a successful small business owner -- someone who employed 45 people, providing excellent wages and benefits -- I realize that this isn’t something I accomplished all on my own. Our government helped me get an education on Pell Grants and loans, I was able to go on and start these small businesses. I want to make sure economic opportunity exists for everybody in this country, not just the wealthy and the well-connected.

There’s a big difference between Paul Ryan and me. He grew up in privilege with a silver spoon in his mouth and I grew up very poor. After college I went out and started two small businesses, and after college he went out and worked in Washington DC, and has lived off of everybody’s tax dollars ever since. I think we need more people with my experience. People who have had to write responsible budgets, and balance benefits. It’s something that he’s never done. You can tell from the Ryan budget that it’s a plan that could only come from an out-of-touch Washington insider.

JH: In a sense you’re almost flipping Romney’s script. Romney accuses the president of being someone who has never run a business. Here you have Paul Ryan -- whom I’ve heard referred to as a “self-loathing public servant.”

All eyes have been on Wisconsin in the last year or two since the election of Scott Walker. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the street last year to oppose his draconian assault on working people. Despite being hugely outspent, the grassroots almost recalled him. They came very close and did recall several sitting senators. Were you involved in all of that? Did it impact your decision to run?

RZ: It did to a degree. My wife and I were in Madison marching around the capitol protesting the changes Scott Walker was bringing with his attack on working families and collective bargaining rights. My wife is a teacher in the state of Wisconsin. Our family was deeply impacted by these changes he was making to the public sector. I was contacted by the Democratic party and they said, "we know Paul Ryan is going to come out with a horrible plan. We want to have the best possible candidate to run against him to win the seat back. Put people on notice that if they’re going to attack the social safety net -- Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security -- that you’re going to lose your seat."

We assisted the recalls. In Kenosha, we paid for an office where the volunteers worked. We let them use our computers to make sure we were contacting as many voters as possible. We were active participants in that recall effort.

JH: We’ve seen a lot of progressives in the Democratic base threw their support behind various candidates, only to be disappointed to learn that those candidates don’t really represent their values when they get to Congress. How would you govern? What agenda would you pursue in congress?

RZ: I don’t really know how other people would perceive me. I approach things from a common-sense perspective. I think this is a lot of what’s been missing in Washington.

I tell people I support Medicare for All, and my opponent supports Medicare for None. I don’t support Medicare for all because I want to rehash the battles of the Affordable Care Act. I support Medicare for all because I look at this and see that we’re missing a hell of an opportunity here. If we had Medicare for all then we would be able to unleash the economic engine of small entrepreneurship that once existed in this country. People don’t start small businesses because they’re afraid of being bankrupted by unpaid medical bills, because they can’t afford these out of reach policies by private insurance. As a small businessman, I provided some of the best healthcare available and I saw my rates go up year after year by as much as 18 percent.

So we have one party in a two-party system protecting the profits of one industry, which are cannibalizing the profits of other small entrepreneurs and businesses, and putting the health and safety of our nation at risk by doing so. We spend 18 percent of our GDP on healthcare costs. That’s more than double the amount of any other Western, industrialized nation out there. If we don’t get this under control, it’s going to put us at a serious competitive disadvantage in the long term. It’s already starting to show an effect. I’m a common sense Democrat. Maybe people call me a progressive. I certainly see myself as a progressive because I believe in progressive values of things that help people.

We need to make sure we have legislators who are going to invest in education, infrastructure. If we’re not going to be the leaders in these areas then someone else will be. I’ll do whatever I can. I’ve worked hard my entire life. I’ve got a head full of white hair at the age of 44. I earned it all honestly. I will continue to work hard for the people for the First Congressional district and everybody around this country.

JH: Ryan is basically the product of a lot of corporate cash, a lot of it from out of state. He’s always gotten a ton of funding from outside donors. He has a significant cash advantage right now. How is the campaign going? You now find yourself in one of those House races that is nationalized. Everybody is looking at it.

RZ: He has raised a lot of money from special interests, Wall Street and banks. We know we can be outspent and still win this race. In the end it’s the people in the First district who decide who gets to represent them, not corporate interests. 

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