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Ryan, Who's Challenging Pelosi, Wants Democrats' Focus On Working Class


The House Democrats pick their leader this week. Democrats in Washington are in their worst position in 10 years. They lost the House again. They missed a chance to retake the Senate. And they lost the presidency and the Electoral College to Donald Trump, although Hillary Clinton's lead in the popular vote continues climbing. She's now ahead by 2.2 million votes, according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. In this unsettled moment, Nancy Pelosi aims to keep her job as House minority leader, but a low-key congressman from Ohio is challenging her. From member station WKSU, M.L. Schultze has more.

M L SCHULTZE, BYLINE: November 8 should have been a good day for Tim Ryan. He won his eighth term in the U.S. House with his usual two-thirds of the vote, thanks to neighbors like Michelle gray.

MICHELLE GRAY: Just about everybody around here loves them him because he's a hometown guy. He's a stand-up guy, and he's always been honest.

SCHULTZE: But for the 43-year-old Ryan...

TIM RYAN: Tuesday night rocked my world.

SCHULTZE: Election night revealed just how many of Ryan's voters also voted for Donald Trump. The Mahoning Valley that Ryan represents recorded one of the largest shifts of voters from Barack Obama to Donald Trump in the nation.

RYAN: That really, really bothers me to think about that because of how good the Democratic Party has been for my family. My great grandfather emigrated from Italy, and my grandfather worked in a steel mill and was able to raise kids and have a family and go on vacation.

SCHULTZE: Ryan says today's version of his working-class family thinks the Democratic Party is irrelevant or thinks the party finds them irrelevant. So with Congress and the White House in GOP hands, Ryan is challenging the woman he considers a mentor, Nancy Pelosi, for leadership of House Democrats. It's not the first longshot of his political career. He won a seat in the Ohio Senate right out of law school and, at age 29, ran for Congress. He beat a crowded field with an enthusiastic campaign set to the music of The Dave Matthews Band and his fierce opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement.

PAUL SRACIC: That's a Midwest Democratic message. That's not a coastal Democratic message.

SCHULTZE: That's Youngstown State political scientist Paul Sracic.

SRACIC: You live in California and you live in New York, you're not against these trade agreements. But in the Midwest here, in the old Rust Belt, they are.

SCHULTZE: Sracic says, in most ways, Ryan has reflected and projected that Midwest, with a few exceptions. There is that book he wrote that few would expect from a 6-foot-4 politician who still uses metaphors from his days as a star high school quarterback.

SRACIC: Over the top, loud, boisterous, sort of, you know, shot-and-a-beer kind of politicians. That's this area. And then for a congressman representing this area to write a book on meditation and mindfulness just seems sort of so out of character.

SCHULTZE: But Sracic says Ryan got no grief back home. Meanwhile, in his nearly 14 years in Congress, Ryan won appointments to powerful committees, including appropriations. He brought home the bacon in a region that still values that. And he got a prime speaking slot at this summer's Democratic National Convention.


RYAN: We respect the men and women who punch a clock, the ones who shower after they get home from the job. We respect the fighters who go to work early, stay late and pour their hearts into what they do.

SCHULTZE: Mahoning County Democratic Party Chairman Dave Betras says the national Democrats should have picked up on that theme. Instead...

DAVE BETRAS: We're so off-message that a billionaire is talking to our voters. We have to change the narrative. You know, we have to change the players that are on the field.

SCHULTZE: For Betras, Tim Ryan is the player Democrats need on the field. And with apologies for quoting Donald Trump, he adds, what have you got to lose? For NPR News, I'm M.L. Schultze. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

M.L. Schultze came to WKSU as news director in July 2007 after 25 years at The Repository in Canton, where she was managing editor for nearly a decade. She’s now the digital editor and an award-winning reporter and analyst who has appeared on NPR, Here and Now and the TakeAway, as well as being a regular panelist on Ideas, the WVIZ public television's reporter roundtable.

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