"I don’t believe he is sincere": Paul Ryan's challenger has a message to send

Democrat Rob Zerban on why he's the best chance to stop the 2012 VP nominee before he wins the 2016 nomination

Published August 23, 2014 12:15PM (EDT)

Rob Zerban, Paul Ryan     (AP/Susan Walsh)
Rob Zerban, Paul Ryan (AP/Susan Walsh)

He's been in D.C. for so long — and he's so often spoken of as a potential future resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — that it can be hard sometimes to remember that, just like a backbencher or faceless party hack, the mighty Paul Ryan must face voters in Wisconsin every two years and ask them for their vote. Most of the time, this is a mere formality; Ryan's district, Wisconsin's first, is rated by election guru Charlie Cook as R+3, meaning Republican voters make up the clear (if not overwhelming) majority.

But this year, Ryan may have a real race on his hands; or at least that's what his opponent, businessman Rob Zerban, believes. This is actually Zerban's second matchup against Ryan, having lost to the GOP's vice presidential nominee in 2012. But while Zerban was defeated by Ryan during their previous contest, he gave the supposedly erstwhile Randian much more trouble than anyone else ever had — and all without much support from the national Democratic Party.

Salon recently spoke with Zerban, not long after he won the Democratic primary for the first district. Our conversation touched on Ryan's record, his attempt to rebrand himself as an anti-poverty crusader, his likely 2016 aspirations, and whether the national-level Democratic Party will throw its weight behind Ryan's challenger in a way they never did in 2012. The interview is below, and has been edited for clarity and length.

You didn't get a ton of support from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) when you ran against Congressman Ryan in 2012. What's your relationship with the DCCC been like this time?

You know, that’s a hard thing for me to really open up about — well, not hard to open ... I would say that with the primary race this time around, I think that in those kinds of situations, they tend to be more hands-off. Because they, I don’t think, were too interested in getting involved in the primary in this race.

So, I think they pretty much have ignored it so far but I’m hopeful that they’ll maybe take an interest in the race now that the primary is over. And I think most people have acknowledged that Paul Ryan is widely perceived as being a potential candidate in 2016, and if we can beat him in 2014 that would really hurt his odds of having a successful presidential run in 2016. I think that it has yet to be seen how they’re going to participate in — of course, if they decide to — in this race.

Do you need their help in order to beat Ryan?

I think when you’re taking on somebody with the stature of Congressman Ryan, who was the vice presidential nominee last [presidential election], I think you need the help of everybody to try and get rid of somebody who’s a chairman of a powerful committee and a former VP nominee. So yeah, I would welcome their help and I think that they would bring a lot to the table in our effort to win the seat.

Do you get the sense that Ryan's team is taking your challenge seriously, or do they seem more focused on 2016?

It's kind of hard for me to gauge what their thoughts are about this race this cycle. It has been different already — after our primaries on primary night, he actually released a statement attacking me. So, I guess in that respect, it's very different from 2012, [when] he just completely ignored the race. He didn’t campaign in the first district for the Congressional seat, he didn’t do debates in 2012 for the Congressional seat, which he has already said he would be willing to do this time around. I saw him [recently] and he’s already said he’d be open to doing debates this time.

So there are quite a few differences in the 2014 cycle from the 2012 cycle. And I think he might have a very different feel; he never even acknowledged me last cycle. So him releasing a statement on primary night already shows that there’s a very different feel, or going to be a very different feel this time.

That kind of goes against the conventional wisdom about this year, doesn't it? It's supposed to be a Republican year, more so than was 2012, so you wouldn't expect Ryan to be more worried this time than last. Do you feel there's a gap between what the Beltway pundits are saying about this cycle and what you're experiencing out on the trail? 

There certainly was last time. I don’t know that many people had studied Paul Ryan’s career as closely as I had, when I considered taking on the challenge of the race last time. And I told the DCCC and the state party that Paul Ryan was gunning for the VP spot and that at the end of the 2012 campaign, I wouldn’t be running against Paul Ryan. I said this a year before that pick even happened. And much to their credit, the DCCC acknowledges and the state party acknowledged that ... I think he did this just to try and make himself a relevant voice in the political narrative and set himself up for the 2016 race....

But I think Congressman Ryan is a very shrewd politician, very savvy. He’s been in D.C. his whole adult life, he knows how to play the inside political game in D.C. He’s furthered his political ambitions at the expense of the people in Wisconsin's first congressional district — and people are catching on to that. So, yes, I do think that there’s a different dynamic here that most people do not see, that there’s an underlying narrative that the pundits or the political establishment don’t see like they didn’t see it in 2012.

This is a very winnable race. We have an excellent candidate at the top of our ballot, Mary Burke, who’s running against Scott Walker. She’s actually leading him by one point [among "likely voters"] in the polls right now, according to Marquette University Law School. And if she drives the kind of turnout we need to get people to the polls, we can win this. I mean, we’ve done the win number, we know how many votes we need to win in 2014; and it’s less than I received in 2012. But that’s all going to be based upon voter turnout.

I think that’s why Congressman Ryan has already taken a swipe at me, because he knows that there is a lot of risk in this campaign for him; and I would hope that the political establishment on the Democratic side, people like the Clintons, might see that there is a big threat in Paul Ryan being the presidential nominee in 2016. Because when I look at the field and I look at Paul Ryan, I think he looks more normal than the rest of them. And I think he does to the rest of the country, who might consider voting for him, too. I actually give Paul Ryan a very good chance of winning their nomination in 2016.

Since 2012, Ryan and his team have mounted a pretty obvious attempt to rebrand the Congressman as some kind of conservative warrior for the poor, most likely because they worry that he'll forever be associated with Romney's plutocratic 2012 campaign. Having looked at Ryan's ideas about how to fight poverty, do you think the shift in priorities is sincere?

Not at all. I mean, you can say one thing and do another; and that’s exactly what he’s doing. You can say you’re trying to save Medicare and at the same time try to privatize it and make it into a voucher program, and make it something unrecognizable compared to what the program is today.

So your words and your actions are not the same, and you only have to look at that "Roadmap to Prosperity" in 2011, where he first authored the idea of privatizing Medicare, to see where his priorities are. You can look at his budgets to see where he slashed the funding for these programs that help so many people. His words and his actions are two different things.

I don’t believe that he is sincere in his desire to help people, to lift them out of poverty. I think that the Republican narrative, and Congressman Ryan’s narrative, is just: "Let's cut all the funding for these programs and not worry about them." They believe in this personal responsibility [trope] and think if you’re poor, then it's because you don’t want to work or you don’t have the ability to lift yourself out of poverty — and that’s your problem.

Ryan's kinda-sorta made the argument that his earlier, super-conservative budgets weren't really "his" and were instead the result of the input of the entire GOP caucus. The implication seems to be that we shouldn't look at these budgets to understand his views, that we shouldn't see them as his handiwork. Do you buy that?

Not at all. That’s unfortunate, the diffusion of responsibility there. He’s the one that authored this budget. Everybody knows this. There’s no shortage of critics on that, or his "poverty plan," as he calls it. It’s just a bunch of old ideas the Republican Party is doing ... instead of just one consistent plan to address these issues with specific needs.

So, he’s a very skillful politician — like I said, he’s been in D.C. his whole adult life, he knows how the game is played, and he knows how to avoid responsibility for bad things and accept responsibility for anything that would appear to be good. I think he’s tried to moderate his appearance by saying, "Yes, I want to deal with the issue of poverty," but really not doing it seriously. He’s tried to address the budget issue and deficits and not taken it seriously. Again, this is a classic politician talking out of both sides of his mouth and this is exactly what people are tired of.

What do you think of what was probably the most controversial idea in his poverty plan, the idea of a government-provided social worker who would draw up a "contract" with people receiving government assistance? Do you think that's a good idea or do you side with those who've called it patronizing?

I’m all for thinking outside the box and trying to find unique solutions to problems that we're faced with; I think that’s something we should always keep in mind. But they have to be somewhat based in reality.

I mean, you look at the number of people who are living in poverty in this day and age, and the number of people you would need to have as social workers to address this and have somebody that they would meet with — I mean, the case load right now for social workers is so extreme. ... I can’t remember the exact figure I read but it was an unbelievable number of people you’d have to hire. And for the Republicans, who are always opposed to the expansion of the federal government, or any kind of expansion of government, this would be a huge one! I don’t think it's even one that can be taken seriously because it's not really based on reality.

Let's look at things that help people out of poverty. Let's look at things that the federal government doesn’t have to purchase, like raising the minimum wage, something that can be very easily achieved and doesn’t increase the amount of bureaucracy or red tape that they always complain about. And let's make sure that our corporations and larger employers here share in the social responsibility of living in the nation, and we're sharing this burden equally. That would go a long to way to lifting people out of poverty, and making sure that they have a livable wage where we don’t have a need for these programs.

The best way to get rid of a program is to eliminate the need for it, and you can do that by the common-sense approach of raising the minimum wage, which is well past due. I’m sure you’ve read the article from the Associated Press that talked about the 13 states that raised the minimum wage on their own and that are faring much better economically than the 37 states that haven’t. So that should give you some sort of indication on which way we need to go to help cure some of the economic problems that are ailing our nation right now.

Another issue where Ryan seems to be trying to thread the needle in terms of his positioning is immigration reform, which most people believe he supports, despite him being a booster of the Tea Party movement, which considers anything beyond deportation an unacceptable "amnesty." Do you think Ryan's ultimately an ally or a foe of reform?

There are a couple things here that we need to address. When you have an organization like Freedom Works, Dick Armey’s [Tea Party-affiliated] organization ... these organizations are trying to push an agenda to avoid increasing any kind of voters that might be inclined to be Democratic voters. And I think the Republicans fear an increase in voter registration by ... a huge Democratic bloc of voters. So that’s why many of the Tea Partiers are doing the bidding for Freedom Works and people who are opposed to immigration reform.

Congressman Ryan has had to walk a very fine line when it comes to immigration reform. Because he’s widely perceived in the Republican Party as leader, being the chairman of a very powerful budget committee, people have looked to him to lead on issues, which they should if he is one of the GOP's leaders ... And people here in the first district have been really disappointed by his lack of advocacy for immigration reform, which is important to people here.

We widely recognize that [they system] we have is not currently working. Where you stand on the spectrum of immigration reform depends upon if you’re just solely for border protection — which I think that Republicans are for, and that's why the House has refused to take up Senate Bill 744, which passed the Senate with bipartisan support. I didn’t agree with every provision, but if that bill had come in that form to the House, I would have probably supported it ...

So yes, he does have a problem by not being a forceful advocate for getting something now. And now Republicans want to fault the president for trying to take action and correct the situation. So you’re either part of the solution or you’re part of the problem, and the Republicans and Paul Ryan and the House Majority have definitely been part of the problem.

To end by throwing you a curveball, what are the similarities and differences between Gov. Scott Walker and Rep. Paul Ryan?

[Laughter] Interesting question. ... I think that Congressman Ryan is a much more skilled politician than Scott Walker. I think they’re both equally dangerous when it comes to the policies that they try to pursue. I mean, you have to take a look at what Scott Walker did to the state of Wisconsin. ... He just destabilized the whole state and moved it backwards in economic progress — in the Midwestern states, I think we're tenth out of 10; and that’s just horrible. You look at Paul Ryan’s policies, the things he’s trying to pursue, the narrative he’s creating — and it's equally as bad.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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