WASHINGTON — Bob Woodson sees a side to U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan that few people get to see, and Woodson’s work to confront poverty has changed the Wisconsin Republican’s outlook.
Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, and Woodson, president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, began touring impoverished city neighborhoods together last year, spending entire days talking with people. Woodson encouraged Ryan to commit more than a few hours here and there, as his aides typically block out the congressman’s schedule.
"I said, ‘No, that is a drive-by; I don’t do drive-bys,’ " Woodson recalled. "So for about the next six or seven months, one day a week, his staff knew … that was my day."
In the Longworth House Office Building, two miles across town from Woodson’s K Street office, Ryan talked candidly about his goal of learning what works in combating poverty and how government decisions affect people.
Known for fiscal pragmatism, Ryan has his eye on chairing the powerful Ways and Means Committee. That would compound his reputation as a serious policy intellectual and potential GOP presidential candidate. In recent speeches, Ryan’s message has turned populist; these visits outside of Washington have helped shape his view of life in America.
"It’s made Washington seem even more arrogant and out of touch," said Ryan, the 2012 Republican nominee for vice president.
His critics say Ryan’s zeal for championing the poor is pretense because he consistently suggests cutting entitlement programs. Democrats have attacked him with television ads in which an actor portraying Ryan throws "Grandma" over a cliff to demonstrate how his budgeting would hurt senior citizens.
The House Republican fiscal year 2015 budget resolution that Ryan authored in April, "The Path to Prosperity," would cut spending by $5.1 trillion over 10 years.
"This budget applies the lessons of welfare reform to other federal-aid programs," he wrote. He suggested enlisting states to root out waste, fraud and abuse. His plan "empowers recipients to get off the aid rolls and back on the payroll," he wrote.
Ryan has carved out a complex political position with the emphasis on fiscal discipline and poverty, said Catherine Wilson, an associate professor of public administration at Villanova University.
"Transcending party lines, this position makes a case for fiscal constraint and for attention to vulnerable communities," she said. Ryan’s opinions might not activate the traditional Republican Party base, she said, but could attract the growing number of independent voters.
It’s been 50 years since President Lyndon Johnson’s "war on poverty," Ryan told the Tribune-Review. "After spending trillions of dollars, we have the highest poverty rate in a generation. … For all of that effort, the result is pretty poor."
Woodson believes that Ryan, who once worked for the Housing and Urban Development Department’s Empower America program, has visited more poor urban households than members of the Congressional Black Caucus, "giving validation and recognition to people that many times their own representatives ignore."
The two men met when Ryan worked for HUD. Toward the end of the 2012 presidential race, Ryan asked Woodson to pull together a no-media event in Cleveland. Woodson invited about 20 Ohioans — people whose lives were changed by prison, homelessness, drug addiction.
"Afterwards, Paul told me he was really touched by it," Woodson said. "… He really heard some miraculous transformations and redemptions of people."
As he does with jobs, poverty and government accountability, Ryan counts immigration among top issues facing the nation.
"Most countries use immigration to strengthen their economies, but we don’t," he says in a policy statement on his website .
Ryan’s position on immigration is similar to that of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush — that there’s no conflict in saying the United States is a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws, said Villanova’s Wilson.
Ryan would secure America’s borders and change immigration programs to meet labor shortages. He said undocumented workers should get a probationary period to earn work permits by acknowledging they broke the law, paying a fine, undergoing background checks, and then learning English and civics.
The push to reform immigration laws withered in Congress because members have little faith that President Obama would enforce laws, Ryan said. He points to human trafficking that resettles people across the country, encouraging illegal immigration.
Steve McMahon, a Democratic strategist, thinks even those who disagree with Ryan would acknowledge "he is a substantive, solid, prepared professional."
"Paul Ryan has always been known as a workhorse," he said.
Woodson marvels at Ryan’s constancy.
"I joke with him, ‘I keep waiting for you to blow up,’ as we say in the street," he said, referring to the slang to describe failure.
But Ryan appears to be grounded, perhaps by his Catholic faith and commitment to family and community, Woodson said.
He remembers asking Ryan one day: " ‘Why do you give a damn about poor people? You are popular; you don’t need this.’
"He looked me in the eye and he said, ‘I am concerned about this country and how divided we are, and we’ve got to heal that.’ You can’t lip sync that."
Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at [email protected]