Rep. Tim Ryan has been on the short list for every significant opening in Ohio politics since 2006, and each time he’s opted for the safety of his House seat.
But on Thursday, he took the greatest risk of his 14-year congressional career: a long-shot bid to unseat Nancy Pelosi as the leader of House Democrats.
“I think we need a change. I don’t think there’s any question about it, I think we need a change,” Ryan said. “I personally don’t believe we can win the House back with the current leadership.”
Ryan, 43, just won election to an eighth term in his heavily Democratic district, which includes hurting industrial centers like Youngstown and Akron. It was Hillary Clinton’s weakness in those Rust Belt communities that has Democrats alarmed that they’ve lost touch with a broad swath of the electorate.
A onetime star high school quarterback and congressional aide to his predecessor, Jim Traficant, Ryan is pitching himself as the antidote to the Democrat’s problems with white, working-class voters.
Pelosi’s hold on the House Democratic Caucus — both in reputation and in practice — puts Ryan at a deep disadvantage. But it’s also a chance for Ryan to cajole the caucus back toward his more moderate brand of politics and, should he fail, burnish his credentials for other political opportunities in Ohio.
Ryan succeeded his old boss Traficant in 2003, winning a bruising primary in which he hammered his opponent for supporting international trade deals, a staple of Donald Trump’s populist pitch in 2016. Ryan also earned the endorsement, at the time, of the National Rifle Association.
He’s since considered bids for the Senate in 2006, lieutenant governor in 2010 and governor in 2014 — but backed out each time.
Ryan has also authored two books, including one on mindfulness and meditation, which he said has helped him be more present in conversations with colleagues and constituents.
“This is about being, not doing. And it’s a huge shift because we’re always … doing something,” he told POLITICO in 2012. His second book, “The Real Food Revolution,” a guide to healthy eating, included a favorable review from Bill Clinton.
“Congressman Tim Ryan,” Clinton said, “isn’t afraid to take on a challenge.”
Ryan’s highest-profile political evolution came on abortion. Citing his Catholic faith, Ryan opposed abortion rights his entire political career until 2015, when he wrote an op-ed in the Akron Beacon Journal declaring support for pro-abortion rights policies.
Despite his differences with Pelosi’s more down-the-line progressive politics, Ryan allied with her in 2006 by backing Pennsyvlania Rep. John Murtha’s bid to become majority leader over Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer. Hoyer won, but Pelosi subsequently helped secure Ryan a seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee.
Ryan’s moderate, pragmatic approach to politics has endeared him even to his political adversaries.
“He’s not a bad guy. It’s the kiss of death for me to say that about him,” said Matt Borges, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party. “He is highly regarded. I think in some ways, even the Republicans I know that like him up there recognize that that’s probably going to be a Democratic seat forever, so they just better get along with him.”
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