YOUNGSTOWN — If the buzz surrounding a possible challenger for the White House can be measured by the number of times that person is invited to another state, then there's a lot of buzz around Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan.
Interest goes up even higher when the states they're invited to hold early caucus and primary contests.
So far, the Democratic congressman from Ohio's Mahoning Valley has been to New Hampshire three times and Iowa twice. Why?
“I was invited,” he answers matter-of-factly. “Look, people ask me, 'What are you doing in Iowa and New Hampshire?' I say, ‘I got invited.’ I don't just show up in Iowa. Then, I got invited back. I got invited to New Hampshire. I got invited back to New Hampshire. I got invited back again to New Hampshire,” he said.
Ryan, who was elected in 2002, thinks it’s a good thing. “It tells me something that in a place like Manchester, a guy from Youngstown is seen as someone who is talking about the issues that are important in a state like New Hampshire.”
So, is he running? Ask him after the midterms, he says.
“We have to focus on winning the House back and doing what we can to gain seats in the Senate in 2018. There's plenty of time, especially in today's world, to worry about running for president at some point.”
Ryan says when people ask him about the White House or say his name is in the mix, it's because of his connection to the issues in parts of the country where Democrats keep losing. “I think the people who are mentioning it, or talking about it, think that the message that I'm bringing is one that would resonate in all parts of the country.”
Until then, he says he will be doing what he can to travel across the country to help get Democrats elected up and down the ballot. That's another sign that his stock is rising among Democrats looking deep into their bench for playmakers.
In short, if voters and fundraisers outside of his district are clamoring for him to show up and raise the profile and money for their local congressional district, then he is on the rise in the party. And when you are on the rise in the party, people talk about you running for the party’s nomination.
Ryan has also been asked to campaign and speak in other states as well: the first-in-the-south primary state of South Carolina, as well as Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Colorado, and Kentucky.
Until the fall of 2016, even Ryan will admit no one paid much attention to his place as one of 435 other members in the lower chamber until the day after Donald Trump won the presidency and the Democratic Party fell further away from gaining back the majority in the House or the Senate.
Nine days after Hillary Clinton’s stinging loss and his party's abysmal showing in down-ballot seats, he launched a challenge to Nancy Pelosi’s minority leadership position and caught members of his party’s eye for that bold move. He didn’t win, not by a long shot. But since then, his moderate stances, combined with his Midwest sensibilities and populist rhetoric, have given Democrats someone to test drive.
“I've been surprised with the people who have called from all over the country saying I need to come there and speak to their Democrats, or campaign with their candidate because they like what I'm saying about how we don't have to pick between an economic message and a social justice message. We can do both,” he said.
Running against Pelosi has broadened Ryan’s appeal with Democrats looking for someone who is at home discussing how those who lost their manufacturing jobs in the past few decades aren’t just suffering economically. “That loss of the dignity of hard work to a man or a woman who prides themselves for their work ethic can be devastating; we need to calculate that in when we talk to people,” he said.
He is also at home talking about progressive politics outside the shell of a coastal geography. “What I'm trying to do is let people understand that the problems in the party and in the country, [they're not] a white working class thing. It's [a] black, brown, and white thing. When I tell people that Youngstown is 50 percent African American, they are like, ‘Are you serious?’ I’m like, 'Yes.' We need to reconnect with a lot of people,” he said.
“Democrats, especially in Iowa, find Tim Ryan appealing because he knows how to win in areas where Donald Trump did well,” said Mike Mikus, a Pennsylvania-based Democratic strategist.
So, it makes sense that he gets asked to come and talk to local Democrats as well as help get candidates over the finish line. “They are looking for the secret sauce, and Tim Ryan has it,” he said.
Ryan’s former mentor, the late James Traficant, once held Ryan's district. After earning a law degree at New Hampshire’s Franklin Pierce Law Center, Ryan came back home. And despite the economic devastation that surrounded the area, he decided to run for a state Senate seat. Before finishing that term, he ran for Congress, and he has held that seat for eight terms.
While Ryan carried the 13th District in 2016 by a whopping 35 percentage points, he is aware that things are changing in his district. Hillary Clinton beat Trump 51-45, yet it was a huge drop in the same support it showed for Barack Obama four years earlier, when he carried the district 65-35 over Mitt Romney.
His Republican rival for this fall is Christopher DePizzo, a 30-year-old Mahoning Valley native who moved home from New York to mount a campaign against Ryan.
Ryan is working on several high tech projects that have not been finalized but could help reshape the direction and hopes of the area. “Communities like Youngstown; Scranton; Gary, Indiana; Johnstown; and Toledo missed the technology and automation [of the] global economy as it moved forward. We were unplugged from that,” he said.
He has been meeting with folks in Silicon Valley to make the argument that those cities can provide the workers to facilitate turning their new ideas into commerce at a much more affordable rate.
“That demand signal never reaches Youngstown; I am working to change that.”
It is the sort of change he said is needed in smaller markets all across the country and the sort of message Rust Belt Democrats haven’t voiced in a very long time.
“We need to be better at that,” he said, a message he hopes he can spread across the country.