WASHINGTON — Last year, on the Monday after Thanksgiving, as Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan was on his way back to Washington from his home in northeast Ohio, his teenage daughter called him in tears. General Motors had just announced it was idling its massive factory in Lordstown, a city in Ryan’s district, and more than 1,600 employees would be laid off. At its peak, 16,000 people had worked at GM Lordstown. But in recent years, the plant had lost its second and third shifts; now, fresh off the holiday, Lordstown learned that one of its biggest employers would soon shed its last shift and go dark. In a statement, Ryan called it a “new Black Monday in the Mahoning Valley,” referring to the closure four decades earlier of one of the region’s biggest steel mills.
Ryan’s daughter called him because she’d learned her friend’s father was getting transferred out of the area as a result of the news, and she asked him to do something. Do something is a refrain Ryan has grown wearily accustomed to in the 15 years he’s represented northeast Ohio, a district that includes cities like Lordstown and Youngstown, once-thriving hubs of industry that have been hollowed out by global free trade and deindustrialization.
In Washington, Ryan, like his fellow Ohioan Sen. Sherrod Brown, is one of the loudest proponents of fairer trade policies, clean-tech manufacturing and spreading the wealth generated in financial and tech capitals like New York and Silicon Valley to workers and communities across the Midwest. Ryan proposed relocating federal government offices to cities like Youngstown, Detroit and Gary, Indiana, as a stabilizing force. He helped create a $2.25 million “Comeback Capital” fund to encourage new investments in Midwest start-ups. He offered legislation to create a national chief manufacturing officer who would report to the president. Yet for all of his efforts, Ryan, 45, is still watching jobs and people drain out of his district. In Ryan’s view, neither party is closer to coming up with a serious plan for revitalizing the towns and cities he represents and others like them throughout the country.
In late 2016 he ran against Nancy Pelosi to be Democratic minority leader and lost handily. Two years later, he and 15 other House Democrats signed a letter vowing to vote against Pelosi in the Speaker’s race — a move that angered the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.
Ryan’s next move is entering the 2020 presidential race, a decision he announced on The View on Thursday. In an hour-long interview a few days before his official announcement, Ryan told Rolling Stone that he plans to be the candidate focused squarely on a national strategy for revitalizing the Rust Belt and other depressed parts of the country, urban and rural, a plan that he claims will pay workers a good wage and accelerate the transition off of fossil fuels.
“A person like me, coming from where I come from, I know the old economy,” he says. “I represent the people who were hurt by the old economy. I watched and lived through what happened in the old economy. I just feel like coming from a district where Trump did well, and I did well, coming from the Midwest, having a foot in both of these worlds, I could paint a picture of what this could be like if we come together.”
How did you get to this point? Why are you getting in the race?
It started a couple years ago, traveling around the country and getting invited to Iowa after the 2016 [Democratic leadership] race. But it came down to what’s happening in my community and trying to address those issues. It goes back to my cousin. He worked for Delphi, which was a supplier of General Motors. He unbolted this machine and sent it to China. That was his last act at the factory.
Somebody’s got to do something. I understand what we need to do that neither party has done in areas like ours.
And what is that?
Long-term industrial policy. There’s no real strategy in this country. Take electric vehicles. We’re moving from one to two million electric vehicles to 30 million by 2030. We’ve got zero strategy on how we are going to dominate that market. China dominates about 40 percent of it right now. We have about 20 percent. Who’s gonna dominate the electric battery market? Who’s going to do the charging stations, which will be a multi-trillion dollar industry to redo charging stations all over the world? There’s no reason why we can’t do that. But we just don’t. The president has no attention span to do it. I think Democrats for a long time took areas like ours for granted, and meanwhile, we’ve got stagnant wages and a stagnant middle class and all the insecurity that comes along with it.
Why do you think Democrats have taken places like Youngstown or Lordstown for granted?
We’ve become primarily a coastal party. About two-thirds of our caucus — still — is on salt water. At least it was before this past election. It may have changed a little bit.
And then there was no intentional strategy to get advances in technology into the areas that have been unplugged from globalization and automation. Globalization in the aggregate generates wealth, no question. But it gets concentrated. Eighty percent of venture capital in America goes to California, New York and Massachusetts. Nine percent goes to women. Less than 2 percent goes to African Americans and Latinos.
We’ve got a choice to make. In the late-1970s, when the steel mills closed, the technology in the steel mill was pre-World War I. The thinking was, We’re making some money and so we’re not gonna take this new technology that other countries are using. We’ll bury our head in the sand and hope the problem goes away. We got wiped out.
I think we’ve got that same choice now. We could put our head in the ground or we can take these technologies, A.I. and additive manufacturing and solar, and we try to dominate them and infuse them into our older industries. Right now, China has 60 percent of the solar market, 40 percent of the electric vehicle market. They got a strategy. We have no strategy.
You can be angry about greed, you can be angry about income inequality, you can be angry about the concentration of wealth, but we cannot be against the free enterprise system. Trickle-down economics doesn’t work, but we need the power and innovation that comes from the free enterprise system. There’s no way we’re going to decarbonize the American economy without innovation and the profit motive. It’s just not gonna happen.
You’re drawing a line that trickle-down economics and the unfettered free market is not the answer. But capitalism is not something to be sort of chucked out with those other interpretations of it.
I think the party comes off as hostile to business at times. And yeah, there are bad business people, bad cops, bad teachers, bad athletes, bad congressmen. But the reality of it is, we have turned off the business community.
I don’t know how you solve any of these problems without getting everybody together. Like I said, big banks, big tech. I get it. The government has to do something about it. But they’ve got to be at the table talking to us. The problems are way too big for just the government to solve.
What’s your health-care vision? There’s protect-and-enhance the Affordable Care Act. There’s obviously Medicare-for-All.
Everyone needs to have access. Nobody should go bankrupt. I’ve been on the Medicare-for-All bill since 2007. I think that is an aspirational goal we need to get to. At the same time, I don’t want to throw anybody off of their private insurance.
How do we make this system more efficient? The problem right now is that we have a system that’s basically a disease care system. We have made disease very, very profitable and we’ve put the pharmaceutical companies in the middle of this whole thing.
What are some fresh ideas you’ll take out on the campaign trail? You’ve talked about moving government offices out of the D.C. area to different places around the country. You’ve talked about convincing Silicon Valley companies to add office space in Ohio.
How are we plugging in all of these areas that have been left behind? Making sure the venture capital is going into those communities. Making sure they have broadband, roads and bridges, the workforce. You’re knitting the whole thing together, which can be really exciting because that way every community is on the menu, you know? Every community has somebody who’s doing well and left and maybe could bring something back if the incentives are right.
The second thing in my mind is really health and education. If you’re going to be competitive, you have to compete against China, which I see as the big competitor. Russia’s messing with us, but China’s coming in for the kill. We’ve got to be competitive with them, and part of that is the industrial policy but it’s also health and education. We’ve gotta flip the health-care system and front-load it on prevention and taking care of each other.
The education piece is essential, and that means taking care of the kids, which, in my estimation, means social and emotional learning in every school. Schools that implement social and emotional learning have an 11 percentile point increase in test scores, 10 percent increase in pro-social behavior, 10 percent decrease in anti-social behavior, so there’s a 20 percent swing, and you close the achievement gap. No matter what else you do, it’s not going to matter because you haven’t addressed the kids’ trauma.
How do you respond to Democratic primary voters who say, “I can’t believe you opposed Nancy Pelosi! Twice!” You’re definitely going to run into some of them.
I’m sure I will. I would say, first, I think she’s running circles around Donald Trump, who’s supposed to be the best negotiator in the world. And, two, we were devastated in 2016. Absolutely devastated. And again, my community has been at the forefront of the damage that has been caused, and I believe our party needs to focus on these issues that are plaguing areas like ours.
Now, we got a lot of change out of [challenging Pelosi]. After ’16, we had a lot of reforms implemented to start pushing newer members into House leadership, like David Cicilline and Cheri Bustos. The DCCC chairmanship is now an elected position. These communications positions are now elected positions. There’s vice chairs on all the committees.
I’m proud that we got those kinds of results. We’re a big enough party and strong enough people to handle those kind of conversations. It was never personal, you know? Nancy Pelosi and I are still on good terms, and I have never said anything to the media that I never said to her. It was two adults who had a disagreement.
You’ve traveled to Iowa and New Hampshire already. What have you heard out there that took you by surprise?
I didn’t know the level of pain and trouble that the rural folks were in. Well before the tariffs came in and the flooding, they were still in bad shape. I think Trump made it worse and the flooding made it worse, which is kind of a climate issue. I didn’t realize the depth of the pain and the suffering and the frustration that nothing’s being done.
Do you see that as a failing of the Democratic Party?
Yeah. We’ve not done anywhere close to what we need to do for rural America. I think we need an absolute, aggressive campaign in rural America, because I think we can win those voters back. When you look at the last time we had major economic problems, deep, deep, deep structural economic problems, [it] was during the Great Depression.
Who was part of that Democratic coalition? Rural America. When you think about it, it was immigrants. It was my grandparents and my great-grandparents, who were Italian, who had come over to work in the steel mills in Youngstown and Niles, my home town.
That’s when we really made these big reforms with the New Deal. So if you want a Green New Deal, it’s gotta be in coalition with and collaboration with rural America.
What do you think about the Green New Deal?
I think there should be a Green New Deal. Part of the new industrial policy is, how do you green the economy and then talk to people about the economic benefits or us doing this? The old economy is not working for us. Electric vehicles, wind, solar: these industries are growing at 25, 30 percent a year. Add it to manufacturing and 25-to-30 percent a year is gonna create three-to-five million new jobs in the next 10 years. This is not to be written off.
So come to Youngstown and say, “Let’s pursue this industry that’s creating three-to-five million new jobs a year. Let’s pursue this industry that’s growing at 30 percent a year, and this one’s growing at 30 percent a year?” How do we get all the building and construction trade guys and the GM guys who are maybe moving out of auto into these jobs? And then how do you make sure those jobs are cutting the worker in on the deal? So they’re not 15 bucks an hour; that they’re 30 or 40 bucks and hour. That, to me, is the long-term strategy. That’s the essence of what we need to do.
I hear from a certain part of the Democratic base that they don’t want a straight, white man as the nominee. They want a woman. They want a person of color. How do you respond?
Everyone’s going to make their judgment as to who they want to vote for, and with me, you’re going to get what you get and that’s someone who’s running because it’s very personal. I’m running on the idea of making sure there’s dignity in these people’s lives, and I really don’t want to have to try to explain it to somebody and beg somebody to understand how hard this has been for our people for so long. I’m going to run, and I’m going to talk about it, and I hope I can win that person over.
I love being a Democrat. I love that our party is diverse. I love going to the chamber at the State of the Union and looking at our side versus the Republican side. I hope to win some of those folks over and let them know that I care about the same issues they care about and will work my rear end off to advance the cause. And hopefully, I get to meet them and explain that to them. I think once they meet me they will know that I’m sincere about that.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.