Tonight is a big night for Congressman Paul Ryan. No doubt the biggest night of his life.
As Ryan takes the podium tonight, I wanted to share with the black community in particular the Paul Ryan I know. I met Paul in the mid 1990s in the offices of Empower America. He worked as a speech writer and economic policy "numbers guy" for my political hero and friend the late Jack F. Kemp, former U.S. Education Secretary Bill Bennett and former US Ambassador Jean Kirkpatrick.
I liked Paul instantly. Besides being handsome, funny, and down to earth, he was just a nice guy. And he got it. He understood that the Republican Party needed to do better with its outreach to people of color. He understood what his mentor Jack Kemp preached so passionately that the GOP could not long be a majority party if it did not take its message of empowerment, entrepreneurship, and values to all communities.
Fast forward sixteen years and look at him now. Ryan is still a relative "unknown" to most Americans, and he is a total unknown to African Americans outside of his home state of Wisconsin. If I were to summarize him in a word it would be: Real. The Paul Ryan I know is a man of faith; a devoted husband, father and son. He is a small town boy. That is why we connected because I too am a small town girl. Paul is candid he likes to keep it "real" as we like to say in the black community. Agree with him or not on his policies, this man is someone that has a passion in his soul for the rights of the individual. He truly embraces the notion that "all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain rights." His belief, like Jack Kemp's before him is that all of us deserves the dignity to pursue our dreams in America. Ryan has gone on the record in interviews prior to being named Romney's running mate, "I think it is awesome that we elected an African American President." But added, "I just don't agree with his policies". That is Paul in a nutshell. He is a gentleman, he loves a good debate, he doesn't attack people; he attacks policy.
Because I am a journalist, I will not be endorsing any political tickets. But as a journalist, I have a duty to shed light on those who might lead our nation at the highest levels. I have been blessed to cover the President and Mrs. Obama for the past few years, and I am very fond of them both, just as I am very fond of my friend Rep. Paul Ryan. But this is an important election for our nation and I think it's critical that we get to know the players intimately as people without demonizing them as bigots or destroyers of their fellow Americans.
Over the course of the next weeks and days the democrats will rightly seek to define Paul Ryan. I fear, however, that when it comes to matters of race that the characterization will not be so nice. So, let me say that the Paul Ryan I know is an unabashed fiscal and social conservative, something that at first glance will not sit well with most African Americans. But, Ryan also cares deeply about this nation and all of its people. I did my homework and Ryan's record on issues of Civil Rights, is pretty thin no doubt, but I think we have the makings of a young man who is willing to learn and work across the political spectrum to advance causes of racial equality and justice for all. That is important. If Ryan is open to being educated on these matters that is a good thing. Here is what we know: Ryan has a Congressional district that has few blacks within its borders, yet he has held a total of eleven African American issues and "listening" tours with his black constituents in the Racine area and district wide since taking office. Both Ryan and his wife, Janna, in 2003 participated in the pilgrimage to Alabama in honor of the Civil Rights Movement heroes like his House colleague Rep. John Lewis (D-GA).
Ryan released a statement after the historic bi-partisan trek that I think is telling:
"Janna and I came on this pilgrimage not knowing much about the civil rights movement other than what we read about in history books. The experience of learning from those who were the movement leaders far surpassed our expectations. This trip has given us so much to think about, so much respect for those who resisted violence and an appreciation for justice. Every Republican and every Democrat in Congress should come to Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma to bear witness so that we can be sure history is not repeated and so we can refresh our commitment to service."
In Richard Draper's book, Do Not Ask What Good We Do, Inside the US House of Representatives, he says this about Ryan and matters of race and economics:
"Ryan was a fiscal advocate but hardly a partisan warrior. He often spoke about the widening income gap between rich and poor. Having endured racist comments from friends while dating an African-American woman in college, Ryan was mindful of struggles within the black community and regularly accompanied Rep. John Lewis on the latter's annual pilgrimages to Selma Alabama, where in 1965 Lewis and other civil rights marchers had courageously endured beatings by state troopers on Edmund Pettus Bridge."
This is the Paul Ryan I know. In the final analysis, my hope is that all of the candidates for President and Vice President will be judged by their beliefs, their vision, and their goals for this nation. The campaign has already taken on a very uncivil tone on both sides. I hope that as we move into the conventions and the fall campaign season that all four of the men we have before us will remember that we are all Americans first, and that each of them is a good man who loves his family and his country deeply.