Forget Gangs of New York, the 'Irish mafia' has a new power base: Janesville, Wisconsin.
Home to representative Paul Ryan -- Mitt Romney's vice-presidential nominee -- this town of 64,000 people has suddenly been thrown into the spotlight as journalists the world over seek to get a handle on the new Sarah Palin. And, in anything that has been written, the Ryan family association with the so-called Irish mafia of Janesville invariably gets a mention. But as John Nichols -- a Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine -- explains, the Janesville mafia is not quite as sinister as it sounds.
"It's a slightly unfair term in that it's not like the Italian mafia," said Nichols. "It's not a criminal endeavour.
"Janesville was a factory town and a lot of Irish folks came there in the early years of the 20th Century to find jobs. Some of them started construction companies and, because they happened to be Irish, people started referring to them as the Irish mafia," he added.
The Ryan family -- owners of a major road-building company -- was just one of the families who fell under that umbrella.
"In general, you'd say they're known for business success," said Wisconsin state senator Tim Cullen, himself a member of one of the 'mafia' families. "But I think the big thing about being Irish for Paul is that he inherited a lot of the stereotypical Irish skills. He's a good-looking guy, he has a great smile and a great way of greeting people and talking with them," he added.
"He has all the Irish political skill. He's a 'hail fellow, well met' with the gift of the gab. All the clichés that people want to bring into play, he's got them all," agreed Nichols. But just how important is that connection today?
"They're old-school Irish in Janesville," said Nichols. "They like their St Patrick's Day parties. It's a very Catholic town and the people take their Irish connections pretty seriously ... but I wouldn't paint it like some neighbourhoods in New York or Chicago."
"[Ryan] played on his Irish ancestry a lot when he first ran for office," said Cullen, referring to an early campaign ad which showed the then 28-year-old Ryan walking among the tombstones of his ancestors in Janesville. "But he did that to associate himself with Janesville. He hadn't been in Wisconsin from the age of 18 to when he came back to run, so that TV ad was more about identifying him with the Ryan family history in Janesville," he added. And it worked. Ryan became one of the youngest ever members of the House of Representatives and has been re-elected with ease ever since.
Now one of the most influential Republicans in Congress (not to mention the pride and joy of his party's most conservative wing, the Tea Party) Ryan has made a name for himself as a man with a plan for the economy, and a very strict ideological take on government supports such as social security, Medicare and Medicaid.
"He's very conservative and just has complete faith that the free market system has all the answers," said Cullen who, despite coming from the other side of the divide, still speaks fondly of him.
So what would Ryan make of modern-day Ireland?
According to Cullen, there's little chance that he would approve of our "European-style" government. "Almost all his views are the antithesis of the social welfare system. He talks about not letting America become Greece, and you could almost substitute Ireland for Greece," said Cullen.
Regardless of what happens on election day in November, however, Cullen believes Ryan has been catapulted to a higher level in US politics for the rest of his career.
"If he comes out of this thing with a fairly good national reputation and Romney loses, Ryan will be the frontrunner for the 2016 presidential race," he said.
Thanks to Niamh Sweeney.
Wednesday, August 29, 2012
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