Paul Ryan's Other Opponent

Flickr/Rob Zerban for Congress)

Rob Zerban giving a speech in early October as he delivered 50,000 petition signatures to Paul Ryan's office requesting a debate.


Paul Ryan's congressional district should be prime swing territory for Democrats. The party held the seat from the 1970s through the mid '90s, and it switches its allegiances during presidential years, voting for Bush in '04 but flipping to Obama in '08. Yet for some reason Democrats haven't bothered lately to field a serious opponent against Ryan. Ryan—the boyish-faced Rage Against the Machine rocker who wears a backwards baseball cap to workout—might look like he just stepped out his college frat house before joining Mitt Romney on the Republican national ticket, but he's actually be in office since 1998, with nary a threat to his seat. This time, Rob Zerban just might be up to the task. Zerban, who formerly owned a catering business in the area, is a staunch liberal, supporting the Congressional Progressive Caucus's budget and wanting to shift the health care system to a single-payer one, what he terms "Medicare for all." There's reason for him to be hopeful. Ryan's draconian budget hasn't played well in a district full of seniors who rely on Social Security and Medicare. Zerban raised nearly $2 million through the end of September, and is running a ad against Ryan's Medicare proposals, calling them stingy. Zerban's campaign released an internal poll in early September that put him just 8-points behind Ryan; striking distance.

Of course it's still a long shot. Ryan's own internal numbers at that time put him up 25 percent, and he's banked just shy of $5 million on the race, devoting $2 million to a gauzy ad of Ryan walking through a factory floor. Last week Zerban spoke with the Prospect to offer an update on his race, why he thinks Paul Ryan's House seat is finally vulnerable, and what he'd actually do if he were elected to congress.

While the district voted for Obama by a slim margin in 2008, it is skewing even more heavily Republican now thanks to redistricting. Why do you have a chance to unseat Ryan?

Even under the new lines President Obama would have carried this district under the '08 vote totals. This is the first time Paul Ryan has run for election since offering his budget. For a long time he was able to fly under the radar here in the district because people weren't paying attention to what he was doing in Washington D.C. Now that the national spotlight has been draw to his budget, his extreme stances—cosponsoring HR 3 with Todd Akin from Missouri, redefining rape, trying to outlaw a woman's choice in cases of incest and rape, and his votes to defund Planned Parenthood—they look at these things and say, "Wow, I wasn't aware that he was this radical."

You went on the air recently with your first TV ad, focused on Ryan's Medicare proposals. But what would you do with Medicare and Social Security?

Social Security—everybody likes the program. We may need to make some tweaks to make it whole and solvent for future generations. For me the fix with Social Security is removing the cap on income over $110,000—they don't pay Social Security tax anymore. My position is that people earning more than that cap should pay the same tax rates as people earning lower.

Now Medicare, I believe we need to have Medicare for all. When you expand the risk pool to have healthier populations and you modestly adjust the contributions that employees and employers pay into the system, you can make it sustainable for generations to come. I also advocate this position as a small business owner, somebody who employed 45 people and provided excellent wages and benefits. I was proud about it, because it was the kind of health insurance corporate executives have. I offered it to my employees who weren't used to being treated fairly, like dishwashers and line cooks. To make sure they could afford it, I subsidized it by 90 percent, and I had 90 percent of my employees on it.

The Affordable Care Act has brought forth the opportunity to help small business, making insurance for my employees much more competitive on the exchanges. I think we need to go one step further and make sure we can strengthen Medicare by making sure it is Medicare for all. That's the direction I think we need to go to making Medicare solvent, not Paul Ryan's way of voucherized aid, cutting it and killing it eventually.

Reading through the policy section on your website, there was one line that really jumped out at me. You say, "If Paul Ryan had his way, I would still be in poverty." That's a strong claim. What exactly do you mean by that?

I did grow up in poverty. My mom was a single parent. We ate government cheese as children. We received lunch at school. These programs are still in use today and people rely on them. I was only able to get an education because of things like Pell grants and Stafford loans. The Ryan budget calls for slashing these programs extensively, and removing that investment in future generations by helping them get an education. But these programs people rely on, cutting them has real world consequences that he's either being disingenuous about or he's being naïve about, and neither one is ok.

Because I was able to get that education, I was able to go on to my version of the American dream and start two small businesses, employing 45 people, becoming a thriving entrepreneur, and being a contributing member of our society. If I hadn't had that opportunity to get that education, I shudder to think what might have happened to me if I hadn't had that chance.

It's funny looking at your campaign as the inverse of the presidential campaign. You're pushing your business as a qualification, while you're facing the incumbent who has spent most of his career in public service.

Yeah, it is an interesting juxtaposition. He's somebody who demonizes government yet has lived off of it his whole adult life. We both graduated from higher education, he ran off to Washington, D.C., I worked in my industry and my field gaining valuable knowledge and experiences and became a job creator, as the Republicans like to talk about.

I find it ironic that Paul Ryan talks about what small businesses need when he's never done it, and how they talk about how you can't tax job creators when he's never been one. I tell people: look, I was a job creator, and the Republicans idea about not being able to tax job creators is a bunch of—I have unkind words for it. It's a lie. I only paid taxes on the money I made as profits, and that was after I hired everybody I needed to conduct the business I had. I was happy to pay those taxes; I wasn't happy to see them go toward these wars, I think we needed to focus those dollars here at home to rebuild.

Do you think reducing the country's debt should be Congress's prime goal at the moment, or should they be focusing efforts on propping up the economy during the recovery?

It's obviously a concern, I think this is one area where Republicans and Democrats actually do agree, is that we need to address our deficit and our deficit spending. Paul Ryan tries to say he's really concerned about our deficit and our debt, yet he supported every irresponsible Bush-era policy that increased our debt: two unfunded wars, the Bush tax cuts, the expansion of Medicare under Medicare Part D, which was unpaid for and turned out to be just a big gift to big pharma.

They're the ones who are responsible for getting us into this mess in the first place. Deregulation of Wall Street that came to cause the greatest meltdown of markets we've seen since the Great Depression, putting us into the Great Recession. Now their frame is, 'well, we handed President Obama the largest mess we've seen since the Great Depression and he hasn't cleaned up our mess quick enough so we should get rid of him.' I don't believe America should go back to the same irresponsible fiscal policies that got us in this mess in the first place. We know that trickle down didn't work then, and it's not going to work now.

Why hasn't Ryan been challenged by the Democrats until this year, and why was 2012 the year you decided to hop into the race?

For whatever reason, the Democratic Party in the past has neglected this district. But with what has been happening here in the state of Wisconsin, the attack on workers by Gov. Scott Walker, it's mobilized and energized the Democratic base in a way we haven't seen in a long time. Then, Paul Ryan having authored this irresponsible budget has brought a bunch of different things together. People all over understand that we should not have an elected representative who is proposing pushing our country backward by gutting the social safety nets.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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