The debate got off to a bumpy start, with the bartender struggling to sync the audio between each of the bar's four TVs. City Haul Lounge in Racine, Wisconsin isn't the type of drinking hole where you'd typically find a crowd straining to hear politicians gab. A dive bar in the true Midwestern sense, City Haul is the sort of place with an unironic Pabst Blue Ribbon sign on the side of the building, a place for cheap drinks and few frills, with mixed drinks served in small clear plastic cups. Yet on Thursday night, a dedicated contingent from Paul Ryan's home district trekked past the old warehouse across the street to this small bar to watch the debate, and they didn't need crystal-clear audio to know their opinions on Ryan.
"Yes Joe! Fuck you Ryan!" one middle-aged, slender woman wearing a black blazer shouted as she kneeled on a barstool, flipping her congressman the middle finger as he walked onto the debate stage. I was at City Haul for a viewing party hosted by Working America, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO that attempts to bring nonunionized workers of a similar stripe into the movement.
A mound of barely touched pizza boxes sat on a table at the back of the bar, an indication that the group expected a higher turnout than the eight folks that had shown up. But the ones who left their homes on the cold, drizzly evening were enthusiastic viewers, representatives from the local AFSCME and union workers. They ate it up every time Biden gave the camera his best shit-eating grin, and hissed when they disagreed with Ryan. "What about me," the same woman said when Ryan said Medicare needs to change for people under the age of 55.
Paul Ryan loves to tout his blue-collar Wisconsin roots whenever possible, last night using it to connect with his debate sparring partner. "He's from Scranton, Pennsylvania. I'm from Janesville, Wisconsin." Yet while Ryan is the boy from Janesville, his first congressional district actually spans much further, encompassing a large section of the state's southern border and a host of cities and small towns. Racine, a post-industrial town of about 80,000, lies at the eastern edge of Paul Ryan's district along Lake Michigan, a midpoint between Milwaukee and Chicago along the I-94 corridor. While Ryan has represented the city in Washington for over a decade he's still largely tied to Janesville, a two-hour drive from Racine.
It wasn't just the Working America crowd who lack the hometown pride you'd expect for the local boy wonder making it big on the national stage. Earlier in the day I'd sat in a coffee shop downtown, eavesdropping as the barista complained with a group about how he's never seen Ryan frequent any of the businesses in the area.
While Biden might have accused Ryan of petitioning for stimulus benefits for his hometown, that's not the reality Racine Mayor John Dickert described when I met with him in his office yesterday afternoon. "It would be great if as a vice president [Ryan] would put some effort into the district and the state, because he didn't do that as a congressman," he said. "A lot of the things that were important to me, the city of Racine, and my residents, he voted against. Paul has not been a friend to the city of Racine. He has done very little, if anything, to help Racine." Dickert, a Democrat, was particularly riled up about a time shortly after he became mayor three years ago, when he ran into Ryan at an MLK breakfast and requested help obtaining an Office of Justice Assistance Grant to combat gang violence in Racine. Despite a partnership with Homeland Security, the FBI, and local law enforcement, Ryan rejected Dickert's pleas for help. "He's been far more concerned about partisan politics than he is about his people," Dickert told me.
Racine is a swing county, voting for George W. both times while flipping to Obama by a comfortable margin in '08. That was readily apparent at the Working America party. As the union crew sat on one side of the bar, a small group of the lounge's regulars sat at the other end, tossing darts and taking shots. When they occasionally tuned into the debate it was to rile the left-leaning watch party. At one point a clearly inebriated 20-something man in a backwards baseball cap began shouting his love for Bush, claiming he'd kept the country safe, as the Working America group gave each other uncomfortable glances, prompting the bartender to tell the man to quiet down or he'd be kicked out of the bar.
It didn't have to come to that though. Midway through the debate the Working America crowd began to thin, with conference calls and kids taking precedence. I left too, running back to my rental car and racing to the local Democratic Party's event at the San Francisco Grill at the edge of town. The rest of the restaurant had emptied out, with a group of 19 Dems filling the tables in one well-lit room. This was the city's professional political class—several men wore suits and the two local candidates for the state House were quietly watching the debate. Compared to the Working America's gathering it was a sedate setting; the largest shouts came when an order of saganaki was lit on fire and the crowd momentarily ignored the debate to shout "Opa!" After the closing statements they listened attentively to Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow, and largely shared the MSNBC pundits’s positive assessment of Biden. "The debate was really good," Kelley Albrecht, one of the local candidates told me. "Joe was really aggressive letting people know when Paul Ryan wasn't telling people the truth."