KENOSHA, Wis. (AP) — Rob Zerban, the Democrat who lost to U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan by 12 percentage points in last year’s election, said Thursday he’ll try again in 2014 to unseat the eight-term Republican congressman.
Zerban has spent the last few months meeting with community groups across southeastern Wisconsin, and said wherever he went voters encouraged him to take another shot at representing the 1st Congressional District.
“For a long time (voters) had this image of (Ryan) as this nice guy from next door and they didn’t pay attention to his partisan votes in D.C. And he’d come back in the district and talk a very moderate game. But he’s been anything but,” Zerban said. “And I think a lot of the people in the 1st District have started to see his true colors.”
Ryan has for years been seen as a rising star in the Republican Party. He was Mitt Romney’s vice presidential candidate during the 2012 elections and gained prominence, as chairman of the powerful House Budget Committee, after drawing up an austere budget blueprint that called for reshaping Medicare and keeping tax breaks that were set to expire.
Zerban said Ryan’s budget, which wasn’t popular with Democrats, was especially hurtful because it targeted programs for the poor. Some were the same programs that Zerban, 45, said his family relied on when he was young.
He recalled his single mother qualifying for food stamps but being too embarrassed to use them at a grocery store where people might know her. He described having to get a token from his school principal every day to redeem for a free lunch. And he recalled wearing hand-me-down jeans that were so threadbare that his mother had to sew patches over the holes.
“Seeing the budget and what (Ryan) was doing was really the impetus for me really getting involved in the race,” Zerban said.
A message left with Ryan’s campaign Thursday was not immediately returned.
Ryan beat Zerban last year 55 percent to 43 percent, marking Ryan’s smallest margin of victory since he first won his congressional seat in 1998. The race came just two years after Ryan posted his most dominant victory with 68 percent of the vote.
But Ryan was and remains a formidable fundraiser, having brought in $4.9 million during the last race compared to $2.3 million for Zerban. In the third quarter of 2013, Ryan raised $824,000 and now has $2.6 million in the bank — both significant amounts, especially for a non-election year.
Last year, Zerban lent his campaign $120,000 from his own pocket. He declined to say how much he’s prepared to invest in the next race.
Zerban, who served two terms on the Kenosha County Board, has started two small businesses, including a food service that served corporations in suburban Chicago. He said the experience of running his own start-up and hiring 45 employees gave him economic insight that Ryan, a career politician, lacks.
Zerban said he’d push for Ryan to debate him on economic policy, which the congressman declined to do last time.
“It bothers me that he has this label as an economic wonk,” Zerban said. “... I’d like to get him on a stage and pick him apart.”
Zerban was Ryan’s only Democratic challenger last year, though he might face a competitor in a primary next year. Amar Kaleka, the son of a slain Sikh temple president, also told the AP he plans to run as a Democrat.
Zerban said he didn’t know enough about Kaleka to comment on his candidacy.