Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan's focus on cutting federal social programs apparently leaves little time to deal with the unemployed in his district, according to constituents who have been staging a sit-in at his Kenosha, Wisconsin office since last week, and who were barred from Ryan's office by police on Wednesday.
National Aspirations Crowd-Out Local Obligations
Since Thursday, August 18, several of Rep. Ryan's unemployed constituents, frustrated at their inability to get in touch with their congressman to express concern about jobs, have been occupying their representative's Kenosha office. Others have been protesting outside.
"Ryan has been long on plans for cutting Social Security and Medicaid, and short on plans for job creation," said Kelly Gallaher, community organizer and coordinator of Kenosha-based Community for Change. Gallaher, who has been attending the protesting in support of those sitting-in, points out that Racine has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state. Racine's unemployment levels often surpass those of Milwaukee, Wisconsin's largest city and the fourth-poorest in the United States.
According to Gallaher, "the toll the economy has taken on people in Racine is being ignored by Congressman Ryan."
No Job, No Access
For weeks, unemployed workers in Rep. Ryan's district sent emails to their congressman requesting meetings to discuss their concerns about jobs and unemployment. They received only generic automated replies thanking them for their email, and an offer to participate in a conference call.
During Congress' summer break constituents typically access their representatives through town hall meetings held in their district. Ryan boasted that he held 17 town hall meetings in August 2009 opposing the health care plan. "This year," said Gallaher, "Ryan is holding none."
The only opportunity for constituents to speak with Rep. Ryan is at a Rotary Club function held outside the district in early September. And to get in, constituents must pay $15.
"I don't have $15 to ask Rep. Ryan questions," said one unemployed constituent.
The Grapes of Wrath
"He wants to talk to big donors. He wants to talk to the people that will line his pockets. And the people that actually have real crises going on right now, the people like me that can't put food on their table, he doesn't want to talk to us," said Shannon Molina, a single mother in Ryan's district. Molina says she lost her job as an administrative assistant after ten years and can't find work at half her previous salary.
Ryan, who was seen last month drinking a $350 bottle of wine with right-wing economists, had proven unreachable through traditional means of communication. Lacking other options, the constituents went to Ryan's office in Kenosha last Thursday, August 18. Staffers said the congressman was on vacation in Colorado. So they waited.
Janet Veum of Wisconsin Jobs Now, the group coordinating the protest, said that staffers did not say when Ryan was coming back. So Ryan's constituents waited inside their congressman's office for five days, leaving peacefully each night after staffers called police to escort them out.
Lockdown in K-town
But upon arriving to Ryan's Kenosha offices on Wednesday, protesters found the doors locked and police surrounding the building. In a video posted online, police said they received complaints from congressman Ryan's office and the building owner, and told constituents they "are not allowed in the building at all." When asked about the basis for the complaint, officers replied:
"the complaint is for ... that you are not allowed inside Congressman Ryan's office." (at 1:50)
Officers told protesters the report would not be made public, and the records department for the Kenosha Police Department stated they had no documents related to the incident. The Department did not return calls for comment.
"Why have an office at all if [Rep. Ryan] is never there, and his constituents are not allowed inside?" asked Veum.
Protests have not ended with the Kenosha lockdown. With constituents locked-out of the congressman's Kenosha office, sit-ins have spread to Ryan's offices in Racine and Janesville.