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Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2012

Rob Zerban: Paul Ryan's Other Opponent

Kenosha businessman takes on tea party favorite in Wisconsin's First Congressional District

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Republican Congressman Paul Ryan has become a household name since his selection as Mitt Romney's running mate. Less well known is that Ryan is also running for re-election in the First Congressional District of Wisconsin.

In that race, Democratic businessman Rob Zerban is hoping to defeat Ryan in a district that voted for President Barack Obama in 2008 but has given Ryan healthy wins in each race he's run since 1998.

Perhaps the only thing Zerban and Ryan have in common is their desire to win election in November.

Zerban employed 45 people in his two profitable companies, created realistic budgets and knows firsthand how difficult it is to provide insurance for employees. Ryan, on the other hand, is a career politician whose wealth derives from his family's and his wife's fortunes and enjoys taxpayer-funded, government-run health care.

Zerban, the son of a struggling single mother, acknowledges that he's benefited from government programs, including Pell grants and surplus food, and he wants to preserve those programs. Ryan used Social Security benefits to attend Miami University in Ohio. But while in Congress, he developed George W. Bush's doomed plan to privatize Social Security.

Zerban wants to make Medicaid and Medicare viable for future generations without gutting or privatizing them. In contrast, Ryan voted for the unfunded expansion of Medicare and now wants to cut these programs so that seniors and other vulnerable people will have to purchase health care from private, for-profit companies or go without coverage.

Rob Zerban spoke with the Shepherd about his business experience, health care and Ryan's record. Here's an excerpt:

Shepherd:
Why did you decide to run for Congress?

Zerban:
It was a deeply personal decision. I was the beneficiary of several programs that the Ryan budget calls for cutting. I grew up in a very poor household. My mom was a single parent who struggled to keep a roof over our heads. My family took advantage of programs like surplus food—I ate government cheese as a child—and I got free lunch and milk at school. I was only able to get an education because I qualified for things like Pell grants and Stafford loans. With that help I was able to go on and attend and graduate from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.

After gaining valuable experience in my industry, I went on to pursue my dream of starting a small business. I started out with 12 employees and I grew it into two companies. I started a catering company that worked in conjunction with my first company, which was in contract food services. Between the two companies I was employing 45 people, providing excellent family-sustaining wages and good benefits. I tell people the health insurance I provided my employees was one of the best packages out there. I subsidized it by 70%, and 90% of my employees were on it.

Because I was able to get my education with the help of the government, I was able to live my version of the American dream. In 2008 I sold my last business, and since then I've dedicated my life to public service. I want to make sure that everybody has economic opportunity in this country, not just the wealthy and the well connected.

Shepherd:
What would you do about Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare?

Zerban:
Social Security is an easy fix. I support eliminating the cap. There's a cap on wages above $110,000—you don't pay Social Security after that. If you eliminate that cap altogether, you fix the Social Security problem.

My proposal for Medicaid and Medicare is to have Medicare for all. I say that not because I want to rehash all of the debate over the Affordable Care Act. But as a small-business owner, insurance was the second-largest expense I had, next to my payroll. I saw my rates go up year after year to the tune of 10%, 15%, at times 18%. So we had one industry cannibalizing my profits. I would have gladly paid a higher contribution into Medicare and have my employees take advantage of it now. Because if you increase the size of the risk pool and include more people and adjust the contributions to make it solvent, you're done.

And it's also an economic engine for our economy. Once you address health care in a complete fashion, you would unleash the economic powerhouse of the entrepreneur again. You know how many people I have talked to who have not started a business because they were afraid of being bankrupted by unpaid medical bills or because they couldn't afford a good policy? For me, it makes sense from an economic standpoint. We have industries and big companies that don't build plants in the United States, and choose to go to Canada because they have national health care.

Shepherd:
At the heart of many campaigns this year is a debate over the size and role of government. What do you think is the right fit?

Zerban:
You can ask Paul Ryan how the government helped him in so many ways. [laughs] Those who demonize the government the most are usually the ones who benefit from it the most. People want efficient government. They want a government that works. And it's hard to have that happen when you have one party in a two-party system whose sole mission is to destroy it. If they don't like the federal government so much, why don't they get out of it and let us create a strong government that works best for the people and not corporations?

Look at the policies Ryan has supported. Look at Medicare Part D. It was the largest expansion of Medicare, the most costly expansion, and it was unfunded, and what do they [Republicans] do? They created a program and gave up the federal government's right to negotiate for the price of prescription drugs. They said, "Charge me whatever you want." They say they believe in competition. Why don't they make these pharmaceutical companies compete for the government's business by putting in bids against each other? That's how you make taxpayers the winners. That's how you are responsible for taxpayers' dollars. Not through the program that they created. If they have a problem with the size and expense of the government, they need to take a look in the mirror.

Shepherd:
How have Ryan's votes affected the district?

Zerban:
Obviously, if you make an investment in roads and bridges, you're creating a safe environment for those who travel on them. But it doesn't help when you have a congressman who will vote five times for the Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska but then hasn't brought home the dollars to repair the roads and bridges in his own district. We have 15 structurally deficient bridges in the First Congressional District, a combination of federal, state and local bridges and highways. Somebody has to explain that one to me. How do you vote five times for the Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska? Paul Ryan talks about these budgetary boondoggles, but that's one of the biggest boondoggles that's existed.

Shepherd:
Do you have any debates scheduled?

Zerban:
There have been requests to set up debates and they have always pushed them back, saying, "Let's wait until after the primary," or, "Wait until you've made it through the primary." I would always say that I don't have a primary opponent. If he wants to run for both offices, I think he definitely has a duty to debate me.