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Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012

The Real Paul Ryan

How well does he serve Janesville?

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Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan lit up the Republican National Convention (RNC) when he blamed President Barack Obama for failing to save the General Motors (GM) plant in Janesville, Wis., Ryan’s hometown.

Unfortunately, Ryan's attack wasn’t aimed at the right target.

The GM plant laid off 1,200 workers in December 2008, when George W. Bush was in office, not Obama, although a small number of employees remained for a few more months to finish an order.

Documentary filmmaker Brad Lichtenstein, who interviewed Ryan multiple times for As Goes Janesville, a portrait of Ryan’s beleaguered hometown, called the congressman’s GM attack “disingenuous.”

“What disappointed me about the RNC speech was not just the fact that he was trying to use the technicality of the plant employing about 57 people through April 2009, although for all intents and purposes it shut down on Dec. 23, 2008,” Lichtenstein said. “That’s when thousands of people lost their jobs, and he knows it. He was part of the effort to try to keep it open. So it was disingenuous. But I also find it really galling on his part to use the GM tragedy as a way to try to pin ineptitude on his opponent. He knows, and everyone knows, that the government did not shut down that plant.”

Lichtenstein’s film focuses on displaced GM workers forced to make tough choices about their futures. In addition to these personal stories, As Goes Janesville also captures the political turbulence that gripped Wisconsin in 2011—the protests over Gov. Scott Walker’s collective bargaining bill, the flight of 14 Democratic senators to Illinois to try to force legislative leaders to negotiate a way out of the political stalemate, and Janesville’s efforts to market the once-thriving town to new businesses.

As Goes Janesville
also includes a snippet of a conversation between Walker and billionaire benefactor Diane Hendricks in which they discuss the governor’s “divide and conquer” strategy in dealing with state unions, a clip that went viral earlier this year.

Lichtenstein’s interviews with Ryan ended up on the cutting-room floor, although outtakes can be viewed on the film’s website, asgoesjanesville.com.

Lichtenstein was reluctant to criticize the congressman—his in-laws and the Ryan family go way back—but he did note that Mitt Romney’s running mate wasn’t always consistent in his ideological views and his votes.

Take Ryan’s views on the free market and government intervention. Yes, Lichtenstein said, Ryan really does keep a copy of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged on his office desk and, yes, he’s made highly ideological comments about the perils of government spending and has a “doom and gloom” mentality about the national debt.

But Lichtenstein said Ryan’s red-meat campaign rhetoric and love of Ayn Rand doesn’t mean that he is completely averse to government intervention—in private, at least. Although Ryan voted against Obama’s stimulus package and has attacked it in multiple interviews, Ryan was forced to admit that he had lobbied for stimulus money for projects in his district after denying it in the press.

And then there’s the Janesville GM site.

“I remember talking to him one time about what to do with the GM site, that it’s a Superfund site waiting to be declared,” Lichtenstein said. “And he said that what he’d like to see is for us to be able to obtain it from GM for a dollar—‘us,’ meaning Janesville, the municipal or county government. Then it would be eligible for Superfund dollars, which could trigger the cleanup.

“So the guy right now who is on the campaign trail talking about how the EPA over-regulates coal and other pollutants and wants to do away with any subsidy programs for wind and solar, and points to [solar panel manufacturer] Solyndra as the reason, is also completely willing to talk about EPA cleanup of the General Motors site in his district,” Lichtenstein said.

As Goes Janesville will screen four times at the Milwaukee Film Festival, with its premiere on Saturday, Oct. 6, and will air nationally on PBS’s “Independent Lens” on Oct. 8. VIP tickets to the Oct. 6 screening and Milwaukee premiere party fundraiser can be purchased at asgoesjanesvillemke.eventbrite.com.