Ryan’s GOP Challenger Mounts Strong Campaign in Heavy Democratic District

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan wants another term to build on the foundations he has built since his election to the U.S. House of Representatives 18 years ago. His two opponents in Tuesday’s general election argue that a change is needed in the Mahoning Valley’s representation to Congress.

Ryan has represented Ohio’s 13th congressional district for nine terms and is seeking a 10th. The Howland Township Democrat is being challenged by Republican Christina Hagan of Marlboro Township in Stark County, which is just outside the 13th District, and Dr. Michael Fricke of Kent, running as a Libertarian.

The district covers sections of Mahoning, Trumbull, Portage, Stark and Summit counties.

Ryan touts local developments in recent years, such as Lordstown Motors Corp., the TJX Companies Inc. distribution center and the Ultium Cells battery plant under construction in Lordstown, as well as the growth of the Brite Energy Innovators incubator in Warren, the development of America Makes in Youngstown and the resurgence of both cities’ downtowns.

He argues he would be well positioned to continue – and accelerate – that progress as vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee.

“We’re on the precipice of having an economic renaissance once we get through this pandemic,” Ryan says. “We’ve laid this groundwork for 18 years and we’re about ready to turn the corner.”

Unemployment in Mahoning and Trumbull counties generally is one to two percentage points higher than the state average and median income is about $10,000 below the state average. The populations of Mahoning and Trumbull counties have each dropped more than 20,000 during Ryan’s terms in office.

“We are swimming against some nasty global trends,” Ryan says, pointing out, for example, that he couldn’t prevent General Motors from moving manufacturing jobs to Mexico and closing the Lordstown plant.

“Where I can help is to create the kind of environment where we can thrive in the new economy and that’s what we have done. We are as well positioned as any community in the country to take advantage of the industries in the future,” he says. “Where I have the ability to make an impact, I absolutely delivered 1,000%. Where things are out of my control, I’m as frustrated as anybody else.”

Hagan agrees that the region has “an opportunity to thrive” but argues the district has seen “unparalleled job loss and a lack of opportunity.” She blames Ryan’s “lack of decorum and lack of ability to work across the aisle” for missed opportunities. She touts her support from President Donald Trump, whom Ryan has harshly criticized.

Hagan served in the Ohio House of Representatives from 2011 to 2018. During her freshman year for legislation, she supported restricting collective bargaining rights for public employees – HB5, which was later overturned by referendum. She also sponsored legislation that bans abortion as soon as a fetal heartbeat can be detected.

“There’s a great opportunity here for this district to be represented by a pro-business, pro-jobs, pro-America first mentality via leadership that will bring opportunity back for generations to come,” Hagan says.

Fricke, a chemist who has worked in the pharmaceutical industry since 2006, earned bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and political science from Ohio State University and a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Cincinnati. He also was an Oak Ridge National Lab fellow at the U.S Environmental Protection Agency for three years.

He became a Libertarian after the 2016 election because of the Democratic and Republican choices for president. “I despised both of them,” he says.

He decided to run for the 13th District seat because no one else was going to. “We worked really hard to get on the ballot, and what’s the option if no one runs? I’m glad I did, because as far left as Tim Ryan is, Christina Hagan is that far right times two. That’s a big niche in the middle.”

Hagan sees the role of a congressional representative as promoting policies that permit companies to flourish and that connect business leaders, as well as “just being present” with those leaders. She says she has spoken with representatives of banking, insurance, trucking and other industries who say they haven’t seen Ryan’s face in years.

“He doesn’t bother to come in and talk to them about what they’re up against, what they’re facing and what their needs are with the federal government,” she says. “I’ve heard from countless business leaders that he is nowhere to be found when there are times of need.”

Things like America Makes and Brite are “nice” but “haven’t produced an economic benefit,” Hagan continues.

“He obviously has an affinity for certain types of development but has done nothing as steel jobs and energy-related jobs have been driven out of the district,” she says. “Opportunities and supply chains that naturally would wrap around things like hydraulic fracturing and energy production, those would be driving even more if they didn’t have the Democrat mentality of shutting them down before they even get started.”

Ryan counters that Hagan doesn’t know anything “about this congressional district. She doesn’t live in it. I would guess she has no clues about the economic development initiatives we’ve been championing for the last 18 years.”

Two weeks ago, Ryan and his campaign touted bringing back more than $15 million in federal funding for additive manufacturing, Air Force research projects, business support, broadband and Brite. He sees his role as being a leader, bringing people together and convincing people to do business in the area.

“We can drag a lot of federal dollars back home,” Hagan argues, “but at the end of the day, if the policies throughout the district don’t promote job creation as a whole, then we’re missing a lot of opportunities.”

Ryan says he has had some level of involvement in nearly every major local project in the past 15 years. Among them are the Ultium Cells plant, Lordstown Motors, the $1 billion Vallourec Star mill in Youngstown and the Hollywood Gaming at Mahoning Valley Race Course racino in Austintown. When TJX threatened to build its distribution elsewhere in the face of community opposition, he was on the phone daily with the company’s CEO and “was literally having meetings in kitchens” with Lordstown residents and talking to the village’s mayor, Arno Hill.

“People are starting to see that a lot of the long-term blocking and tackling that my office has been doing is not sexy right out of the gate because the people don’t understand it. But here we are 15 years later and these things are coming on line,” he says.

He cites criticism he received from a local news organization about “how stupid the energy incubator was in downtown Warren.” Brite, which is at capacity and is the only energy incubator in Ohio, now has battery-testing capabilities he helped secure funds for, providing opportunities to partner with Ultium Cells and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

“My job is to see around the corner and plug us into these larger trends that are happening in the country and in the world so that our growth is going to be sustainable, not just short term,” he says.

Hagan says Ryan has fallen short on his campaign promises, flipped his positions “on issues of conviction and constitutionality” including abortion and gun rights and “abandoned those who serve us in law enforcement.” She criticizes Ryan for signing onto a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr urging him to address police brutality.

Ryan has recently run ads promoting his support for law enforcement.

“The reality is law enforcement knows who he is and he’s exposed his true colors on these issues,” Hagan says.

She also defends her position on abortion. All Ohio policies with respect to abortion have exceptions for protecting the life of the mother, Hagan says. She has “never seen the scenario” in which a child could not be given the “same lifesaving advantage” provided to the mother, she says.

Ryan took aim at Hagan’s support for the 2011 law to curtail collective bargaining rights for public employees, including those in law enforcement.

“She voted to gut police and fire and teachers of their collective bargaining rights,” he says. “I just think she’s very, very extreme.”

Hagan says she has been elected with overwhelming support from Democrats, Republicans and independents alike, winning her last election by 47 percentage points. If elected to Congress, she would “treat people with decency and civility, regardless of their political affiliation,” she says.

“I won’t be walking out of any State of the Unions and I won’t be disrespecting different members of the chamber,” she says. “While I may disagree with them, I always treat them with decency and respect and look to get the job done.”

Hagan sees her support from Trump as an advantage to the district, should the president be re-elected. And should Democrats retain the House majority, she does not see being a Republican as a disadvantage. The district is not better off during Ryan’s time in Congress, she asserts, criticizing his lack of legislative accomplishments.

“This is somebody who’s using this job as a stepping stone for their next political step up,” she says. “In no way do I think our constituency would be immediately disadvantaged. If anything, we would be immediately advantaged by the fact that I have a strong, established relationship with the president of the United States.”

Ryan defends his run for president, pointing not only to the federal dollars he was able to bring back to the district but also the platform it gave him to discuss “communities like ours that have been forgotten.”

“We were able to get the message out that the Democratic Party needs to be a party of working-class people,” he says.

David B. Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron and interim director of its Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics, expects Ryan to win “fairly easily,” especially if Biden takes Ohio in the presidential race.

Still, the congressman needs to “run up his numbers” in the western portion of the district, “seeing as how the eastern part of the district has started to shift under his feet,” Cogen says.

Ryan took 63.4% of the vote in Mahoning County in 2018, compared to 73.6% in the 2016 election.

Polling shows a tight presidential contest in Ohio, which earlier this year seemed solidly in Trump’s column.

“The fact that this is a competitive presidential race [in Ohio] and both the Trump and Biden campaigns are having to compete very hard, that is something that is a bit of a surprise, just based on where we were a couple years ago,” Cogen says.

“That helps Tim Ryan, without a doubt.”

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.