We challenged him to connect with Left Coast voters on the Venice Boardwalk
Story by Joe Piasecki · Photos by Ted Soqui
Homelessness is the first thing Ohio Democratic Congressman Tim Ryan wants to talk about after his rideshare drops him near the Venice Boardwalk. Like many visitors from the Midwest, he’s a little taken aback by the intensity of it — just how in-your-face homelessness has become — but he isn’t surprised to see it.
“This is happening all over the country,” Ryan says. “In Cleveland, you’ve got the Cleveland Clinic — the most world-class health care facility you could have; sheiks in there getting heart surgery and paying cash. And then across the street you have one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods in Ohio. … You go to a conference in L.A. — it’s the Milken Institute, with muckety mucks from around the world — and then you drive not even a few miles and see people living in tents. To me it’s saying this system is broken. …”
Ryan, 45, is in his 17th year of representing a Rust Belt district that includes the former industrial powerhouse cities of Youngstown and Akron. In November 2016, voters in Ohio’s 13th Congressional District supported Ryan over his Republican challenger by a margin of 68%, but they also shifted from 63% support for Obama to 51% support for Clinton, helping Trump win Ohio and the White House.
And that’s why Ryan, one of 17 candidates who’ve qualified for the first Democratic primary debates in June, accepted The Argonaut’s invitation to spend the last Sunday morning in April talking to people on the Venice Boardwalk.
Ryan challenged Nancy Pelosi’s return as speaker and has been critical of Democratic Party leadership for neglecting voters in the Heartland. But he also believes his platform of stimulating economic opportunities for working-class and middle-class people will resonate with voters on Venice Beach the same as in places like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan — the states Democrats need to defeat Trump in 2020.
“… I’m not saying there’s a magic wand, that I have some fairy dust,” he continues from earlier. “But the reality is that there is a way out, and we’ve got to start by coming together and stop being so divided, even though the president is intentionally every day trying to divide us. We’ve got to come together and we’ve got to challenge everybody. We’ve got to challenge corporate America — you can’t keep doing this; it won’t work. The healthcare community. Education. It’s not working. Look around!”
Ryan stands out on the boardwalk. He’s tall, athletic — a former high school quarterback with a commanding presence —and also the only white guy in a sport coat for at least a mile.
But he isn’t exactly a fish out of water here. Ryan is an evangelist for meditation and healthy eating, and has written books (“A Mindful Nation” and “The Real Food Revolution”) about both. He supports social-emotional learning in public schools and the removal of processed foods from school cafeterias. He’s supported Medicare for all since 2007, and wants take Obamacare a step further by creating a voluntary universal public option.
Heading north along the boardwalk from Windward Avenue, Ryan introduces himself to a ceramic art vendor. She’s skeptical about political promises and won’t give her name. It’s great that he’s talking to people, but “Don’t forget us after you’re done,” she says, introducing Ryan to a friend offering psychic readings to tourists.
There’s no time for a palm reading, but Marie Fink is getting “really good vibes” from Ryan. She recently turned 69, and the boardwalk gig is what’s keeping her off the street. “I’ve worked all my life but I can’t work anymore,” says Fink, who lived in Ohio before spending the past 40 years in Venice. “I’m alone in my life and it’s very scary. What’s going to happen if Trump takes away everything and I can’t even go into a nursing home because there’s no more Social Security?”
Steve Moore, an Army veteran who has been advertising “Shitty Advice: $1” on the boardwalk for 10 years, wants to know what Ryan will do about homelessness — specifically homeless veterans suffering from physical injuries, post-traumatic stress and resulting pharmaceutical dependencies. Ryan talks about his experiences meditating with wounded combat veterans and the need to evolve VA hospitals to offer “patient-centric care” with integrative health techniques.
Moore wants to know why vacant buildings can’t be turned into housing for the homeless, and Ryan says he’d like to replicate Haven for Hope — a 22-acre housing facility with on-site job training, health care and other services from 30 local agencies — on a national scale.
The ceramic art vendor returns — she’s in tears, wanting to talk about healthcare because her mother and her niece both died from cancer not long ago.
Anthony Barrio, who sells handmade crafts, is concerned about scapegoating of Latinos, who he says disproportionately lack opportunities for economic advancement and affordable housing. Ryan, father of a four-year-old boy and two stepchildren, asks about Barrio’s kids’ schools.
“Pretty crowded. Too many kids,” says Barrio, who wants to know what exactly Ryan thinks he can do to improve public schools and reduce homelessness.
“Invest money,” answers Ryan. “It’s going to take ideas and resources. If we want to end homelessness, we can do it, but you’ve got to have a president who drives the agenda. … I can be in Youngstown or Venice Beach, and the issues for working-class people — health care, housing, jobs — are the same.”
The sentiment resonates with Barrio, who tells me he lost his job at a finance company when recession hit in 2008 and that “we have to get united to solve these problems.”
On our way into Zelda’s Corner for breakfast burritos, three longtime Venice locals kid Ryan about wanting to know his positions on Millennials (Imprisonment or indentured servitude?) and abolishing electric scooters. Inside, a 35-year-old woman who lives in Orange County admits she doesn’t even know who her congressperson is — she’s too busy trying to make ends meet in a gig economy that has her driving for Uber and multiple food delivery services, walking dogs and babysitting on demand. She used to work a 9-to-5 office job.
“It’s not that the rich people have more opportunity than rich people have always had, it’s that the middle people have less opportunity to climb the ladder, and that’s the problem,” says Ryan. Back in Ohio, “We lost the GM facility in Lordstown, and we just found out last night that 800 people got an email from Falcon Transportation not to show up for work in the morning. Trump is going around telling everybody how great the economy is, but it really isn’t for most people.”
Ryan talks about reinvesting in American cities by bringing back community development block grants, expanding health and mental health services, and increasing education spending. He talks about using the power of the White House to stimulate jobs in renewable energy and electric car manufacturing. Instead of posturing about tariffs against China, he would advance a national imperative to dominate global manufacturing of green technologies.
“We’ve got one to two million electric cars today, and we’re going to have 30 million by 2030. Somebody’s going to make them. Do you ever hear the president talk about this? Never. He’s talking about John McCain, Barbara Bush, race-baiting and Maxine Waters — he’s going to prop someone up, an immigrant or person of color, to be the foil. And I want those electric cars to be made here. I want the batteries made here. I want the charging stations made here.”
But what about West Los Angeles? The good jobs are already here, but housing is so costly and scarce that many middle class families can’t really afford to live here anymore. Less than $90,000 gets you a three-bedroom house in Youngstown. West of the 405 Freeway, a modest two-bedroom house will run you more than $900,000. “Oh my God,” says Ryan, asking what my wife and I earn, and how much we pay for rent. “How do you do it?”
But Ryan offers a similar ideological approach to bolstering the middle class in former steel towns and Silicon Beach.
“Start spreading out the jobs, spreading out the wealth — and lift some of the other communities up,” he says. “Part of it is reinvestment. Part of it is education. Part of it is what the new economy looks like, and I put a lot of this at the president’s feet.”