Is Paul Ryan Down and Out? Digging Into His Quiet Three Years Since Congress

If Paul Ryan has any ambition to rehab his image among Republicans and run for office, he sure isn’t showing it.

Paul Ryan is keeping a low profile.

That’s what his new conservative group, the American Idea Foundation, said in declining an interview for this story, a look into the post-congressional life of the former speaker of the house, who, for a short time at the end of the Obama presidency, was the most powerful Republican in the country.

These days, his once mighty fundraising machine sits mostly drained, but he’s availed himself of the private sector, sitting on lucrative corporate boards, forging new business partnerships, and tending to his personal coffers after 20 years in Congress and a 2012 vice presidential nomination.

During his time as speaker, Ryan transformed from a Republican wiz kid, a “Young Gun” quick with a PowerPoint and a smile, to the beleaguered political partner of President Donald Trump, who took office a little over a year after the Wisconsin politician ascended to speaker. While the two saw eye-to-eye on Ryan’s long-sought tax reform package, they butted heads on other issues and argued incessantly, a post-retirement Ryan told Politico.

But through all these lofty battles, Ryan hasn’t forgotten about the little people: his staff. His American Idea Foundation, founded in Janesville on the idea that there should be equal economic opportunity in this country, if not equal outcomes, is run entirely by former congressional staffers, down to the last board member, other than Ryan himself. As the foundation’s president, he makes occasional trips to meet with successful community groups and identify those that are worth replicating, and AIF is working with researchers to develop an “evidence-based clearinghouse” where policy makers and community members can go shopping for new programs, according to Kevin Seifert, AIF’s vice chair.

The former creator of the Team Ryan joint finance committee – a fund that once raised tens of millions for House Republicans – now takes in a salary of $110,000 from AIF, and Andrew Speth, former deputy chief of staff to Speaker Ryan, makes $126,500 as executive director. Ryan himself has never drawn a salary from AIF because of the other major tie to his political past: what happened to his old campaign war chest, which amounted to some $9 million at the beginning of 2019.

When Ryan retired in January 2019, many wondered what would become of it, and because of FEC records, we now know that about $7.4 million went to AIF in a series of payments that ended in early 2020, establishing a broad foothold for the fledgling group.

“The party has moved past him. We’ve gone from Paul Ryan to complete paranoia in the Republican Party,”

– James Widgerson, Editor of rightwisconsin.com

And it also meant that Ryan can never draw a salary from the foundation as doing so would violate rules against using campaign funds for personal gain.

Seifert, meanwhile, has made money on both sides of the Ryan universe this year – with the tax-exempt (and thus statutorily apolitical) AIF and also Prosperity Action, a Ryan political action committee where Seifert did work as a consultant. Seifert insists he keeps the efforts separate.

A lawyer for the nonpartisan government reform group Common Cause, Paul S. Ryan (no relation), said such moonlighting is fine “so long as the PAC is paying him for the work he’s doing on behalf of the PAC, and the charity is paying him for the work he’s doing on behalf of the charity.”

Occasionally, Ryan will pen an op-ed or make a bracing statement like the one in January that condemned efforts to overturn the election, but for the tireless former vice-presidential “ideas guy,” it all seems a bit sleepy. On Twitter, one finds Ryan promoting a speech about Winston Churchill and an upcoming panel on the earned income tax credit, amid shoutouts to Aaron Rodgers and America’s military. During a dry spell this year, he went five months without tweeting. Rumors that Ryan would take a more esteemed post, such as head of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, where he’s now a visiting fellow, never panned out.

And political prospects have only grown dimmer as the Republican Party has continued to cast its lot with its Trump wing. “The party has moved past him,” says James Wigderson, the anti-Trump editor of rightwisconsin.com. “We’ve gone from Paul Ryan to complete paranoia in the Republican Party.”

Wigderson counts him out as a possible gubernatorial candidate in 2022 and as a Republican presidential primary contender in 2024. And if Ryan steps foot on stage at the 2024 Republican National Convention, Wigderson says, he might be booed as a scapegoat for the shortfalls and frustrations of the Trump presidency, which, depending on whom you ask, he either did too little to stop or too little to help.

Most politicians’ careers hit a dead end, says former Democratic state Sen. Mordecai Lee, and this could be it for Ryan, the wrong kind of Republican (principled, conventional, civil) for his time – though he also wondered if a political appointment could lie in his future, perhaps treasury secretary under a GOP president.

In the meantime, Ryan is making money here and there in the private sector – above and beyond his sizable pension from Congress, which he was eligible to begin collecting in 2020. Most prominently, as a member of the Fox Corp. board, he has made $140,000 in cash and received about $195,000 in stock awards in each of the 2020 and 2021 fiscal years, according to SEC documents.

Ryan serves on a number of other corporate boards, though one of them stands out – the innocuous-sounding Executive Network Partnering Corp., a complicated private equity company formed as a partnership between Ryan, another outfit called Solamere Capital, and a business executive named Alex Dunn.

The common thread running through all of these players is the former presidential candidate to whom Ryan was running mate: Mitt Romney. Solamere is run by Romney’s son Taggart, and Dunn was deputy chief of staff to Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts.

After that, Dunn served as president of Vivint Smart Home, a large home security company that agreed to pay $20 million in fines in a landmark Federal Trade Commission credit fraud case from earlier this year that cited events from Dunn’s 14 years with the company. For years, the company’s door-to-door salespeople engaged in “a disturbing pattern of pervasive fraud that

Vivint’s leadership did little to stop,” according to one FTC commissioner who compared the misconduct to Wells Fargo’s fake accounts scheme uncovered in 2014.

Like much of Ryan’s future, ENPC remains nebulous, at least in public.

But some political watchers believe there still may be more chapters for Paul Ryan to write – maybe even a political campaign. “He’s certainly young enough,” says Jay Heck from Common Cause in Wisconsin. “I wonder if he’s biding his time.”


 

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s December issue.

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Matt has written for Milwaukee Magazine since 2006, when he was a lowly intern. Since then, he’s held the posts of assistant news editor and, most recently, senior editor. He’s lived in South Carolina, Tennessee, Connecticut, Iowa, and Indiana but mostly in Wisconsin. He wants to do more fishing but has a hard time finding worms. For the magazine, Matt has written about city government, schools, religion, coffee roasters and Congress.