Tim Ryan’s pro-worker platform hits a ‘swamp’ challenge

“People weren’t getting raises. They were working longer hours. And the political environment became more toxic. It became a tougher job,” Ryan told POLITICO in a recent interview. “Members realized that our staff needs some support.”

As he vies for an open Senate seat in a state that leans red, Ryan is trying to distance himself from the Democratic establishment and draw a contrast with his Trump-endorsed GOP opponent, J.D. Vance. In addition to significantly out-raising Vance in the second quarter, reporting a $9 million-plus haul, a large part of Ryan’s efforts involve emphasizing his work to help middle-class workers — an identity also embraced by senior Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown.

Ryan’s longtime quest to improve a workplace many voters brand “the swamp” might prove too inside-baseball for constituents who would rather hear how he’s combating inflation and protecting their own jobs. But as Ryan’s backers see it, his pro-labor push on the Hill shows what he’s accomplished for employees in his own backyard, even when it didn’t help him get elected.

“You don’t just advocate for a segment of workers, he’s put workers at the center of his work for 20 years,” Brown said in a brief interview. “He does it with Capitol Police here, helping people, and he works with steel workers back home and non-union workers.”

Ryan doesn’t see a disconnect between diving deep into the minutiae of Capitol Hill operations and relating to voters in Ohio on their everyday challenges. If he can help the former, he argues, that shows he can deliver on his promises to aid the latter.

Perhaps the most concrete example of Ryan’s work is the House Center for Well-Being, launched in 2018 and designed as a refuge for the chamber’s young staffers to find substantive help, such as personal finance training and career coaching. The Ohio lawmaker worked for years to build bipartisan support on the Appropriations Committee to develop the health resource, which has only expanded since its inception.

While Ryan preaches the importance of mindfulness and building personal resilience — he meditates daily, frequently practices yoga and literally wrote a book on mindfulness in government — he said he knows a struggling family in Ohio or a Hill staffer skipping meals to get by can’t meditate their way out of unworkable financial situations. Since taking the gavel of the spending subcommittee in 2019, he’s backed up those ideas with investments in congressional staffers. He championed additional funding to pay interns, which he and colleagues on both sides of the aisle hoped would open opportunities to more low-income applicants and help further diversify the Hill.

And this year, he shepherded a historic increase in House office budgets, which opened the door for higher staff salaries — a priority lawmakers hope will improve retention both among burned-out young staffers and specialized senior employees. Soon after, Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the chamber would require staffers to get paid a minimum salary of $45,000. He also said he’s “proud” to support congressional staff’s unionization push.

That employee work has extended to the Capitol Police, as Ryan has pushed for record-setting budget increases for the department. In addition to pouring money into the force that protects lawmakers and the Capitol, he’s led a years-long charge to shift the department and its leadership to prioritize mental health — even before the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol left the force battered both physically and emotionally.

“There’s just been a lot of trauma, and we can’t put our heads in the sand and think that we are working with a bunch of robots,” Ryan said.

It’s another area where Ryan is trying to throw off partisan labels, differentiating himself from progressive colleagues’ calls to “defund the police’’ and rethink the fundamental framework of law enforcement. Instead, he’s countered with a message on public safety that centers on support for local cops, though his work for Capitol Police is absent from his campaign’s narrative on public safety. He’s run ads that featured an Ohio sheriff and highlighted the more than $520 million Ryan secured in earmarks for Ohio police departments, which went to priorities like body worn cameras and other technology to bolster policing efforts.

The House Wellness Center services most used by Capitol Police are meditation, health and nutrition services, including subscription access to apps, according to data from the Chief Administrative Office. Calm is a popular app with the department’s employees that offers sleep stories and guided meditations. The department also uses the Wellness Center’s platform to set up challenges and competitions to encourage healthy behaviors.

Additionally, in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection, lawmakers funded a $4.3 million Howard C. “Howie” Liebengood Center for Wellness specifically for Capitol Police, staffed with six therapists and spaces for group and peer counseling. The resource center is named for a Capitol Police officer who took his own life three days after the attack on the Capitol.

“They face the same issues: longer hours, more threats, more stress. Add in January 6,” Ryan said. “We want them to have access to this, but then we also did a separate thing for them directly.”

But even as Ryan points to his successes at advocating for Hill employees, some of his initiatives are under threat. House Republican aides have signaled they may scrutinize projects like the House Center for Well-Being if their party wins the chamber in November, pointing to costs associated with running the center and skepticism of how effective the programs are.

Ryan argued the center has received bipartisan support since its inception in 2018, but he doesn’t doubt that a cornerstone of his legacy in the House could be on the chopping block as soon as next year. He blamed GOP “radicals” who would want to get rid of something that is “actually helping people deal with the insanity that is the political world today.”

“These are the same people who are supporting insurrectionists who beat up cops, so I think they don’t care about cops and they don’t care about the Capitol,” Ryan said. “They’re certainly not gonna care about a 22-year-old staffer who may have some stress and anxiety in this environment, or a long-term staffer.”

Whether he wins or loses his Senate race in November, Ryan is wrapping up his time on the House side of the Capitol. He says he’s too young to think about his legacy, but he hopes he’s remembered for his focus on mental health.

The Senate lags behind the House in mental health and wellness resources for staff, but Ryan isn’t ready to say he’ll launch an effort to expand the House-side benefits to the upper chamber.

“I’ll be figuring out a lot of shit when I get over there,” he said.