Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Sean Ryan, Not Your Average Candidate

Pitching himself as "about as not fringe as you can get," Sean Ryan gave some hints about big doings in his campaign for an at-large City Council seat. For one, he is working toward a decisive fund-raising effort before the September 22nd primary. For another, his website will get a major rework any day now.

We sat for a chat Monday at JP's Ula Café. In his mens sana in corpore sano mode, he doesn't touch caffeine or booze. It was my first visit and I approve of Ula's Americanos; they don't stint on the espresso.

Neither here nor at Left Ahead! have we opened the large bag of 15 at-large candidates, including two incumbents, for four open seats. However, Ayanna Pressley and Andrew Kenneally had previously asked to present themselves. Being a political slut, of course, I agreed.

Who You Calling Fringe?

I've already carped about the blandness of the candidates' websites. Ryan kind of agrees, but with his own spin. As a libertarian coming from the left into his Ron-Paul friendly beliefs, he is free to select affinities without regard to party labels or stereotypes.

For one example, while I found Bill Trabucco's presentation to be odd at best, Ryan said he could work with someone like that, someone with what he sees as high "energy and spirit." He noted that the key power of the Council was of holding hearings and getting big issues before voters, sometimes leading to policy advances. He figures that will he and Trabucco may not have much in common in political views, they would certainly agree to have hearings on key issues to get such a process working.

I couldn't get to the June at-large candidate forum, but appreciated David Bernstein's notes over at Talking Politics. His comments about Ryan in the scrum coverage were:
Give him credit -- a Ron Paul libertarian pitching himself to Ward 5 Democrats, he could easily have caused serious eyeball-rolling injuries every time he opened his mouth. I doubt that many in the room were buying what he's selling, but he acquitted himself well presenting himself and his views.
Left to his own devices — one on one or on his more monetary-policy related website, Ryan has extremely strong views on government and economics. While most of the at-large candidates pussy foot around calling for safer streets and uniformly improved public schools, he's pretty sure we're all doomed economically. To Ryan, the collapse of our economy as we know it is the only catharsis that will let us right the nation.

That's more than a hard sell though. Most people can't and don't want to think in those terms. In short-term, practical implications for this race, explaining why he believes that is complex, not the proverbial 30-second elevator speech.

Bite Sized

Ryan has a highly varied and unusual résumé, including classical musician/conductor, pedi-cab operator and Fenway hot dog vendor. Yet, he is prouder of his formal education and more of his self-taught economics (Austrian school his specialty).

Listening to him and poring over his campaign and economy-centric sites, leaps are tempting.

His economic and governmental messages are not only out of the common beliefs of Americans, they are relatively complex. As a result, his existing sites have many single-spaced pages expanding on the concepts and forecasts. Similarly, oral versions at front doors and on stages could stun many voters with their details.

Ryan is well aware of the need to announce his principles without overwhelming though. His pending revamped campaign site will be a major part of that effort, he told me. He has brought on a young pro at this, Corie Whalen. While only a senior at Simmons here, she has 1) raised a ton of bucks for Ron Paul, 2) organized the first of the series of Tea Parties that went national, and 3) designed or redesigned the web presences of several candidates.

As is often the case, outsiders to libertarianism might be surprised that Whalen came from the right and Ryan from to left to this ism. Yet, they have sufficient overlap on principles and issues that they don't conflict. For example, they agree that government is too large, powerful and intrusive (Ryan wants to kill the Federal Reserve System and the Boston Redevelopment Authority, for two).

Ryan says she will help him focus his platform on key issues and present those in more manageable chunks. As policy director, Whalen "will rework the website," he says. "My principles will remain, but we'll concentrate on schools. That's something everyone cares about here."

During our chat, Ryan broke a bit as he got excited about economics, seemingly a great passion for him. He tries to stay on message and keep it simple, but he is a geyser of research and opinions. For example, he is one who figures that within two years "our whole system is going to collapse."

He also pointed me to broker Peter Schiff's predictions as discussed in YouTube videos. Ryan is likewise convinced that a collapse would be a net good and the catalyst to clean up our economic, regulatory and governmental messes.

He says he does not overload voters with his ideas and beliefs. Instead, "I can explain my positions in three or four minutes" on a stoop or stage, he says. We should see that in the new website.

Earning a Chair

Ryan does not seem at all daunted by the crowded race or by explaining his platform planks or by raising enough money for the double primary/general election push.

The more stereotypical Irish-American pol is certainly someone like Councilor Michael Flaherty, stepping down to run against Mayor Tom Menino this time. Good sized and effusive, he can dominate a room. In contrast, Ryan looks like the classical musician he trained to be. He fits that physical stereotype as slender, soft-spoken and alertly attentive to anyone before him. Down to his tiny silver earring, he remains about content instead of display.

Whalen is supposed to help with the presentation part, but also the fund-raising. Ryan was coy about what is money strategies are. He is well aware that he needs money now and for a final push, assuming he is one of the eight who get through the primary filter to the general.

He isn't looking for grand schemes of broadcast and print advertising. However, he wants very targeted mailings, such as to all of Southie. Also, he believes in yard signs — "I want to have as many signs as any top tier candidate."

He says he set "very ambitious" fund-raising goals for September 1st, which he must meet to stay in competitive. He is looking to Whalen for help here too. He laughingly calls her "a female Karl Rove without the neo-con aspect."


For his part, he speaks to anyone and everyone, voter by voter, civic groups, public meetings, debates, and fora. Here, he has mixed successes.

Unlike Pressley, he is not the darling of the Globe or major unions. Someone with such strong beliefs understandably finds that irritating. He notes for example that the major daily has run two large stories on the at-large race without mentioning him. In particular, the recent cover piece on the Sunday magazine there looked and read like a campaign ad for Pressley and discussed almost exclusively its subject, the African-American candidates for Council.

Likewise, he hasn't made inroads with unions, even the Boston Teachers Union. He's big on education, went through the Boston schools and his mother has had a career as school nurse in town. He thought his strong education platform would cut it, but it may have run afoul of his calls for more charter schools and school vouchers that let the money follow the child.

Likewise for the media, he is disturbed by more than being ignored in some articles. He, accurately I think, notes that broadcast and print media analyze little about this race. They may get better after the primary, but meanwhile, candidates can say little or contradict themselves from speech to speech or from what their websites and literature say with impunity. Instead, he says, the media (media) should be pointing out where candidates are saying something different than they did before."

That's all true enough. I can't necessarily take the high road. I haven't done in-depth analysis of campaign sites and literature. I wasn't even able to get to the big at-large forum in June. Bloggers may not be doing a much better job than MSM.

Such disappointments irritate but do not stop Ryan. He is forever mulling larger concerns, like a government "that has gotten too big to control and too big to be accountable." Starting with the Fed, but not limited to it, he wants to drive awareness of limiting state and federal government. As he puts it, "You can't pick and choose where you want the government to be totalitarian."

Whether that is fringe to some and a different way of thinking to many, that attitude has certainly produced more defined and stronger positions for Ryan than most in the race.

Over at Neighborhood Network News, the wise and gentle Chris Lovett explored some of Ryan's diverse jobs and his goals, starting with education. Ryan has posted the 11-plus minutes from the June 9th interview on his site here. Lovett did ask a key question as part of that — with these overarching national and international concerns, how do those factor into the role of a city councilor. Specifically at about 3:17 in part one, Ryan riffs on how monetary policy would relate to the job.

He didn't get to ask the what-if about the possibility of Ryan losing in one of the two pending elections. Ryan says he is too focused on the current challenges to dwell on that. However, he's a thoughtful sort who returned to that.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that he has a non-traditional as well as expected take on that. If he remains here, he would intend a political career based in Boston. However, as he put it, "if we go over completely to socialism," he would consider a move to China. That may seem antithetical to a libertarian, who of course is deeply into freedoms.

To him, that kind of move makes sense. He said that "leftists have too much trust in government." Instead, he declared that "without economic freedom, personal freedoms don't mean anything." He added that China was headed toward more economic freedom than our tightly controlled economy.

Meanwhile, I'll be fascinated to see how well:
  • He can focus his positions and communicate them
  • His relatively complex planks play against the generalizations of most candidates
  • His fund-raising efforts work
  • He fares in polls and the plebiscites pending

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