Parker Pens used to be a big deal in Janesville, Wisconsin, as big a deal as they used to be on every college campus in America. The company began when a telegrapher named George S. Parker started fixing and selling fountain pens. Frustrated by the tendency fountain pens had to leak, Parker set out to produce a leakproof pen for everyday use. In 1888, he founded the Parker Pen Company and, within 20 years, it was the largest pen-manufacturing plant in the world. Parker Pens were such a big deal that Janesville named a senior high school after Parker. They were such a big deal that George S. Parker II, a subsequent president of the company, was able to buy himself a beautiful Queen Anne-style mansion that had been built in the late 1920's in the city's Courthouse Hill district. Parker, who also was a muckety-muck in the Wisconsin state Republican party, lived in that house until his death in 2004. By then, the company had moved to Europe — first to England, then to France — and, five years after Parker's death, the company shuttered the Janesville plant. As it happens, the current owner of the Parker mansion is our old friend, the zombie-eyed granny-starver Paul Ryan. The budget wonk in the Georgian mansion. The local manufacturing institution that was part of a city's identity and then just up and moved out of the country. Rob Zerban would like you to know all of this.
"To me," Zerban said over the phone on Thursday afternoon, "he's a grossly out-of-touch Washington insider. From that aspect, to get re-elected, I would say that, for a long time, he talked a moderate game in the district and then become very partisan with his votes in Washington. He was able to hide it for a while, but now he's authored a budget that shows clearly what he stands for.
"The people of the First District can see where that budget impacts their lives. Their bridges start to crumble. We've got 16 bridges on federal highways alone in the district that have been declared structurally deficientm and that doesn't include county and local municipal bridges. He's been neglecting his district and raising his national profile. We've had massive job losses in the district. A GM plant closed in Janesville. A brassworks plant closed in Kenosha. He's been supporting trade policies that allowed jobs to go overseas, and these are not policies you pursue if you're from this district."
Zerban, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, a former chef who started two restaurants of his own, and a former businessman from Kenosha, on the district's far eastern end, is coming off the best fundraising quarter he's had, having raised $340,000 in the first three months of 2012. Ryan, it should be said, raised nearly 10 times that much. Nevertheless, Zerban's tracking to be the toughest challenge that Ryan's had in a congressional district that went solidly for the president four years ago. He's doing the best he can to make Ryan a kind of anomaly, and to highlight the differences between the Paul Ryan who is the star of Fox News — the allegedly bold budgetary wizard beloved of pundit wonks on both sides of the aisle — and the Paul Ryan who got through high school and college partly on Social Security survivors benefits, whose entire career almost has been spent carrying water in Washington conservative politics.
In an odd way, Rob Zerban is turning the Mitt Romney playbook against Paul Ryan, a career politician who's never had to meet a payroll.
"He has a lot to answer for," Zerban tells me. "He has to defend the indefensible. I don't know where he gets his credibility on budget matters. I mean, he had a minor in economics. What experience does he have to say that he's the great budget oracle? None that I can see. As nearly as I can tell, he graduated and he went right to work in Washington, for a couple of senators and then to a think-tank and then he ran for Congress. He's the kind of 'budget guy' who doesn't have any real world experience. I had to write responsible budgets when I was running a small business.
"Those survivor benefits, a lot of people I know wouldn't have been able to put that money aside for college. They needed it to survive. I know without Pell Grants and Stafford loans, I wouldn't have been able to graduate from college."
Zerban thought about running the last time but — wisely, as it turned out — decided that 2010 was a bad year to be a Democrat running for Congress. He was energized this time around by the outrage that erupted against Governor Scott Walker's union-stripping plans. Zerban and his wife, Cornelia, were regulars at the demonstrations in and around the state capitol, and he determined that there was a very clear link between what Walker was trying to do in Wisconsin and Ryan's plans for the country. "After we had all hell break loose in Madison," Zerban says, "my wife and I were down there demonstrating with 100,000 of our closest friends, and Mike Tait [the state Democratic chairman] asked if I would consider running. He'd been contacted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to see if he could find a good strong candidate to run against Ryan. They wanted to get somebody in early and get organized. I felt my background as somebody who'd been a small-business owner would be a good contrast with what Paul Ryan has done in his life and what he stands for.
"Look at what's happened in the state in the last year. Between that, and Paul Ryan's disastrous budget, it's like a perfect storm."
The only time that some fudge appears in Zerban's confident spiel is when he discusses the support he's had so far from the DCCC, which has been criticized in many quarters for lining up behind more corporate-friendly Democrats and leaving people like Zerban, who is fighting an uphill battles against a legitimate congressional television superstar, twisting in the breeze. "It continues to develop," Zerban hedges. "Everything's a stage. We've hit certain levels and I'm certainly not unhappy, but there's always more that can be done."
So far, the polling is what you would expect in a country where north of 90 percent of the incumbent congresscritters get re-elected, although Zerban is certainly competitive, and Ryan seems to trend downward the closer he's linked to the budget that bears his name. It's hard to imagine that even the corporate Democrats in the DCCC would ignore a candidate with a legitimate chance to retire the man who's become synonymous with Republican parsimony, voodoo mathematics, and utter bad faith regarding the nation's struggling economy. But Rob Zerban is open to all possibilities. "There's some talk about him being vice-president," Zerban says. "Maybe I won't even be running against him"