Heard on the Hill

Tim Ryan was once a star quarterback, with Congress as his backup

Ohio Democrat recalls how he got his start on Capitol Hill

Before he was a congressman, Ohio’s Tim Ryan was an intern and a staff assistant for his predecessor, Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Rep. Tim Ryan “caught the bug” for Congress first as a summer intern in 1994 and then as a staff assistant the following year for a fellow Ohioan, the late and colorful Democratic Rep. James A. Traficant Jr.

He recalls meeting Traficant during his senior year in high school, when Ryan was the star quarterback of his team. The two bonded over their football experiences. Ryan was recruited to play for Youngstown State, but an injury cut short his college football career. 

Ryan spent two years as a staff assistant to Traficant, swapping his football cleats for sneakers to play in softball games on the National Mall. In 2002, he was elected to replace his former boss after Traficant’s expulsion from Congress. Traficant ran against him twice as an independent — including while in prison in 2002 — but was unsuccessful. 

Ryan hasn’t entirely left behind his sports past and is a reliable Democratic glove and bat at the annual Congressional Baseball Game. He’s also known for his advocacy of “mindfulness,” a meditation practice meant to improve awareness and attention.

He made a run for the presidency this year before dropping out and is the current chairman of the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee. 

In his own office, Ryan touts his low staff turnover rate and says the key ingredients are injecting a sense of fun in the workplace and giving staff room to grow. His advice to staffers just starting out? Don’t be afraid of change. And don’t worry too much about your federal retirement savings accounts while you are in your 20s.

Q: How did you find yourself in Congress as a young person working for Rep. Traficant?

A: I met him at my football banquet [while Ryan was a student at John F. Kennedy High School in Warren, Ohio]. He spoke at my senior-year football banquet. He was the quarterback, and I was the quarterback, and so he wanted to meet who the quarterback was, and I ended up sitting next to him and we spent two hours together. … I came to really like him, and he said, “Hey, if you ever wanna come to D.C. or whatever, let me know.” So he gave me his card.

Q: And how old were you?

A: I was a senior in high school, and then I went on to play football, and then I got hurt and I couldn’t play anymore. I was looking like, “What am I going to do now?” I had played sports my whole life, and this is my whole identity. So, well, I like this guy, maybe I’ll go to D.C. I had an aunt that lived down here, in Bowie, Maryland, so I lived with her and worked for him for a summer and then caught the bug, and the rest is history.

Q: What kinds of things did you do in Traficant’s office?

A: Getting coffee, opening mail … doing tours and what our interns do, and then what staff assistants do … carrying flags around the Capitol back in the day: “Go get the flags and carry them up.” I was at the bottom of the rung.

Q: Do you have any other impressionable memories?

A: I really enjoyed it. … I went to the receptions and got free food and free drinks and made a lot of friends, and I played flag football and softball on the Mall. … Everything the kids are doing now, I did. When I went off to college and law school … [Congress] was always in the back of my head, maybe I’ll do this. Ended up running and winning.

Q: What kind of work environment do you want to instill now for “the kids” in your office?

A: Well, I’m pretty proud that I have one of the lowest turnover rates in the whole Congress. And I’ve been here … going on my 18th year. One of the things I really like is you hire really smart people, you provide a vision and some inspiration and let ’em do their job. I think it’s worked — like I said, one of the lowest turnover rates. … I think it was almost the lowest until last Congress when Dems took over, and then some of my people had to leave and left to take much better jobs.

So creating an environment where it’s fun, where you learn, you grow, you challenge. … That’s also one of the reasons why people can stay in an office like mine is you’re always getting more responsibility, doing more work. I’m a pretty active guy, so I’m involved on a lot of different things, you know, on the Appropriations Committee. You want to create an environment where it’s fun and [a] family-type atmosphere.

Q: Do you have people on your staff who have indicated they want to run for public office?

A: Um, no [laughs] … I think some of the younger people who stayed for a little bit and then went off to law school, maybe one day. But I think the ones that have stayed here, especially, will stay here and work within the legislative branch or executive branch, if that ever comes up.

Q: Any other advice you would give to staffers?

A: Do it as long as it’s fun. Just keep growing and don’t be afraid to leave where you are to try a new experience. Sometimes people can get stuck in a rut. And don’t be afraid to change. Don’t worry too much about your Thrift Savings Plan when you’re in your 20s. Put money in it, but don’t let that dictate the next 30 years of your life.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.