Paul Ryan

U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan faces challenger Rob Zerban for the 1st Congressional District seat.

Before there was Paul Ryan the Republican vice presidential nominee, there was Paul Ryan the influential chairman of the House Budget Committee.

And before that, there was Paul Ryan the young whippersnapper congressman from southern Wisconsin — the youngest member of the House when he was first elected in 1998 at age 27.

Prior to that, there was Paul Ryan, the congressional staffer, think tank wonk, Janesville Craig High School class president and youngest son of Betty Ryan, who suddenly found herself a single parent after Ryan’s father died in bed of a heart attack when the future congressman was 16.

It’s all part of a gradual buildup for a politician who, over the course of 14 years, went from a virtual unknown to a polarizing face of today’s conservative movement, beloved by the right — and reviled by the left — for his sweeping proposals to revamp entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security and his commitment to balancing the budget without raising taxes.

“We’re offering better policies,” said Ryan, in a brief telephone interview from the vice presidential campaign trail earlier this month. “Policies that are pro-growth policies, policies that are proven to create jobs, to create economic growth. And we’re not going to run away from that crisis. We’re going to run to the problem so we can fix the problem.”

Steady political pathFor Ryan, getting re-elected in Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District has been far from a problem since his initial victory over Kenosha Democrat Lydia Spottswood in 1998.

In that race — his first ever bid for elected office — Ryan took 57 percent of the vote.

He came into the campaign fresh from Capitol Hill, where he had worked for nearly three years as an adviser to Sam Brownback, a Kansas representative who was elected to succeed Sen. Bob Dole in 1996 and is now the Kansas governor.

Earlier, Ryan had worked as an aide to Wisconsin Sen. Bob Kasten, a speechwriter for Rep. Jack Kemp of New York and as an adviser and speechwriter for Empower America, a conservative think tank founded by Kemp and pundit William Bennett.

Ryan headed to Washington after receiving a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science from Miami University of Ohio in 1992.

Shortly before his campaign against Spottswood, Ryan spent a brief period working for Ryan Inc. Central, a Janesville-based excavating firm founded by Ryan’s great-grandfather and now run by members of his extended family. This would prove to be Ryan’s only career foray in the for-profit, private-sector world.

A bachelor when he took office, Ryan in 2000 announced his engagement to Janna Little, a Washington, D.C., tax attorney who came from a long line of Democrats in rural Oklahoma. She is the cousin of Ryan’s House colleague, Dan Boren, an Oklahoma Democrat who is stepping down this year after four terms in office.

Paul and Janna Ryan married in December 2000 and welcomed their first child, daughter Liza, in 2002. Sons Charlie and Sam followed two and three years later, respectively.

Conservative ideas manIn Congress, Ryan distinguished himself as a detail-oriented, well-thought-out source for conservative ideas.

“He’s certainly one who my colleagues look to for good research, good information,” former Rep. Jim McCrery, R-La., then the ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, said of Ryan in a 2007 interview.

Ryan moved up to that powerful committee in his second term in Congress. He’s served on the Budget Committee in all but one of his seven terms, the last three of which have been as chairman or ranking Republican.

From the start, Ryan campaigned on the issue that has endured as a Ryan hallmark — reforming Medicare and Social Security for future generations.

Beginning in 1999 and, most recently, in 2005, Ryan championed so-called “lock box” legislation that would ensure that all Social Security taxes paid remained in the Social Security Trust Fund. He later generated greater controversy with a proposal to convert Social Security into a personal investment account system, in which participants would invest their savings on the private market.

While he has more recently backed off on the Social Security investment system, Ryan has garnered considerable opposition from Democrats, including Zerban, to his proposal to revamp Medicare into a “premium support” system — Ryan shies away from the term “vouchers” — in which future retirees would receive a subsidy to shop for insurance from private providers.

In dueling television ads that hit the 1st Congressional District airwaves earlier this month, Zerban proclaimed Ryan’s proposal would “end Medicare,” while Ryan argued he’d save the popular program from impending insolvency.

Ryan last year acknowledged his proposals come with political risk.

“If I lose because of this, I will be satisfied that I did everything I could to keep this country from going off a fiscal cliff because of a debt crisis,” Ryan said in a May 2011 Kenosha News editorial board interview.

National spotlight brightensThese proposals — along with trillions in spending and tax cuts — have come packaged in the budgets Ryan has promoted, first dubbed the Roadmap for America’s Future and later rechristened as the Path to Prosperity.

With all of this has come an ever brightening national spotlight on Ryan, whose contributions to The Wall Street Journal’s and other newspapers’ editorial pages and appearances on national TV talk shows grew increasingly prolific in the months and years before his recent leap onto the national political stage.

All the while, until his nomination for vice president, Ryan maintained he was not interested in greater political gains.

In a 2008 interview about his thoughts on joining the ticket of that year’s GOP presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, Ryan said all he thinks about is being a good husband and a good father.

“Except for when the Packers are in season,” he added. “I think of them, too.”