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Friday, August 24, 2012 - Page updated at 10:00 p.m.

Paul, Janna Ryan and family seen as transcending politics

By SUSAN SAULNY and CHRISTINE HAUGHNEY
The New York Times

Their union was not necessarily one friends and family saw coming. She was from a prominent Democratic family and dabbled in liberal causes during her years at Wellesley College, once taking a road trip to Washington to march for women's rights. He, an up-and-coming Republican congressman, had worked after-school jobs to help support his family as a teenager and was known for his deeply conservative views.

On the surface, it was surprising when Janna Little, a socially popular lobbyist on Capitol Hill, and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who had been dating aerobics instructors at his gym, hit it off after he asked for an introduction. They met at a party, started dating and were married in winter 2000.

"That was a big deal at the time," said Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a Republican who is a longtime friend of the Little family, elected from the largely rural district where Janna Little Ryan grew up. "But certain values transcend politics."

Now Janna Ryan, 43, is one of the public faces of the Republican ticket, married to a candidate whose selection has electrified conservatives while alarming others with his views on abortion and his zeal for cutting spending on social-welfare programs.

It is an unconventional path for a woman from Democratic Party royalty in Oklahoma, one who gave up her career as a Washington lobbyist to become a wife and mother in Janesville, Wis., as her husband built his career in Congress.

Friends say Janna Ryan chose her political life's path with a sense of purpose, and they describe her as being a "practical conservative" these days, even if she might once have been more of a Democrat.

As a former Wellesley roommate, Rachel Clark, said of their college days: "I think it's fair to say that we were all on the more liberal side of things back then."

Janna Ryan has seemed uncomfortable in the spotlight. At the rally where Mitt Romney named Paul Ryan as his running mate, Janna Ryan was given the opportunity to speak after Ann Romney, but she declined the invitation, shaking her head slightly, an unusually spontaneous moment for such a scripted event.

She has not, however, shied away from asserting herself. Janna Ryan is a lawyer and a tax specialist who, before her marriage, worked for prestigious government-affairs and accounting firms as a lobbyist, representing some of the biggest names in a range of industries, including Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Novartis and Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

Her public face now, though, is representative of what she has been for the past dozen years: a mother raising the couple's three children — Liza, 10; Charlie, 8; and Sam, 7 — in their Georgian-style brick house.

Upon marriage, the Ryans decided to settle in Janesville instead of in Washington. Janna Ryan's life changed greatly, as she traded her high-octane career for a quieter existence behind her husband's rising profile.

"There was no debate, question or concern about her quitting her job and going to Janesville because that's what she wanted to do," said Leslie Belcher, who was a bridesmaid in Janna Ryan's wedding. "She's the stabilizing force in the family."

Although she has not been in the spotlight until now, national politics is not something new to Janna Ryan, a first cousin of Rep. Dan Boren, D-Okla., the son of a former U.S. senator and governor from Oklahoma, David Boren.

Janna Little went east to study at Wellesley, following in the footsteps of her mother, Prudence Little, who, according to her obituary, was a founding member of the Oklahoma Ethics Commission. Janna Ryan's father, Dan Little, who is also a lawyer, practices in Madill, Okla., where Janna Ryan and her two sisters grew up.

Prudence Little struggled with cancer for the last 35 years of her life, first battling advanced melanoma, then breast cancer, then ovarian cancer and finally, a recurrence of the melanoma she thought she had beaten. She died two years ago.

Janna Little's Wellesley professors described her as being interested in social justice and the world around her. She belonged to Wellesley's art and music society and spent spring 1990 studying in Cordoba, Spain, to sharpen her Spanish and explore other parts of Europe.

"I didn't get the sense that she was a political activist," said Joy Renjilian-Burgy, who wrote Janna Little's recommendation to study abroad. But when it came to topics such as the history and treatment of indigenous peoples around the world, Renjilian-Burgy said, "She was very sensitive to these issues."

After graduating from George Washington University Law School and working on Capitol Hill for a family friend, Rep. Bill Brewster, D-Okla., Janna Little gained a reputation for being smart and social. Paul Ryan, recently elected to Congress, had been admiring her from afar, said A. Mark Neuman, a mutual friend who introduced the couple at Janna Little's 30th birthday party.

So what made Janna Little click with Paul Ryan, who in college developed a passion for libertarian thinking? They both enjoy fishing and hunting and had both grown up treasuring their moments in nature, she in the Great Plains and he in the Midwest. Friends say they also found each other intellectually lively.

"I think they both probably knew fairly quickly that they'd met their match in each other," said Clark, her Wellesley roommate. "They're both committed to family and public service, and they're both extraordinarily nice people."

Although the Ryans are affluent by any measure, with assets that were valued last year at between $2 million and $7.8 million, much of which is in Janna Ryan's trust, the family is not known for displays of wealth.

The Ryans often visit Oklahoma. According to the state political blog CapitolBeatOK, Ryan joked during a speech in the state that he and the family visit "three times a year — deer season, duck season and turkey season." For some reason, he added, "Janna refers to our visits as Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving."

Material from The Washington Post is included in this report.

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