Mary Altaffer / AP
Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012 | 3:43 p.m.
MADILL, Okla. — Like her husband, Janna Ryan, the wife of Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, is a Washington veteran after years working as a legislative staffer, attorney and lobbyist. Now a stay-at-home mom, she comes from a family rooted deep in Oklahoma politics — of the Democratic sort.
In the days since Mitt Romney introduced her husband as his running mate, the woman who grew up Janna Christine Little also has been thrust into the spotlight. She beamed Saturday in Norfolk, Va., and accepted a kiss on the cheek from Ryan as Romney made his choice official. And she stood, with her hand on her husband's chest, a night later during a homecoming rally in Wisconsin.
While he headed out on the campaign trail, she took the kids — their daughter, Liza, 10, and sons Charles, 8, and Sam, 7 — camping in Colorado, the same vacation he had planned to attend before being tapped to serve as Romney's running mate.
In Lakewood, Colo., on Tuesday, Ryan told more than 2,000 supporters that he and his wife taught their children last summer how to cook on the campfire and make s'mores. Said Ryan: "Janna and I put them to bed in the tent. We stayed up late and we talked about our country. And there's nothing like the stars and the skies of the Colorado Rockies at night."
His wife knows something about living in a place where the skies are big and filled with stars. Her path to Washington — and, possibly, to the White House — began in the small southern Oklahoma town of Madill, where her family is an institution.
"It's a classic entrepreneurial family and one that has given back a great deal to the community," said Republican Rep. Tom Cole, a family friend whose district includes Madill.
Janna Ryan, 43, is a cousin of Democratic U.S. Rep. Dan Boren and a niece of former Gov. and U.S. Sen. David Boren. Her grandfather, the late Reuel Little, a longtime farmer and rancher, won less than 4 percent of the vote as a third-party candidate for governor in 1970. His 1993 obituary in the newspaper The Oklahoman said he and a group began planning the party's formation in 1967 to help George Wallace's presidential bid. The four-term Alabama governor and segregationist was a Democrat but ran in 1968 as the American Independent Party candidate.
Dan Little, Janna's father and an attorney, still works at the law firm Reuel Little started in 1927; he also is chairman of the Oklahoma School of Mathematics and Sciences Board of Trustees and a former member of the University of Oklahoma board. Her mother, the late Prudence Little, was one of the first members of the state's ethics commission, as well as a former chairman of the Oklahoma University Foundation.
Says Lynn Windel, a law partner of Dan Little's and a family friend, of Mrs. Ryan: "She basically has come from a politically minded family, so it was easy for her to understand politics."
Mrs. Ryan caught the political bug early, working as an intern for David Boren. He calls her "one of the best interns I ever had in my office."
Boren, now the president of the University of Oklahoma, is effusive in his praise: "She is highly intelligent and a hard worker. More recently she has put all of her energy into being a wonderful mother and wife. Having known her all of her life, I have great admiration and affection for her."
By the early 1990s, she was in Washington where she would spend six years in Democratic Rep. Bill Brewster's office, focusing on health care issues and also earning her law degree at night. Brewster praised her as "always very dependable, conscientious, and well prepared for constituent and committee meetings."
It was in that town that she would meet her future husband.
"I wouldn't call Janna a politico, but she is very natural in and around politics," said Leslie Belcher, who worked in Brewster's office with Janna Ryan and was a bridesmaid at her wedding. "That being said, I can put Janna at the Sand Bass festival in Marshall County and she's natural there, too."
"There" is part of a region that some call "Little Dixie." Registered Democrats make up two-thirds of the registered voters in Marshall County, where Madill is located, but the county went easily to Republican John McCain in the 2008 election. President Barack Obama did not win a single county in the state that year.
The town's mayor, Kevin Epplen, is a registered Democrat who can't remember the last time he voted for one. Epplen says Paul Ryan's name on the ticket makes it more likely that he'll vote for Romney in November. "Honestly, I'd rather vote for (Paul Ryan) as president than vice president," he said.
This region's more moderate — some could say even conservative — tendencies may help explain why the Ryans' union in 2000 in an Oklahoma City church caused little heartburn for what had been a traditionally Democratic family. (Dan Little, Janna's father, switched his voter registration from Democrat to Republican last year.)
Since then, Paul Ryan has been a familiar figure in the region and regularly goes to his wife's hometown for hunting trips.
"People there love him," says Cole, who remembers unexpectedly seeing the Wisconsin congressman at an event in the area. Cole said he'll sometimes even pass along Madill constituents' concerns. "He's introduced me to people in my district that I otherwise might not have known."
Friends say they don't know if Janna Ryan ever considered herself a Democrat, but they note that she's worked for and comes from a line of "Blue Dog" Democrats who have often split from the national party.
"I think she would have gotten more hell from her friends if she married a Democrat," Belcher said.