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A look at Janna Ryan: 'She's going to bloom where she's planted'

By Shawna Shepherd, CNN Political Producer
updated 11:12 AM EDT, Mon August 27, 2012
VP candidate Rep. Paul Ryan greets his wife, Janna Little Ryan, during a rally in Waukesha, Wisconsin, on August 12.
VP candidate Rep. Paul Ryan greets his wife, Janna Little Ryan, during a rally in Waukesha, Wisconsin, on August 12.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Paul Ryan's wife was already successful lawyer and lobbyist before they met
  • Janna Ryan has been out of the public eye since her husband was picked by Romney
  • She will emerge back into the spotlight this week at rally and Republican convention
  • Janna Ryan's family has long history of Democratic politics in Oklahoma

Boston (CNN) -- Janna Little Ryan comes from a political family and was already a successful Washington tax attorney and lobbyist by the time she was 30. So when she met her future husband, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, she was drawn more to his character than awed by his office.

According to her younger sister, Dana Little Jackson, the Ryans met when the then-29-year-old Wisconsin lawmaker, sick with the flu, was "dragged" by a mutual acquaintance to Janna's 30th birthday party. They soon had their first date over lunch.

"She said she thought he seemed extraordinary. She said he's just so positive and earnest," recalled Jackson in an interview with CNN. "Maybe because we lived in Washington and were used to the cynical nature, but she was struck by his 'can-do' attitude and positive spirit. She loved what a normal Midwestern guy he was."

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Janna Ryan has kept a low profile and tried to maintain a normal life for the couple's three children since her husband became Mitt Romney's running mate.

But her profile will rise this week when she joins her husband at a rally in their hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin, on Monday and when they appear in Tampa at the Republican National Convention.

Three weeks ago when the presumptive Republican presidential candidate announced Ryan as his vice presidential pick, the couple's kids, who are 7, 9 and 10, flew around on a chartered plane, went "bus surfing" with the Romney grandchildren and learned how to make peanut butter and honey sandwiches from the man who could be the next president.

Sister part of ruse to keep Ryan pick secret

So close is the resemblance between Janna Ryan and her sister that Jackson was part of the plot to keep Romney's choice of Ryan a secret. When word came that Romney would announce his running mate earlier this month, the media staked out the homes of Ryan and the others on Romney's short list.

As Ryan slipped out the back of the house to be skirted away to his appearance with Romney in Virginia, Jackson posed inside the home as her sister, who had already secretly slipped away with the kids for the Romney event.

After traveling over the weekend together, Janna Ryan and the children headed for Colorado and a planned vacation while dad embarked on his own adventure.

In Colorado, Janna Ryan and the kids weren't alone -- they rarely are, thanks to a strong support group of family and friends. They spent the week with Janna's extended family -- her father, two sisters and their families. When the seven-term Wisconsin lawmaker is in Washington, where he spends most weekdays when Congress is in session, Ryan relatives and close friends surround the young family in Janesville, where Janna has lived for nearly 12 years.

"I think a lot of people might think the hardest part would be losing your privacy," Jackson said, reflecting on the changes to the Ryans' lives since Paul Ryan joined the Republican ticket on August 11. "I think the hardest part would be losing the life she loves in Janesville."

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Jackson said that if Romney and Ryan win in November, her sister would embrace the move to Washington. She said she will always put her family first, but she would also fulfill the role of being the vice president's spouse very well.

"She's going to bloom where she's planted, she's going to be happy wherever she is," Jackson said. "She's going to live a full life and a simple life."

It might also help that her sisters and their families live in the Washington area so at least some family would be close by like they're used to having in Janesville. But a big positive for the Ryans would be that they'd be under the same roof full-time. Ryan would no longer have to spend nights in his congressional office away from his family.

"The biggest pro for Janna would be getting to see Paul every day, and for him see his kids every day and to tuck them in at night," Jackson said.

From 4-H Club to Washington

Janna and her younger sisters, Dana and Molly, grew up in central Oklahoma in Madill, a rural town on the Red River. Jackson described it as a small town where everything is connected and everyone knows everyone. She said her older sister had a lot of friends, she sang in the church choir and enjoyed to read. Her love for animals led her to get involved in the 4-H Club, in which she showed sheep when she was in middle school.

Ryan's hometown of Janesville not only had that same sensibility, it also reminded her family of Clinton, Iowa, where their mother, Prudence Mae Little, was raised.

Dana and Janna, who are 18 months apart, followed in their mother's footsteps and went to college at Wellesley in Massachusetts and eventually became lawyers. Molly also went to Wellesley but got her master's in elementary education.

Janna Little earned her law degree at George Washington University while she was a congressional aide on Capitol Hill. For nine years, she pursued her career in Washington until December 2000, when she married Ryan and moved to Janesville to start a family.

"Some people wondered what that would be like for Janna, who worked on the Hill and in D.C., but I knew it would be an easy transition because it would feel like going home for her," Jackson said. "It felt right to her to go to a smaller town, to go to the Midwest, just like our parents did."

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Their mother followed her husband home to Madill where he grew up, and they worked together as attorneys. Prudence Mae Little graduated at the top of her class from the Oklahoma University College of Law, according to Jackson, and she battled cancer beginning when her children were very young until she died in 2010.

Their father, Dan Little, came from a prominent family in Oklahoma, where his brother-in-law, David Boren, was a Democratic governor and U.S. senator. U.S. Rep. Dan Boren, a Democrat, is Janna Ryan's first cousin. When she was in high school, Janna interned in her uncle's Senate office, and when she moved to Washington, she was a congressional aide for Rep. Bill Brewster, a Blue Dog Democrat from Oklahoma.

Ryan's wife has only given one interview since her husband joined the Republican ticket and has not talked publicly about her political views. Her long-time close friend, Leslie Belcher, says she's not even sure what her political affiliation is but said she has friends of all political stripes.

Jackson said her sister is "incredibly respectful of everyone's points of views. That's how we were raised."

"I have heard her say that in general, she likes to keep her home sort of a sanctuary from politics, both for the sake of Paul but for her kids and probably for her too," she said. "When Paul's home in Janesville, it's not about politics. It's about family, it's about friends, it's about the community, it's about the Packers."

School supplies and political speeches

As Ryan prepares for his big speech at the convention on Wednesday and his family braces for their appearances in Tampa, Janna Ryan has to also worry about getting school supplies. It turns out the kids will miss the first few days of school to attend their father's convention debut.

With young kids to tend to at home, it's unlikely Ryan will have much time to spend traveling with her husband in the final stretch of the presidential campaign.

As a wife of someone who has been elected to the House seven times, she is no stranger to campaigning and has appeared with him at a number of events over the years, whether it's a bus tour or walking with him in a Labor Day parade in Janesville.

So far on the national scene, she is maintaining a low profile. Ryan appeared onstage with her husband at a number of rallies over that first weekend but at one stop, she politely declined an invitation from Romney to speak to the crowd.

Jackson said for a private person like her sister, the limelight is new but said she's handled herself gracefully.

One friend of Janna Ryan's said she has the ability to talk to people about everything. "She's a great retail politician; she will be an asset."

Former Rep. Mark Neumann from Wisconsin knew Ryan when he was a staffer on Capitol Hill and encouraged him to run for his congressional seat and describes the Ryans as a "wholesome American family."

He said their family has become stronger through the years having endured time apart and a busy congressional schedule as well as public criticism.

"It's very tough on a spouse," said Neumann, who recently ran into the couple campaigning in Wisconsin. "I suspect the negative attacks on Paul are as hard on Janna as they are on Paul, and I think she's done a great job of handling (it)."

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