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Paul Ryan’s town a symbol of clashing visions Add to ...

There is a rumour going around Janesville that, if hometown hero Paul Ryan becomes vice-president, the city’s idled General Motors plant could soon be back in business.

Andrew Sigwell thinks that would be “a beautiful thing.” But the owner of Zoxx 411 Club, a blue-collar bar that sits like a mouse in the shadow of the elephantine auto plant, is not asking for it. Like many in Janesville, he has discovered there is life after GM.

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With Mr. Ryan set to take on Vice-President Joe Biden in their sole debate of the campaign on Thursday, the Janesville plant will figure metaphorically, if not explicitly, as the candidates lay out their clashing economic visions. Just as Mr. Ryan has held up his hometown’s shuttered auto plant as an example of President Barack Obama’s “failed” policies, Mr. Biden has touted GM’s overall survival as a symbol of their success.

The pressure is on the “young gun” Mr. Ryan, 42, to put in a good enough performance to help his boss, Republican nominee Mitt Romney, sustain the momentum his campaign has had since the presidential debate last week. It will test the fitness geek far more than the gruelling P90X workouts he performs in the Washington dawn.

Mr. Biden, 69, spent 36 years in the Senate and is steeped in foreign policy. Beyond the experiential divide between the two candidates, there is the philosophical one.

As the local congressman, Mr. Ryan supported the move to provide an initial government lifeline to a teetering GM in late 2008. But the erstwhile Ayn Rand worshipper and current chairman of the House of Representatives’ budget committee is best known for his radical plan to downsize the federal government. And he routinely chastises Mr. Obama for “picking winners and losers” by funnelling government subsidies to selected firms.

Mr. Biden likes to sum up Mr. Obama’s first term with the pithy “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.” But the $50-billion (U.S.) in bailout funds that GM’s U.S. operations got from the government was too little or too late to save the 90-year-old Janesville factory.

While that left the city of 63,000 reeling for a while, it also taught people like Mr. Sigwell an unanticipated lesson in resilience and renewal.

When plant stopped production in 2009, “I lost 100 per cent of my following overnight,” recounts Mr. Sigwell, 44, whose bar has been in the family for more than 50 years. “I had to rebuild this place from the ground up. But we’re doing great now.”

“Great” means taking in about 40 per cent less income despite working almost twice as many hours as when the plant was open. Back then, Zoxx was a weekdays-only watering hole for GM workers coming off their shift. Mr. Sigwell has turned it into a neighbourhood pub with live music and dart-throwing contests that draw fans from afar.

Signs of economic life are popping up around the bar. The recent opening of a plant that makes compressors for natural-gas fuelling stations, aided by modest state and local incentives, has brought new industry to Janesville’s battered south side. This city’s unemployment rate, which peaked at 13.6 per cent in 2009, now hovers around 8 per cent.

The ANGI Energy Systems facility makes up for only a fraction of the 1,200 high-paying assembly jobs that were lost when the GM plant was idled. But Mr. Sigwell is not bitter that the auto bailouts, which revived communities in Michigan and Ohio, have not done much to help him or Wisconsin.

“I don’t even think this is close to being over,” he says of the economic upheaval facing the country and wreaking havoc with the federal budget deficit. “There are just too many bad government decisions being made with respect to finances.”

Mr. Sigwell will not say which of the two presidential candidates he intends to vote for. But he does allow that the past few years have made him tougher and taught him that neither he nor Janesville needs a government bailout to survive.

Willingly or not, that makes him a living symbol of the self-reliance preached by Janesville’s most famous son.

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