WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Janna Ryan, thrust onto the national stage this weekend when her congressman husband, Paul Ryan, was named the Republican vice presidential choice, strikes an appealing image as a stay-at-home mom raising three young children in Wisconsin.
But the 43-year-old has been a Washington operative herself, hailing from a well-connected family and forging an early professional career as a congressional aide and healthcare lobbyist.
Friends describe her as being able to navigate between different worlds -- from small-town Oklahoma and Wellesley College, a private women’s college outside Boston that she attended, to complex policy debates in Washington.
“She is very comfortable in and around politics. She grew up in a political family, and it comes very naturally to her,” said Leslie Belcher, a Washington lobbyist who worked on Capitol Hill with Janna Ryan and was later one of her bridesmaids.
During her first public test, Ryan appeared at ease on Saturday as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney introduced her husband at a tightly orchestrated event in Norfolk, Virginia, with the retired battleship USS Wisconsin as the backdrop. She beamed alongside Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann Romney.
Ryan, whose last name was Little before her marriage, grew up in Madill, in southern Oklahoma. Both of her parents spent their careers as lawyers in private practice. Her mother graduated first in her class at the University of Oklahoma law school. A town in Oklahoma, Little City, is named after the family.
Her family has strong Democratic connections, and it largely identifies with the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of Democratic lawmakers known for being fiscally conservative.
Her uncle, David Boren, served as a Democratic governor of Oklahoma and later as a senator from the state. Boren’s son, Dan Boren, is a member of House of Representatives and, as a Blue Dog Democrat, has often voted with Republicans.
After college Janna Ryan worked as a legislative aide to then Oklahoma Representative Bill Brewster, who was a co-founder of the Blue Dog Coalition.
“She came from a small town, and we had big ideas of going to Washington and making a difference,” said Ryan’s friend Shannon Henderson, who worked on Capitol Hill with her at the time.
While in that job she worked on transportation and healthcare issues and attended George Washington University Law School at night, earning her degree in 1998.
Ryan parlayed her law degree and Hill experience into a lobbyist job, working for several years at Williams & Jensen and at PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Her roster of clients included pharmaceutical and insurance clients such as Novartis, Cigna and Blue Cross/Blue Shield, according to lobbying records.
She married Paul Ryan in 2000 after the two met in Washington and moved to his hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin, where she now raises their three children.
A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article in 2000 said their upcoming nuptials would be “depriving Congress of one of its more eligible bachelors.”
“They got married eyes wide open, knowing that they wanted to dedicate themselves to public service, and that meant that Janna wouldn’t work, and Paul would dedicate himself” to working in Congress, said Jodi Bond, a vice president of the Chamber of Commerce who has been friends with the Ryans for decades.
Paul Ryan told CBS’s “60 Minutes” program on Sunday that he and Janna had discussed his vice presidential candidacy at length. “It is going to change our life, but we really think that this is a moment in the country that needs leadership,” he said.
While the campaign is still sorting out exactly what her role on the campaign trail might be, friends suggested she would be an asset to the Romney-Ryan ticket.
“I think she is very relatable,” said Missy Edwards, a lobbyist in Washington who became friends with Ryan when they both worked on Capitol Hill together in the 1990s. “She’s from a small town, (with) three young kids, smart, and focused on her family, first.”
Additional reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Karey Wutkowski, Cynthia Osterman and Eric Beech