America’s Drunkest Mayor Promises Real Recovery
Bob Ryan's run as the publicly-relapsing alcoholic mayor of Sheboygan, Wisconsin has ended with defeat in a recall election. Just over 200 days sober, he tells us why his recovery is different this time.
The little city of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, found unprecedented fame through the notorious drinking binges of its brazenly alcoholic mayor. Bob Ryan, 48, was first elected in April 2009. Since then he's accrued enough public misadventures to sink many a career. Victory in his February 21 recall election might well have redefined the level of scandal needed to topple an American politician, but he was defeated by opponent Terry Van Akkeren.
Ryan's media circus began with a fired city employee's allegations that he made unwelcome sexual advances in a tavern (she received a payout to settle her harassment suit last year, without the mayor or the city admitting any wrongdoing). Then in September 2009, a video posted on YouTube showed a slurring Ryan making crude remarks about his sister-in-law's sexual abilities. It made the mayor a national laughing stock (and fodder for Jay Leno).
"When I've publicly humiliated myself, I put employees at ease by talking about it."
An apologetic press conference followed, in which his wife, Mary, gamely participated. Ryan initially denied a drinking problem, but soon came clean (he says now he “most definitely” identifies as a recovering alcoholic and has done “for several years.") Another public relapse followed in 2010. Then came “The Incident at Elkhart Lake”: Ryan and some friends embarked on a three-day drinking binge in July 2011 that led to cops being called to a bar to deal with a "scuffle." A photo emerged of the mayor passed out on a table, and sexual assault allegations stemming from the episode are still under investigation.
But Ryan boldly refused to resign. “I asked my attorneys, ‘What has happened before in these cases?’” he tells me. “And they said, ‘You idiot, everybody else has quit!’” Opponents gathered 4,500 signatures in November to force a recall election. One candidate in last month’s first round was a 17-year-old high schooler named Asher Heimermann, who said he was running to “restore integrity” to the mayor’s office (he finished last). Ryan came first, with 33% of the vote—below the 50% needed for outright victory. He speaks with me shortly before his run-off against Terry Van Akkeren. Facing down so many humiliations and allegations requires a rhino-thick hide, and Ryan is bullish about his prospects. His problems were never likely to end with his reelection. But his evident willingness to laugh at himself may prove almost as valuable to him as his avowed dedication to recovery.
So when did you last have a drink?
Two hundred and... [calls to his wife] Mary, how long have I been sober now? 206 days. We have a perpetual calendar that will never run out.
Doesn’t your well-documented risk of relapse mean you’re asking the citizens of Sheboygan to take a huge gamble on you?
They are taking a gamble. On the other hand, this isn't my first attempt at sobriety. If this was my first attempt, it would be more of a gamble. Now I know the pitfalls of giving up or not running a proper program. I have run a program of sorts—on and off—for five years. However, this is the first time I've run a true program where I meet with people several times a week. I have a sponsor. Actually I have two sponsors: I had one and he said, "I don't know what the Hell I'm going to do with you," so he got another one on board. I'm on the line to them regularly. I can never get complacent. But meetings work and sponsors work, as long as you're addressing it on a daily basis and you never forget who you are. My chances of relapse will always be there, but they are much less now than they ever have been.
You’ve said your alcoholism and relapses have never affected your duties as mayor. Really?
Yes, that is true. I had the good fortune of being a binge drinker, rather than a maintenance drinker. Did the alcoholism affect my job as mayor? Yes, somewhat, because any time someone is drinking, you're not going to be a hundred percent the next day. But I didn't miss work due to drinking. Very rarely would I come in with a hangover. I was a binge drinker, but normally that would be when I had a day or two that I wasn't scheduled to work, which would give me the green light. One thing it did affect was the time that I spent thinking about alcohol. There were times when I was not as productive as I should be, not when I was drinking but... You know, seven, eight months ago I'd be sitting here going, "Wow, it's three o'clock! That means I can go out and have a drink soon." But the thought doesn't cross my mind any longer.
But when your relapses hit the internet, it must have at least been a distraction to your colleagues.
Yes and no. One thing is, when I've publicly humiliated myself, with employees and all I put them at ease by talking about it, by saying that I'm addressing this issue. Number two, I'm big on self-deprecation, you know? I can sit in a meeting and make fun of myself. I can say to people, "You can use the word 'alcoholic,' it doesn't matter!" I screwed up. That's the way it is. I'm not afraid to talk about it. And I have a lot of people, close associates, that have seriously cut back on their consumption since I've quit. A few have quit outright. I think it has a positive effect.