America’s Drunkest Mayor Promises Real Recovery - Page 3

By Will Godfrey 02/21/12

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.

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The infamous shot of Bob Ryan during his Elkhart Lake relapse Photo via

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When did your alcohol problems begin? And when did you first acknowledge that you had a problem?

When I look back, my problem with alcohol began when I was a teenager. Because I have never been able to have just a drink or two and be satisfied. It's funny; my brother sent me a letter that I wrote to him back in 1980—when I was a high school exchange student over in Germany—about going out the night before and drinking six and a half liters of beer, as a 16-year-old kid, and how great it was! It's actually funny to read now. I think that my admission to myself that I had problems with alcohol—and I couldn't use the word “alcoholic” at the time—was about ten years ago. My wife and I were having issues when we would go out in the evening and I just wouldn't want to go home, because I couldn't get enough to drink. It was about five years ago that I actually said, yes, I'm an alcoholic.

To put your alcoholism in the context of the region you live in and represent, we've seen the headlines about the Midwest being America's "Binge Belt," and about Wisconsin in particular having some of the worst alcohol problems in the US. How big a factor is geography?

Well, number one we have very long winters here in Wisconsin. We also have availability: there's a tavern and a pub on every corner and every restaurant serves alcohol, every grocery store sells alcohol. Wisconsin was the last state to change the drinking age from 18 to 21; the only reason we did that is they were going to pull our federal highway funding if we didn't! And alcoholism in Wisconsin is generally derived of hard-drinking European ancestry, a lot of Germans.


"I believe that being a public figure helps me in my sobriety. I've got 50,000 people watching out for me, good or bad."

Myself, I mean, we're Irish Catholics, so we're pretty much genetically screwed from the start. It's accepted in Wisconsin. It's not rare to walk into a restaurant at ten or 11 in the morning and see people at the bar having Bloody Marys before lunch. It still happens and nobody frowns upon people doing it, or having a beer at luncheon, which I don't think you find much anywhere else in the country.

Your binges have generated huge media attention and made the name of Sheboygan familiar to many people, like me, who'd never heard of it before. Is there a good side to that? Can something positive come from the sheer publicity you've garnered?

I believe it can. One thing it does is put the word "Sheboygan" out there. There is no other city with a name similar to Sheboygan. It is our greatest asset and our greatest detriment, because it's a name that everybody remembers and a name everybody loves to make fun of. If we were named Pleasantville, I don't know if I would get near the media coverage that I did. Is [the story of my relapses] a detriment to the city overall? No, I don't believe it is. It’s not a good thing—don't get me wrong. But if we look at the number of hits we've received, nationally and internationally, on our city websites, on our tourism websites, on our economic development websites—in the last year they've gone through the roof. Our tourism numbers in the third quarter of last year were up 22% over the year before.

Sheboygan’s hotel and restaurant owners must thank you for that.

Yes. [laughs] Is it something I want my name out there about again, being in the headlines for something negative? Absolutely not. What I'm looking for is getting the name Sheboygan out there with a mayor that is a success story. I'm going to be successful in my recovery, whether I'm the mayor or not. I'm just hoping that the citizens want to keep me around so the city can be a success story along with me.

How has your reelection campaign gone?

I think it's gone very well. I'm sending out a positive message: progress in my city and personal progress. I've been totally positive in my campaign. My competitor has chosen to just try to beat me up personally and it seems to be backfiring on him.

How big an issue is your alcoholism for people on the streets of Sheboygan that you’ve spoken to?

It's not nearly as important to them as it is to the media. I'm not a big fan of the media. I've got a local newspaper that I have zero respect for that has done everything in their power to try to kick me out of office. But I think we've got very gracious people in the city of Sheboygan. I believe they can look beyond the shortcomings and look at the job I've done as mayor. A lot of prominent people that I've known for years that I never knew were alcoholics came out the woodwork saying, "Hey, we're in the same boat"—all the way from that to the guy who walks up and says, "Hey bud, you can come drink at my house anytime!" Overall, I think this recall effort has more to do with political agendas than it has to do with my personal issues.

Did the public exposure of your relapses do you a favor, in that it compelled you to be transparent about your problems?

I do believe that being a public figure actually helps me in my sobriety. Let's face it, I've got 50,000 people watching out for me, good or bad. I'm not the first public figure to admit to substance abuse problems. However, I am one of the first that has admitted to substance abuse problems while in office, that hasn't walked away from the job. Most people’s answer is, "Ok, I'm an alcoholic or an addict and I'm out of here." I've chosen to publicly admit to my shortcomings rather than run. I still have a lot to offer the residents of my city, and I've decided I'm not going anywhere.

You seem very confident.

I'm looking forward to this election. I have to keep my ego in check, but I'm looking forward to winning and to proving them wrong, to tell you the truth. I've got the support. Even my detractors haven't said I've done a poor job as mayor. I came in with a plan for the city of economic development, neighborhood revitalization, increasing tourism and building government efficiencies, and we've done all that in three short years. We're on our way. Of cities our size in the state of Wisconsin, we're probably in better financial shape than any. Our debt is down 20%, even in this recession. Our cash reserves are up. And I've done that in spite of myself. Which tells you that you can deal with your personal issues, and still hold your head high and not be ashamed.

Will Godfrey is Managing Editor of The Fix. He once stayed sober for nearly 86 days, and previously interviewed TV chef Andrew Zimmern about his junkie past.

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Will Godfrey is the former editor-in-chief of TheFix. He was also the founding editor-in-chief of Substance.com, and previously co-founded a magazine for prisoners in London. His work has appeared in Salon, Pacific Standard, AlterNet and The Nation among others. He is currently the Executive Director at FILTER. You can find Will on Linkedin and Twitter.