America’s Drunkest Mayor Promises Real Recovery
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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).
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"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.
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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.
Given how recently and publicly you've relapsed, do you think your reelection might somehow move the bar on what's considered electable behavior in the US?
I think so. The message I want to get across is there's no shame in it. I've had three major slips in the last three years and I've bounced back from every one and got back on track. Everybody has always said to me, "If you just go away for a couple months, everything will be better"—kinda like how they used to treat pregnant teenagers in the '50s: just go away and you can come back next year and we'll act like nothing happened. But my life has not afforded me the opportunity to go away, because I have a family and I have an important position here. However, I work on my sobriety every day. I get to regular meetings and I'm succeeding. And I'm doing it publicly and openly and without shame. You can admit your shortcomings, you can admit you're an alcoholic or an addict, and you can obtain sobriety while living your life.
If you're reelected, and you're suspected of relapse in the future, would you be willing to submit to a breathalyzer test to prove your sobriety?
Of course. Of course I would in that situation. But I'm a binge drinker. So I can guarantee you that I would never walk into a city function under the influence of alcohol. If I was, you wouldn't need a breathalyzer! But if I was to suffer another relapse, I would walk away from this position. I would need to.
"The whole fourth degree sexual assault thing is nothing but an opportunistic charge."
The way I'm looking at my recovery right now—politically and as far as my family goes, as far as my wife goes—it's my last recovery. This is my last recovery. This one lasts.
Addiction affects people in all professions. But in what ways is it different when you're a politician in public office?
For one thing it's the public aspect. Every time I go out to dinner with my wife, I know that I've got people at tables around me looking at what I drink. Even with friends, I purposely get something that is obviously not an alcoholic drink. I'll see their eyes go from my face down to the table. But it's not a bad thing. One thing that most people don't put up with is those people that will openly shout insults at you.
Do people really get in your face?
Some—political detractors who aren't afraid to throw around the word "drunk." I'm not afraid to use the word in a meeting with other drunks. However, I take offense when somebody who is probably under the influence of alcohol themselves is calling me a drunk. That is definitely not a pleasant part of it.
How important has it been for the voters to see that your wife still backs you?
Sometimes I think there's a lot more fight in her than there is in me: I can turn a blind eye when people shout insults at me—she doesn't! But she understands the disease. This week was our 17th anniversary. She’s seen me progress from when I was able to drink to when I was not able to drink. But occasionally something will come out of my mouth and she'll say, "I can't believe you just said that."
Current accusations against you include alleged tax improprieties and a possible sexual assault charge pending, relating to your Elkhart Lake relapse. You've denied these allegations. Why do you think they've been made?
The whole fourth degree sexual assault thing, if that ever does come out of the DA's office, is nothing but an opportunistic charge. It came out three months after I was out in Elkhart Lake. It was brought forward right in the middle of this recall effort. I have spoken to people I was with that evening. And luckily two of those people were relatively sober, because they had just gotten off of work at a restaurant out in Elkhart Lake. They have basically stated that the whole thing never happened. I remember where I was and when I was there. These are false allegations, and I have a funny feeling that if these charges come forward, whoever made them can be tied back to the recall effort, or to somebody with different political views.
Would you typically black out during your binges?
No. I mean, I've had some memory lapses. If you're an alcoholic and you don't have memory lapses, you should get better training! But I would generally know where I was and who I was generally with. On the Elkhart Lake incident, the sheriff's deputies mentioned the place and I said, "Yeah, I was there relatively early, I think it was nine or ten O'clock." And they told me it was midnight or one O'clock. Whatever. I mean, this is months after the fact. But I generally would never have total memory loss, where I'd wake up somewhere and wonder how the Hell I got there.
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.