A Test for Forgiveness
John Ryan's candidacy for a seat in the Legislature raises ghosts from the past, highlights divisions among state GOP leaders
By Tim McGivern
John Ryan, just like anybody else, has had his good days and bad days. Last inweek, though, the state Senate candidate had a particularly stressful day when a felony conviction from his past resurfaced after he sent a letter to prospective voters acknowledging his "participation in a burglary" more than 20 years ago.
Although the letter promises to be "very candid," it eschews going into much detail about the burglary. As a result, the state Democratic Party took to attacking Ryan, a Republican, immediately after the letter circulated in his North Valley district, calling him John "Sweep it Under the Rug" Ryan.
The prepared statement quotes state Democratic Party Chairman John Wertheim accusing Ryan of "a very deceptive approach to being forthright," and alludes to news reports from two decades ago, proclaiming he "broke into the home of an elderly woman, stole pictures of her deceased husband and son, and proceeded to ransom the photos for money."
Eyewitness News 4 then tracked the story, reporting last week that "Ryan initially refused to go into detail about the crimes he had been convicted of, but later confirmed that the charges detailed by the Democrats were correct."
In an interview with the Alibi last week, Ryan attributed the Democrats' criticism to a political strategy of personal destruction, instead of focusing on issues he supports, like lowering taxes to create jobs and making state government “more accountable.”
"I take umbrage with the fact that I didn't put in more detail," said Ryan. "I thought referencing it would be enough. Here I am exposing stuff in my background that isn't very good, and I get chastised for it. If I didn't say anything, they get you, and if you do say something, you didn't say enough."
Ryan added that he chose not to rehash the circumstances of the crime in large part because they can be found in the public record and have been reported in the press.
The crime in question occurred on May 21, 1980, when Ryan was 18 years old. He was later convicted with two other men of burglary, conspiracy and extortion for breaking into the North Valley home of Shirley Leslie and stealing family paintings, commissioned by artist Taylor Lewis (renowned for oil-paint renderings of Ronald Reagan) then holding them for ransom. At the time, Mrs. Leslie said she had been recently widowed, and one of the paintings was a rendering of her husband, another of her son who had been killed in a car accident, both given to her by family members at Christmas.
Mrs. Leslie, who served two terms as a Republican National Committeewoman and describes herself as a "still active, long-serving, well known Republican figure," told the Alibi last week she was "just stunned" to learn Ryan was seeking elected office.
"I think it would be a sorry thing to put him in there," said Mrs. Leslie. "It would certainly degrade the office."
Ryan, however, stated in his letter that he had learned from his "youthful mistakes," and in lieu of details of the crime, highlighted his work as a staffer for Republicans Sen. Pete Domenici and former Congressman Joe Skeen in the late '80s, before being pardoned for his crimes by Republican Gov. Gary Johnson in 1996. Ryan told the Alibi in an interview last week that Republican leaders had advised him not to approach Leslie about the incident back when he was seeking a pardon, although he had wanted to contact her.
"Pardoning, smardening—I don't care," said Mrs. Leslie, when asked if time had softened her anger. She said police had to live with her and her children for several months while she received numerous threatening phone calls from the men who stole her paintings. "It was not child's play; it was a dreadful time."
Poster Child for Party Infighting
Also missing from Ryan's letter was mention of his recent stint as the executive director of the state Republican Party. In that sense, Ryan might stand as the poster child for the divisiveness that exists today among the state GOP leadership ranks.
That is, Ryan served as executive director during the first few months of 2004, under former party chairman, John Dendahl. When Dendahl was defeated by North Valley state senator Ramsay Gorham in a bitter election battle, Ryan remained at the post for a short time and then resigned. Shortly thereafter, Gorham complained of mismanaged party funds during Dendahl's term. Gorham was then attacked by Dendahl supporters for holding a seat in the Legislature simultaneously with her chairmanship.
As Fate would have it, weeks after Ryan left his executive director post, he announced he would challenge Gorham in the May Republican primary. But Gorham resigned both her chairmanship and Senate seat in the days prior to the primary election and now Ryan is set to face Democrat John Hooker in the November general election.
"I think (Ryan) would be a superb representative of the district," said Dendahl. "He's a guy who has had a hard knock in his life and he's grown up to be a class act."
Mrs. Leslie, though, is not of the same forgiving mind. She acknowledged that Ryan had attempted to contact her over the years to discuss the incident.
"He came and rang my doorbell, but I had no interest whatsoever in talking to him," she said.
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