John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Sheboygan's embattled mayor, who's Internet famous for epic displays of public drunkenness, survived the first stage of a recall effort on Tuesday
The citizens of Sheboygan, Wis., must not be very shy when it comes to frank discussions of the sexual prowess of their neighbors. How else to explain the amazing staying power of Bob Ryan, mayor of the city and fervent promoter of his sister-in-law’s oral skills?
Yesterday, Ryan temporarily frustrated a recall effort by gathering 3,225 votes in an eight-candidate primary while his closest opponent, former Wisconsin State Representative Terry Van Akkern, received only 2,567 votes. The two men will now butt heads in a run-off election in February, in which whoever gets more than 50 percent of the vote will earn the title of Mayor of Sheboygan.
Ryan was supposed to run Sheboygan, a town of about 48,000 located on the west side of Lake Michigan, until 2013. But late last year, thousands of angry Sheboyganites forced a recall. Why? Well, Ryan is a self-admitted alcoholic, and he’s done a poor job of concealing his struggles with the demon bottle. Like, really poor.
The mayor’s first P.R. burp came shortly after he was elected in 2009, when a stranger recorded him in a bar talking up his wife’s sister’s sexual prowess. Take a look:
In case you can't understand it, that's the mayor explaining that the belle is “a little meaty (?) around the edges, but I heard she gives a hell of a hummer.” When the video hit YouTube, Ryan became the butt of Jay Leno jokes and unintentionally drove home the Sheboygan motto, “So Much. So Close.”
Ryan later apologized for the comments, which he excused, perhaps rightly, as “conversation between men in an establishment.” He also promised to seek treatment for alcoholism.
Things were relatively copacetic in Sheboygan’s city hall until July 2011, when the mayor suffered what appeared to be the mother of all relapses while vacationing in Elkhart Lake, a popular Wisconsin leisure spot. Reported the Sheboygan Press:
[W]hile Ryan downplayed the relapse as one night out with friends, employees and customers at two Elkhart Lake nightspots said Ryan had been an obnoxious regular for at least several days, drinking from mid-afternoon until closing time while being rude and vulgar, especially toward women. They said he passed out at least once and was even seen getting into his car after drinking.
"He basically came to town on a rampage," said a bartender at the Barefoot Bay Tiki Bar in Victorian Village, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
On one evening, harsh words were spoken, things got out of hand and the police were eventually called for a fight involving the mayor. A subsequent leaked photo showed him passed out face-first on a table, a depressing image that has made its way into at least one Bob Ryan music-tribute video.
If that wasn’t enough fodder for a recall, there’s the $310,000 that Sheboygan doled out to settle a sexual-harassment claim from the city’s former human resources director. She claimed that while having a few drinks with the mayor in 2009, he had “tried to kiss her” and then once again brought up the subject of Sheboygan Sausage, telling her that “he had been getting more oral sex from ‘young girls’ since being elected mayor.”
Ryan’s opponents seem to have an endless quiver of arrows, or perhaps pile of broken beer bottles, with which to bash him into abdication. But has he really done that horrible a job as mayor?
Episodes of national humiliation aside, perhaps not. Under Ryan’s reign, Sheboygan’s unemployment went down 1.3 percent last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The city’s manufacturing, education and health-service sectors all improved, although the leisure-and-hospitality industries suffered a slight decline. (Ryan’s YouTube fame is perhaps working against Sheboygan here.)
And who doesn’t enjoy getting a little twisted after work? Persecuting the mayor for drinking on his own time could come back to haunt his accusers, argued Dwight Darrow, Ryan’s attorney, in a Sept. 2011 letter to the city council:
If it is the City’s position that the appropriate legal standard is that any misconduct, especially that conduct that is unrelated to the performance of his official duties, may qualify as ‘cause’ for removal, then we would ask for the following:
1. Interviews with each alderperson to discuss their use of alcohol, public consumption of alcohol, driving after consumption of alcohol.
2. Interviews with each alderperson to discuss their conduct with members of the opposite sex including relationships between alderpersons and between alderpersons and members of the public.