Paul Ryan’s College Sweetheart Speaks Out for the First Time About the Relationship That Opened His Eyes to Racism
Belinda Robinson et al., Daily Mail (London), August 31, 2012
The cheerleader who Paul Ryan dated in college and helped forge his uncompromising opposition to racism says that she may not be a Republican but still supports the ‘nice guy’.
Speaking exclusively to MailOnline, Deneeta Pope said she met the future vice presidential candidate through friends at Miami University some 20 years ago.
Pope, 40, said: ‘Paul is a very nice guy, a kind guy and a family guy. He’s very approachable and a very likeable person.’
The relationship and the negative reaction he said he suffered from his so-called friends were a formative experience in the political evolution of the VP pick who described himself as a ‘big, big fan’ of Martin Luther King and is a staunch advocate of civil rights.
But Pope, an I.T. specialist and realtor living in Chicago, denies that they experienced any racism as a couple.
Pope also said that while their relationship was not very serious, they have remained friends through the years.
‘It tells you the kind of guy Paul is when you learn that he has remained friends with all of his friends that he met in college.’
Michael Steel, campaign spokesman for Ryan, confirmed to MailOnline on Thursday that ‘Mr Ryan dated Ms Pope in college’ in the 1990s.
In a 2005 interview, Mitt Romney’s future running mate said that he had been confronted with racism personally, because he had dated an African-American and also had a brother with a black wife.
‘I have a sister-in-law who’s African American,’ he told Milwaukee Magazine.
‘My college sweetheart was black,’ he added.
‘I just experienced some ugly comments, some racist views from people who I thought were friends of mine.’
Pope, who married her second husband in May, said Ryan and his wife were present at the nuptials.
She said: ‘A week before his vice presidential nomination, Paul and Janna came to our wedding in Chicago to see Michael and I get married.’
A registered Democrat since at least 2008, in 2009 she made three donations of $324 each to President Barack Obama’s inaugural fund.
‘I am indeed a Democrat. That’s no secret. But although I have a different political association to Paul, I support him and wish him continued success.’
Father-of-three Ryan, who has been married for 12 years, took centre stage on Wednesday night at the RNC with a powerful speech attacking Obama, just weeks after he was thrust to the top of American politics weeks ago.
Pope said she wasn’t surprised by his electrifying remarks.
She said: ‘[Ryan] has always been a good speaker.’
He appeared on the stage with his wife and three young children. But more than 20 years ago, it could have all worked out so differently.
At the end of the long, hot Wisconsin summer in 1988, Ryan left his home town of Janesville for Miami University, described by the Pulitzer prize-winning poet Robert Frost as the ‘the most beautiful college there is’.
Greeted by the sight of the majestic red-brick Georgian Revival architecture of the historic university, founded in 1809 and one of only four schools to boast a U.S. President and Superbowl-winning quarterback among its alumni, the freshman must have felt he and the college were a perfect fit.
After all, the 6ft 2ins Catholic boy with blazing blue eyes now faced with impressive spectacle of quadrangles with perfectly manicured lawns, and cavernous halls that form the heart of the college, had been his high school’s prom king, star basketball player and class president.
But rising above everything that he did was a sense of duty that he should not waste this opportunity to succeed. He had been first to discover his father’s lifeless body in bed after a heart attack just two years earlier – an experience that affected him profoundly.
His father’s untimely death at just 55 not only cemented Ryan’s well-documented life-long obsession with exercise, but also meant his college education was being funded by survivor’s benefits paid to the teenager after the tragedy.
He knew that he could not squander his father’s legacy.
Perhaps that’s why he entered the Delta Tau Delta fraternity, its motto ‘committed to lives of excellence’. Founded in 1911, the fraternity had also built a reputation for the athleticism of its brothers.
Gatewood Arnold, lived with Ryan in the whitewashed frat house with 30 other young men 15 minutes walk from the campus.
He remembers Ryan as a ‘gifted, serious student who loved talking about economics and aced exams without much study’.
Mr Arnold, 42, from Kentucky, said he and Ryan, an avid reader of the Wall Street Journal and Economist, often found it difficult to study in the raucous atmosphere of the house.
But Ryan wasn’t unfriendly or aloof. He would watch football with his friends and kept them entertained by quoting lines from popular movies.
‘It makes me laugh remembering that, and he would always make you laugh. Not with jokes, just a comment or two, or a reference,’ said Mr Arnold.
‘He was very focused though. He was a double major in political science and economics. He was extremely bright, even back then.’
Mr Arnold said Ryan eschewed the team sports the young men often played outside on the lawn of the house or on the sprawling sports fields surrounding the campus.
He remembers how Ryan would work out on his own instead, in a small gym nearby.
Two years after Ryan’s freshman year, Pope arrived to the same prestigious surroundings from a modest home in semi-rural Westerville, Ohio.
Slim but muscular, the 5ft 6ins Pope had her sights set on the cheerleading team of the college’s Redhawks football team and was already equipped with the determination and discipline that making the cut required.
Pope was a fitness fanatic at 10, she has recounted. And she had come from a high school, St Francis Desales, in Columbus, Ohio, which boasts an alumni of Olympic medalists, NFL and NBA players.
She worked out twice a day, running, strength training, kickboxing and doing Pilates. In one grueling session each day, she’d do 60 push-ups in sets of 20, along with 200 sit-ups and squats, to keep in shape for the team, a fellow teammate said.
Pope became good at juggling her heavy sporting commitments with her Marketing & Management Information Systems degree.
Miami University’s current head cheerleading coach Cindi Byrge was an assistant coach at the time that Pope was pictured in the squad’s photo in 1992. She remembers her as a ‘lovely girl and excellent cheerleader’.
It is not known how the two met or at what point in their college education but it is clear that they both had much in common, not least their sporting prowess and steely will to succeed.
Ryan Donmoyer, a journalist who interviewed Ryan in 1999, wrote that then freshman congressman for Wisconsin’s first district had told him that he had dated a black former cheerleader for five years. Steel, Representative Ryan’s spokesman, said: ‘They dated in the mid-1990s, and broke up several years before Mr Ryan met Mrs Ryan [in 1999].’
Donmoyer wrote that after Ryan’s relationship with Pope, who graduated in 1994, two years after him eventually fizzled out when he went to Washington D.C. to pursue his political ambitions on Capitol Hill and she to Chicago when she left Ohio.
Records held by the Federal Election Commission show that Pope, then 28 and working for PricewaterhouseCoopers, gave $1,000 to his Republican primary campaign in 1998 and the same amount for his general election race. He won both elections, putting him on track for political stardom and perhaps one day the U.S. presidency.
After leaving PricewaterhouseCoopers, Pope became president and founder of Excel Solutions, a Chicago-based IT consultancy that specialized in software implementation.
Neither of them gave up their love of sports. Ryan has become synonymous with the oddly titled P90X workout programme, while Pope featured in an online video for The Wall Street Journal in 2010 promoting a full-body workout called the Bar Method.
She told the newspaper that she enjoyed working out or jogging to ‘anything by the Black Eyed Peas’ or ‘Rude Boy’ by Rihanna.
While Ryan went on to marry his Janna, Pope’s first marriage ended in divorce.
She married Mark Niedzielski in 2004 but the couple split after four years. Niedzielski, told MailOnline: ‘She’s a great person, really nice, our marriage broke up because we just grew apart.’
Pope married her second husband Michael Thompson, 43, three months ago. He is an IT specialist and is president of Thompson Court Reporters, a Chicago-based firm that supplies online legal information nationwide.
The newlyweds live in the Lincoln Park home that Pope bought and is situated on a leafy street in the affluent suburb.
A neighbour who asked not to be named, said, ‘They’re a pleasant couple and this is a great neighbourhood. Whenever I seen them, they look happy.’
Today, Pope is also a realtor for @Properties in Chicago and also has her own property portfolio. Two years ago, she bought a $1.05 million four-bedroom 4.5-bath condominium in the Lincoln Park area of the city.
Thompson declined to discuss his wife’s previous relationship with Ryan. ‘She really does not want to talk about any of this,’ Thompson told MailOnline.
After Ryan’s 2005 mention of a black ‘college sweetheart’ emerged last week in a tweet by CNN’s Peter Hamby, the relationship was immediately examined for its political significance in the light of the low support for Republicans from minorities.
Keli Goff, political correspondent for The Root, penned an article entitled ‘Does Paul Ryan’s ex-girlfriend matter?’
In it, she stated that ‘having a relationship with someone of a different race does not automatically make someone more racially sensitive and enlightened’ and Ryan’s policies did not help black people.
It was possible, she said, ‘to have a black friend, Asian friend, Hispanic friend or Muslim friend or wife and still exhibit prejudice toward that group’ because ‘the friend or wife is simply viewed as the exception who is not like the others.
Writing in the New York Daily News, columnist Derek Hunter responded that this was ‘race-baiting’ and the fact that Ryan had once had a black girlfriend only mattered to ‘race-obsessed liberals’. The ‘constant charge and implication of racism’, he added, ‘does nothing to help anyone of any colour’.
Ryan has not shied away from issues of race.
He told Milwaukee Magazine in 2005 that his political mentor the late Jack Kemp, who ran as the Republican vice-presidential candidate with Bob Dole against Bill Clinton and Al Gore in 1996 but was defeated, had ‘taught me a lot, too’ about broadening the Republican Party’s appeal to blacks.
Five years after being first elected to Congress, accompanied Representative John Lewis, a Democratic congressman and civil rights icon, on the Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage to Alabama.
In that 2005 interview, Ryan described Lewis, who still bears the scars form a beating by state troopers in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, as ‘a hero’ and said that while he had experienced racism he had little knowledge of what Lewis and other blacks of his generation had gone through.
‘I didn’t know anything about that. I just learned so much about the Civil Rights movement and the absolute bravery it took. And I’m a big, big fan of Martin Luther King.’
Although Ryan is determined to oust President Barack Obama from the White House, he has drawn attention to the historic significance of his being the first black U.S. president.
He has said: ‘I love the idea of Barack Obama. I love the fact that we elected an African-American man as our president. I think that is a really cool thing. I just don’t like the ideas coming from Barack Obama.’
A recent NBC News/Wall Street journal poll found that Romney had zero per cent support among black voters, though the poll had a margin of error of three per cent.
Black support for Obama reached a historic high for any Democrat in 2008 and although enthusiasm has tailed off to a degree, there are few signs of defections to Romney.
The Romney-Ryan campaign was outraged this month when Vice President Joe Biden told a crowd in Danville, Virginia in which a number of black supporters were present that Republicans wanted to ‘put y’all back in chains’ – an apparent reference to slavery.
Romney has spoken proudly of the support his father George, who was governor of Michigan, gave to the civil rights campaign at a time when relatively few Republican politicians did so.
When Martin Luther King visited Detroit in 1963 and led a rally of 125,000 people, George Romney issued a proclamation and sent personal representatives. After King was assassinated in 1968, George Romney attended his funeral.
But while the Republican ticket badly needs to attract more black voters, for Romney to cite the experiences of his father or Ryan to discuss a black former girlfriend could easily attract claims of pandering.