JANESVILLE, Wis. — The Labor Day parade here in Paul Ryan's hometown started with a police siren. It moved slowly down Milwaukee Street, followed by clowns, a green-fatigued Vietnam vet with a rifle and a limp, a high school marching band's pimple-faced clarinetists, members of the United Auto Workers Local 95, and its many retirees.
Sitting in a lawn chair on the curb, Lisa Hansen watched the parade move past in the direction of her former workplace — the shuttered General Motors plant on the bank of the Rock River, more than 4 million empty square feet surrounded by chain-link fence and barbed wire.
The plight of the GM plant, forgotten almost everywhere outside of Janesville, burst into the news during the Republican National Convention when Paul Ryan mentioned it in his speech. Barack Obama, the vice presidential nominee said, had pledged to work to keep the plant open. That didn't happen.
The suggestion that Obama was at fault triggered a brief frenzy as fact-checkers and campaign officials parsed quotes for intent, dissected the time line and accused each other of distortion.
It was a debate that left Lisa Hansen largely unmoved.
"Politically, the Republicans were in office," she said, "but I don't know who's to blame. Just the economy."
Hansen, 52, used to work on the assembly line at the Janesville GM plant. She now works at a GM plant in Kansas, where she transferred after Janesville's closed. She commutes every week, driving eight hours each way, leaving three daughters behind with their father.
It's hard, she said, but added quickly, "I'm glad I still have a job."
Hansen's experience exposes a larger truth about this GM plant. More than a campaign debate point, it could be used as the beginning of a difficult conversation about the state of the middle class in America.
• • •
On Feb. 13, 2008, Obama was an ascendant candidate in the presidential primaries. He had won eight straight states when he came to the Janesville plant to talk about the economy. He wore a gray suit and a red tie and spoke to a crowd of about 600 people.
GM started building tractors here in 1919. It started building cars four years later. This was GM's oldest plant. Generations of Janesville's families worked here. Starting in 1991, the plant built SUVs, Suburbans and Tahoes and Yukons — which had been highly profitable.
At the time of Obama's visit, though, the news was of soaring gas prices and sinking sales. The people here wanted badly to hear something hopeful.
Obama talked for 40 minutes. It made the front page of the local newspaper.
This plant, he said, "didn't just create a product to sell or profits for General Motors. It led to a shared prosperity by all of Janesville."
He said: "I'll make sure that CEOs can't dump your pension with one hand while they collect a bonus with the other."
He said: "It's time to stop spending billions of dollars a week trying to put Iraq back together and start spending money on putting America back together instead."
He talked, too, about greener, cleaner energy, and this is the part of the speech that Ryan would reference in Tampa: "And I believe that if our government is there to support you, and give you the assistance you need to retool and make this transition, that this plant will be here another 100 years."
He got four standing ovations. That was one of them.
Ten months later, two days before Christmas, the last Tahoe, appropriately black, rolled off the assembly line.
This did not beget a great deal of national attention at the time. But when Mitt Romney tapped Ryan as his running mate, Ryan resurrected the issue at his campaign stops. He did it again from the stage of the Tampa Bay Times Forum on Aug. 29:
"My home state voted for President Obama," Ryan said. "When he talked about change, many people liked the sound of it, especially in Janesville, where we were about to lose a major factory. A lot of guys I went to high school with worked at that GM plant. Right there at that plant, candidate Obama said, 'I believe that if our government is there to support you . . . this plant will be here for another hundred years.' That's what he said in 2008. Well, as it turned out, that plant didn't last another year. It is locked up and empty to this day."
Fact-checkers, including PolitiFact.com, called Ryan's statement misleading. The plant, they pointed out, closed before Obama took office. Ryan's campaign fired back that the plant had indeed remained open, albeit with a far smaller workforce of 40, making Isuzus.
People argued here in Janesville, too.
City Council member Russ Steeber listened to Ryan's speech, "and I heard that, and I said, 'Whoa.' Obama wasn't even president. The plant closed even before he took office."
Joe Knilans of Janesville is a Republican state legislator now, but he worked 13 years for GM, and what Obama said that day "was the talk of the plant — that Obama was going to keep the plant open if he was elected.
"He made his promise," Knilans said, "that he would work to keep the plant open for another 100 years — his words, not mine."
No, said Al Fladhammer, eating breakfast the other day at the Eagle Inn, not far from the plant, where he hauled cars for 29 years. Those words didn't constitute a promise. "Paul Ryan lied."
All of this stopped short of two key questions.
Why did it close?
• • •
Why did it close?
Because the bad headlines didn't stop after Obama came and went. They got worse.
Because the economy didn't get better the rest of 2008. It got way worse.
Because in 1993 74 percent of the cars sold in America were made by GM, Ford and Chrysler, and now that percentage is 45.
Because in 1978 the plant had 7,100 employees who made 274,286 cars and 114,681 trucks, and because the benefit of hindsight shows that to have been the approximate apex of the American middle class' earning power.
Because in 1983 there were 6,500 workers, and in 1990 there were 5,500 and in 2006 there were 3,900 and by the end there were barely more than 1,000.
The plant went from two shifts to one — about 800 workers got laid off — in the summer of 2008. GM announced in June it would close the plant before the end of 2010. It announced that July it would be sooner than that. It announced in October the last day would be Dec. 23.
"That plant," Paul Ryan told Janesville's local paper the Gazette on Dec. 22, "was the nucleus of our economy. It provided a great standard of living that produced great families that have contributed to the community in so many ways."
"I don't think there's one thing you can point to or blame," said Christine Rebout, the director of the Janesville tourism board, last week.
"It was a variety of factors," City Manager Eric Levitt said.
Mostly, though, the math didn't work anymore, said Brad Dutcher of the local union. SUVs used too much gas. The gas cost too much.
The ripples were severe.
Many local businesses supported GM with parts and services. Countless others relied on people making the union wages of up to $30 an hour. The total number of jobs lost in the area, depending on the nature of the tally, according to John Beckord of the economic development group Forward Janesville, got as high as 11,000.
The City Council had a news conference when the closure was announced.
"I can remember sitting there with all the cameras," Steeber said, "thinking, 'What happens now?' "
That question was answered in thousands of individual ways by people like Lisa Hansen. To keep her salary and preserve her pension, Hansen figured it made economic sense to get an apartment in Fairfax, Kan., and make the weekly commute.
Four more years of this and she can retire. If she's quick after her swing shift ends on Friday, she can make it home for her youngest daughter's Saturday morning soccer game.
• • •
As Goes Janesville is a documentary scheduled to be shown next month on PBS. Filmmaker Brad Lichtenstein spent a couple of years in the city after the closure of the plant.
The end of the title As Goes Janesville is implied.
So goes America.
"The real sea change that I watched," Lichtenstein said, "was a shift from a traditional labor town, where most of the people worked for GM or other companies, to a town where everything is up for grabs.
"You see the plight of the middle class in Janesville," he said, "and I think it mirrors what is going on in America."
It's not all bad here. The GM logo is barely visible on the plant's smokestack, but downtown is not downtrodden. There are empty storefronts, but that was true before GM closed, mostly because of the mall that was built on the outskirts of town all the way back in 1973. Downtown now, there are bars and restaurants, a performing arts center, and a great public library.
"No tumbleweeds," Fladhammer said at the Eagle Inn.
Crime in the county is up a little. But crime in the city — where the population has remained steady at 64,000 — is down a little. Foreclosures went up from 2008 to 2009 and then again in 2010. But they went down last year.
There are still manufacturing businesses in post-GM Janesville — companies that make things like plastics, drill bits and diesel fuel tanks. There's trucking. There are distribution centers. The city and the county have prepermitted plots in an effort to attract new businesses. A new hospital was built here earlier this year. Another hospital expanded. Health care has become the county's biggest employer. Enrollment at nearby Blackhawk Technical College has spiked 53 percent since the plant closed, thanks to workers retraining for new careers. Many of them did that with assistance from federal funds.
"Janesville," said Mike DuPré, a former reporter for the Gazette and a local historian, "is a shadow looking for a body."
"I think, wisely, we're a little bit more diversified," said Rebout of the tourism board.
"It's turning around, but I think it will take a long time," Marquette economics professor Abdur Chowdhury said.
"We're incrementally recovering," Forward Janesville's Beckord said.
"A few friends of mine have gotten jobs," said Adrian Richter, 37, working at the Salvation Army thrift store across from the busy Rock County Jobs Center. "It seems like it's gotten a little better."
The unemployment rate here in August 2008 was 6.7 percent. The following April, in the aftermath of the plant shutdown, it had risen to 12. It's now back down to just under 9.
But that masks a more complicated, more disconcerting reality, according to Bob Borremans of the Southwest Wisconsin Workforce Development Board.
Many GM workers transferred to Fort Wayne, Ind., to Arlington, Texas, or to Kansas — like Lisa Hansen — and so aren't unemployed but are no longer employed here. Some just aren't looking anymore.
"There are still 8,000 fewer jobs in Rock County today than there were before GM closed," Borremans said.
Maybe the most important factor, though, is that almost none of those new jobs pay anything close to what GM paid. Good jobs in the area, he said, now pay $15 to $18 an hour — barely more than half what the more experienced GM employees were making.
"What's happening is that it's been a painful process," Rock County Sheriff Bob Spoden said, "but in a small way Janesville is indicative of the country as a whole. We hit bottom. Now we're crawling out of this downturn."
But back to what?
"I think that conversation is avoided," said Laura Dresser of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy in Madison, "because it's a long-term conversation about the rewriting of the American labor market."
• • •
The parade ended. Lisa Hansen lit a cigarette. She walked up Milwaukee Street to head home, not quite eight hours till she had to leave to drive to work, 500 miles to a living wage.
At 10 p.m., in the waning hours of Labor Day, she hugged and kissed her kids and steered her blue Suburban with 162,000 miles away from her house on the city's west side. She picked up four passengers who do the same thing. For the first hour or so, they talked about their weekends. After that, the cab got quiet.
News researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8751. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkruse.