Paul Ryan's 'Millennial Town Hall' Talks Mass Incarceration, Poverty, and Whether People Should Support Republicans | Sojourners

Paul Ryan's 'Millennial Town Hall' Talks Mass Incarceration, Poverty, and Whether People Should Support Republicans

Screenshot via Speaker Paul Ryan /

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has said repeatedly that he isn’t running for president, but that hasn’t stopped him from making numerous public appearances to talk about his vision for the Republican Party and the United States, including on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert where Stephen Colbert asked Ryan more than a dozen times whether he'd accept the nomination.

He spoke April 27 at Georgetown University at a “millennial town hall,” where he told the crowd, “I want to make my case: 'Why support Republicans?'” The crowd laughed and applauded as Ryan smiled.

“That was politeness,” he said. “The thought has not been occurring to you recently.”

Ryan spoke from the podium, but sat down to take questions from students. One of the more interesting moments in his speech was when he turned to the U.S. prison population.

“There are over 2 million people in our prisons,” he said.

“Many of them are not hardened criminals. They’re not violent people. A lot of them are just people who just made a mistake. I think we need to let more people earn a second chance in life. Instead of locking people up, why don’t we unlock their potential?”

His call for second chances echoes his 2014 efforts to ease mandatory minimums and entrust judges with more flexibility in sentencing non-violent drug offenders, as well as offer federal money for prisoner re-entry programs.

The Sentencing Reform Act, H.R. 3713, which would help accomplish these goals, is currently under consideration in the House.

During the millennial town hall, Ryan addressed a wide variety of topics, including the Republican alternative to Obamacare, climate change, and out-of-control college costs.

One student, who said he was from Lake County, Fla., asked about what he called “renewed northern Republican reconstruction” and the “erasure of Southern symbols,” a reference to Rep. Candice Miller’s decision, as chairwoman of the House Administration Committee, to remove all state flags from the Capitol tunnel as some state flags have Confederate imagery.

“I’m from Wisconsin, so, guilty as a Northerner,” Ryan replied to laughter.

Turning to the issue of Confederate imagery, Ryan said he agreed with Miller’s decision, as well as Gov. Nikki Haley’s decision to remove the Confederate flag from statehouse grounds.

“This symbol does insult,” Ryan said. “This symbol I think does more to divide this country than to unify this country.”

One student asked about Ryan’s recent disavowal of his past comments on the poor as “takers.”

“I was just wrong,” Ryan said. “If you do something that is wrong — that mis-implies, that is hurtful — instead of just trying to spin yourself out of it, just own up to it and fess up and fix it. And that’s the way I saw it and that’s why I did it.”

He also cited his personal experience relying on government benefits.

“My dad died when I was 16 years old. So my family relied on those Social Security survivor benefits. I used them to help me go to college. My mom used them to help her start her new career. She had just turned 50, her husband died unexpectedly, and now she had to completely start over.”

So, he said, “There are people who get knocked down in life, and they need help, and that’s what communities are for — and government has a really important role to play in that.”

Ryan was also challenged on why he has promised not to move forward on immigration reform until President Obama is out of office.

“Because I think the president poisoned the well,” he said.

“I know that sounds like a finger-pointing exercise. This is a broken system that has to be fixed.”

Ryan complained that Obama’s executive action to extend DACA/DAPA benefits was unconstitutional, meaning a court battle was necessary. The discussion moderator, Mo Elleithee, challenged Ryan to speak directly to a millennial who might be worried about a family member being deported.

“The way to solve a problem is not to treat the symptoms. The way to solve a problem is to solve the root cause of the problem,” Ryan said. He cited the heroin influx and ISIS as threats to national security that have to be dealt with, but reiterated that deporting undocumented immigrants will not solve the problem.

“We have to come up with a solution that doesn’t involve mass deportation,” he said. But he appeared unwilling to budge on negotiating immigration reform until after November.

While the conversation at Georgetown covered a wide array of policy topics, there were no references to Catholicism, besides a passing reference to Thomas Aquinas. It was a surprise, given Ryan’s own outspokenness about his Catholic faith as well as the university’s status as one of the flagship Catholic universities in the country. Multiple media commentators noticed:

Watch the full town hall here.