On the GOP’s John Ryder, ‘a pretty big deal on the national scene’

The Commercial Appeal has a feature story on Memphis attorney John Ryder, focused on his role as general counsel for the Republican National Committee and involvement in the so-called McCutcheon case, wherein the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a law limiting the total money individuals can contribute to federal candidates for office. The story comes with the RNC scheduled to meet this week in Memphis.

“John is probably quietly, and unbeknownst to most people who deal with him around here, he’s a pretty big deal on the national scene,” said Lang Wiseman, the former chair of the county party.

The bespectacled and genial Ryder, a White Station High and Vanderbilt graduate, loves both baseball and opera. He is a trustee and former board chair of Opera Memphis. (To describe the GOP’s most recent primary debate cycle, he said “that’s enough debates to stage an entire Wagnerian opera.”) He explains his role in politics as a simple matter: “I volunteered at a young age and I kept doing stuff — literally, that’s what happened,” Ryder said, adding an endorsement for “how porous” the political system truly is.

The RNC has entrusted with him significant tasks, such as helming the RNC’s national effort on redistricting in connection with the 2010 Census. As general counsel, which is a volunteer role, Ryder supervises a full-time RNC legal staff in Washington. He’s in D.C. once or twice a month on party business, items such as rules, procedure, litigation, and even protecting the Republican trademark. “The kinds of things that a general counsel for any company would do,” he said, before mentioning the additional load of compliance with election laws.

Enter McCutcheon. Ryder did not argue the case before the Supreme Court last October; he supervised the team of attorneys who did. That involved four moot court sessions in Washington (he attended all but one) where attorneys would take the peppering of role-playing judges and the team would critique it all afterward. It also involved countless hours reading and crafting briefs, as well as coordinating briefs with other interested parties.

And, yes, McCutcheon has its detractors, most around one central theme: It, especially on the heels of the 2010 Citizens United decision, only increases the influence of money in politics.

Ryder argues that the old system was too onerous. He listed all of the Federal Election Commission’s previous contribution limits from memory one recent afternoon in a conference room near his 29th floor corner office at One Commerce Square, smiling by the time he reached the end. “And I think I’ve got all the numbers right,” he said. “If not, the Federal Election Commission has a chart that you can print off their website, and it shows you how much you can give in each category, and how much you can give combined.

“My position is, that it is totally absurd, that you have to have a chart to navigate what ought to be your First Amendment right to participate freely in the political process.”