The evolution of R.T. Rybak: From pajama-party protests to DFL gubernatorial contenderI first met the Mayor during the St Cloud special election in 2005. Governor Pawlenty called a special election for the seats vacated by Dave Kleis and Joe Opatz during the Christmas break at SCSU, in an attempt to stifle the college student vote.
By Britt Robson, Special to Capitol Report
November 16, 2009
When R.T. Rybak first ran for mayor of Minneapolis eight years ago, he was perhaps best known for a stunt of activism. Back then he organized a group “pajama party” at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport as a member of Residents Opposed to Airport Racket (ROAR).
Challenging an entrenched DFL incumbent, Sharon Sayles Belton, in a solidly Democratic city, the then-45-year-old Rybak campaigned with a quirky panache, announcing his candidacy on the Minneapolis Issues List server before holding a formal press conference, and using a giant air freshener as a prop in the summer parades as he weaved with manic energy from one side of the street to the other.
“I’m not a caretaker,” he said proudly at the time. “I’m the change guy.”
Last week, just two days after a mayoral campaign cakewalk that concluded with his being elected to a third term with 74 percent of the vote, Rybak filed the necessary papers and declared his intention to run for governor. This time, in his first statewide race, Rybak doesn’t need pajamas or aerosol cans.
And while “caretaker” is probably not the perfect word for his current persona, his best strategy would seem to be portraying himself as the sure and steady adult in the room — the chief executive who has structurally balanced his city’s budget and repaired a prior downgrade in its bond rating despite two huge subsequent cuts in state aid to local governments; who has bucked inner-city poverty enough that the unemployment rate is lower in Minneapolis than in the seven-county metro area or statewide; and who has received near-unanimous plaudits for his calm, competent management of the emergency and rescue efforts surrounding the I-35 bridge collapse two years ago.
Whether you agree or disagree with Rybak’s method of governance — among other things, he has locked in tax increases to achieve fiscal solvency — it is hard to deny that he has matured in grappling with the core pocketbook and safety issues so integral to voters in most any contest.
This maturation process was first catalyzed during the heat of Rybak’s first mayoral campaign, when Moody’s downgraded the city’s bond rating in large part because of a $70 million deficit in the internal service funds used to buy equipment such as police cars and fire trucks.
“I questioned the finances at City Hall during the campaign, but when I got into office, it was dramatically worse than I expected,” Rybak remembers. “For the first couple of weeks of financing briefings, I would go home at night slack-jawed at the seriousness of the situation.”
Minneapolis CFO Pat Born, who was appointed a year before Rybak took over, corroborates this view, noting that, along with the bond-rating reduction from the internal services deficit, the city’s pension funds were becoming shaky — and the previous City Council had left a roughly $5 million hole in that year’s budget.
“R.T. put himself through financial boot camp right after he got into office,” Born says. “He spent two or three days per week his first few months in office with the council leadership deciding how to do this $5 million cut.”
The immersion gave him enough knowledge and context to begin asking the right questions of Born and the city’s other money people about how to prevent future deficits — and to get a tangible feel for the power of the purse strings. As Born puts it, “He learned that these budget issues were important, and a way to exert his own influence on the way government did things. It led to some of the intensive reforms we did [with council approval] over the next 18 months.”
These included a locked-in 8 percent increase in property taxes, a 2 percent increase in public employee wages, and five-year financial plans for balanced budgets. But since the property tax increase alone wasn’t going to balance costs if the deficits were to be reduced, setting priorities became part of the process — which proved enormously helpful when Gov. Tim Pawlenty and state legislators began slashing local government aid payments in 2003.
“The parts of my character I most wanted to use were to be more of a city builder, utilizing my experience with architecture and things like that,” Rybak says. “Instead, I had to learn this whole new body of work, and now it is one of my favorite parts of the job. People laugh when I tell them I have spent the last eight summers in multi-hour budget meetings and I like it.”
But finance wasn’t the only area where Rybak, who had never run for office before his first successful bid for mayor, faced a steep learning curve. The consensus of many council members and others who work in City Hall is that many of Rybak’s first-term appointments were ill-suited for the duties of their position. These ranged from his first chief of staff, former affordable housing advocate David Fey, who lacked the acute political skills to thrive in City Hall, to his fire chief, Bonnie Bleskachek, who lasted little more than two years before being demoted by the council amid allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination.
“He’s matured so much,” says City Council President Barb Johnson. “From his first term to his second term, it was like night and day. I think it was conscious, that he was racked by the criticism he was getting, particularly with his appointments.”
“Those of us who work with him began to see a real professionalism in the second term, especially in his appointing quality people with the right experience,” echoes Council Member Gary Schiff. “We talk about the I-35 bridge collapse a lot, because if that had happened a year earlier, Minneapolis wouldn’t have been the city that worked. There would have been a different police chief, fire chief, public works chief and city coordinator. Those were the people who never slept. They were the best people for the job and [they were] there at the right time.”
The competence and efficiency of these high-level workers were deftly complemented by Rybak’s own calm, compassionate demeanor throughout the early stages of the ordeal. He credits at least part of this behavior to his experience in a federally sponsored disaster management training program instituted in response to the 9/11 attacks shortly after he was first elected.
“FEMA flew about 70 of us out to this place called Mount Weather, Virginia, near Dick Cheney’s cave, for disaster simulation exercises at this secluded encampment,” Rybak recalls. “And I had to play a role as a mayor in a disaster. I was a rookie who had never held public office and I remember calling my wife Megan and saying, ‘This is a whole new ballgame.’ But when the bridge collapsed, I knew exactly what to do and how to act because of that training. I had had no background, yet I was able to act and react appropriately.”
It was early in his second mayoral term that Rybak became energetically involved — perhaps sooner than any other publicly elected official outside of Illinois — in a movement to convince Barack Obama to run for president. This prescient move is likely to pay dividends throughout Rybak’s gubernatorial campaign, helping him to assemble the political machinery necessary to raise money and carry his message across the state.
“[Supporting Obama] certainly gave him exposure, because he traveled all over the state for him,” says Johnson. “That’s really important in a race for governor, because there is something going on in every corner of the state during a campaign and you’ve got to know people. In particular it was helpful because R.T. got to know some people in the [state DFL] party. Remember, he wasn’t a party guy. He wasn’t endorsed in his first two races. So that’s an important inside game that [his early Obama support] will help him play.”
It nonetheless remains a fact that no mayor of Minneapolis has ever been elected governor of Minnesota. But Rybak likes his chances against a Republican opponent. Reminded that his five-year plan of 8 percent annual property tax increases was bumped up to 11 percent this fiscal year, he was primed with a response.
“When we discovered we had a problem with the budget,” Rybak says, “I said I would cut spending and reform services but that I would also need more money to fix our long-term problems. Then we laid out a long-term plan that has paid down $116 million worth of our debt despite all the cuts the state has made to LGA [local government aid].
“By [increasing the tax hike] this year, we are making it so the burden is not as much on the taxpayers next year, because we have more tax capacity this year. But our [Minneapolis] budget has gone from $1.4 billion to $1.3 billion — we are doing this to fix our long-term problems. That isn’t happening at the state level. Tim Pawlenty and I both raised your taxes: I just told you the truth.”
But for now, Rybak’s opponents aren’t Republicans. Rybak has pledged to abide by the party’s endorsement at next April’s convention. His fiscal management and his signature programs, such as his recent initiatives to reduce juvenile crime, probably resonate better in a general election setting than in the delegate-wooing now taking place.
As another Democratic candidate for governor, State Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, says, “Right now it is a hunt for delegates, and with me and [Rep. Tom] Rukavina [DFL-Virginia] up here, I think the chances of [Rybak’s] getting many on the Range are difficult. Plus, Mark Dayton also does well in this part of the state.” As for Rybak’s home turf, no fewer than three DFL candidates — Rybak, House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Rep. Paul Thissen — hail from Minneapolis.
“The one thing I think may be a challenge for R.T. in this governor’s race is that he can be a little thin-skinned, and this will get harsher as it goes along,” notes Johnson. “The other thing is that there are two big fish who are going to a primary — [former Rep. Matt] Entenza and Dayton, and they have lots and lots of money.
“R.T. is very engaging. I’ve told him that the more people he meets, the more votes he’ll get — but I don’t think he understands the antipathy that people can have for big-city politicians. That’s where Margaret’s farm background really helps her.
“But now there is something the cities and the range really have in common — local government aid cuts. And I don’t think those in the Legislature have sung that song well enough. You read in these small-town papers, those layoffs really hurt. R.T. understands that and has done something about it here in Minneapolis.”
As the student body President, I worked with a group of students to do some GOTV work around the campus. That's where I was able to meet R.T. Rybak. He came up to St Cloud to do GOTV work for the special election and he made a lasting impression on me.
When I ran for the State Senate out here in 2006, I recall numerous attempts to get other campaigns and groups to work with our local campaigns. Most looked at our conservative area and either paid lip service to us or simply didn't have the courtesy to even return a phone call or email.
Much like my support of Tarryl Clark in the 6th...Tarryl has been there for us.
I can say the same for R.T. Rybak.
Seeing him speak again at the Meeker County Chili Championship brought back a lot of strong, positive memories.
I am proud to support R.T Rybak in his bid for Governor in 2010!