What's next for R.T. Rybak?

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 22, 2008 - 6:08 PM

Minneapolis' mayor weighs a run for governor or reelection. City Hall insiders have given him high marks, but will voters?

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Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak listened as third-graders at Lake Nokomis Community School’s Wenonah campus told him what they want to be when they grow up. In his second term, Rybak has reached out more to the school district.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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This is a year of decision for Raymond Thomas Rybak. ¶ The 52-year-old Minneapolis mayor can choose the door of seeking reelection next year for a third term in what he's called his dream job. Nothing on the horizon now suggests that voters would deny him that. ¶ Or he can set his sights on a bigger target -- one he mentioned to supporters at his New Year's Eve fundraiser last year -- running for governor in 2010. ¶ Or Rybak could simply chuck public office for something new.

The physically fit, perennially glib mayor insists that he's focused on his current job, despite telling supporters that he'll be consulting with them this year about his political options.

Just past the midpoint of his second term, Rybak gets better marks from others in City Hall than he did during his first term. They say he showed leadership in the Interstate 35W bridge collapse, appointed more capable department heads, took some unpopular stands and kept the city solvent in difficult circumstances.

But there are potential pitfalls.

Voters could grow weary of Rybak if he seeks a third term, just as they did with Sharon Sayles Belton, who had 60 percent approval in a Star Tribune poll early in the year in which Rybak ousted her.

Rybak has never stuck with the same job longer than his eight years as a newspaper reporter.

There's a perception that retail is suffering in downtown during his watch, despite his onetime job as a downtown booster. Crime was a weak spot in Rybak's 2005 reelection bid, when the police union endorsed his opponent. Despite falling sharply last year, crime persisted at close to 2005 levels.

A bridge and a housing crisis

Rybak's tenure has been buffeted by a daunting series of external disruptions. He spent much of his first term righting the city's finances, a task forced on him and the new council by the profligacy of their predecessors and by a series of state fiscal actions that tightened the city's belt. This term, the I-35W bridge collapsed, and the national foreclosure crisis has threatened to undo much of the city's progress on the North Side.

Those events forced him to shift his focus. "He ran on a totally different platform than he's doing," said Council Member Lisa Goodman.

City Hall observers give Rybak better marks this term for his appointments. After some disastrous first-term appointments, they say, he has brought in crucial new players.

Tops on that list are Rybak's chief of staff, Tina Smith, and City Coordinator Steven Bosacker. Goodman credits Smith with creating an approachable climate in the mayor's office and reaching out to people who can help its initiatives succeed.

Bosacker brought extensive experience within large bureaucracies at the University of Minnesota and state government. Perhaps his best-known initiative is Results Minneapolis, which took the inchoate attempts of Rybak's first term to use data to improve performance and transformed it into regular statistical reviews with department heads of how their strategies are working.

City Hall insiders also credit Rybak with appointing better department heads this term. The now-departed James Clack settled down the Fire Department after the turmoil of Bonnie Bleskachek's tenure. Steve Kotke replaced Klara Fabry as head of public works. The appointments show more willingness to appoint insiders after a first term where there seemed to be a bias toward appointing outsiders, said Council Member Gary Schiff.

"His second term is so much stronger," said Council President Barbara Johnson. "The leadership in the bridge collapse really showed that. His appointments have been a lot more thoughtful. He's more confident."

Rybak focus moves north

But a mayor's electoral success comes not from what happens inside City Hall, but how voters perceive the city is doing.

Though Rybak handily drubbed his DFL rival, Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, during his reelection bid, he trailed McLaughlin in North Side precincts.

So it's not surprising that Rybak has put the North Side at the forefront of his second-term efforts. North Siders were hurt the worst by the city's crime surge. Rybak responded to public pressure to restore cops lost to budget cuts and has buttressed their effectiveness with shot-spotting and security camera technology. He's also spent considerable time helping to devise a city response to the causes of youth violence, has gotten the police juvenile unit restarted and promoted a early-intervention curfew-truancy center at City Hall.

Rybak's North Side efforts have gone beyond fighting crime into revitalizing Broadway and the uphill battle to rebuild its housing market in the midst of hundreds of foreclosed homes.

In a city where the Green Party elects candidates, Rybak can legitimately claim to have established his credentials as an environmentalist long before other politicians. He has been driving a hybrid car since he was sworn in. He took on the Metropolitan Airports Commission over jet noise and persuaded Xcel Energy to convert its Riverside coal plant to gas next year. He regards the 2007 airport noise settlement and Riverside as two examples of his long-term work paying off.

"Some of the things he has undertaken in his second term have indicated a clear understanding of the amount of time or the amount of work it takes for good ideas to come to fruition," said North Side neighborhood leader Roberta Englund.

Perhaps the most ambitious goal set for the city in Rybak's tenure is the adoption of a set of environmental indicators. Although they range from the miles of bike lanes to the number of asthma hospitalizations, the most ambitious goals are to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and use more renewable energy.

He has also reached out to the school district more in his second term, speaking to every ninth-grader about what he packages as the Minneapolis Promise -- the idea that every kid who studies hard and graduates will get the financial support to go to college.

Parting company with friends

Rybak said one area where he's grown in the job is his willingness to be unpopular, unlike the start of his mayoralty. "I wanted very much to please everyone. I recognized through some tough bumps that leadership often means standing firmly behind what you believe in," he said.

He cites two examples: his willingness to part company with some of the activists who helped get him elected on the city's funding of neighborhoods, and his willingness to take lumps in public meetings on where affordable housing goes. "That would have been tough for me six years ago," he said.

Rybak would be bucking history if he opts to run for governor. No Minneapolis politician has gone directly from local office to governor since Floyd B. Olson did so three generations ago. He said one big factor in deciding between the races is which post allows him to advance two issues he feels strongly about: transportation and youth.

Although Rybak himself put his political ambitions in play, he insists he's not tiring of City Hall: "This was never a typical job to me. This is what I wanted to do all my life. I love this job every minute."

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

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