Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak announced Thursday that he'll walk away from his "dream job" after three terms over two decades, throwing open the door to what could be the most competitive mayoral race in 20 years.
Flanked by his extended family at the Midtown Global Market, one of his administration's key projects, Rybak cited the personal sacrifices he's imposed on his family as the reason he decided not to seek re-election next year. Aides said he's been leaning against running since Election Day but held off on a final decision until his grown children were home for the holidays.
"The greatest professional job I could have is to serve my hometown," Rybak said. "It's tough for me to walk away."
Rybak, 57, pledged a vigorous final year in office and said he isn't sure what his next job will be. He's repeatedly dismissed speculation that he's hankering for an Obama administration post, after his early and ardent support for the president. He's still interested in running for governor, after a failed run in 2009, but noted that the job is occupied by a DFLer.
The crowd-surfing mayor who sports mismatched socks emerged from the ranks of neighborhood activists in 2001 to oust predecessor Sharon Sayles Belton, riding a wave of public discontent with large city subsidies to development projects.
By this year, he was a full-throated supporter of spending hundreds of millions of city dollars on a new Vikings stadium and a renovated Target Center, and muscled the project through the City Council by a razor-thin 7-6 vote.
Despite the division created by the stadium deal, Rybak was still a formidable enough figure that several potential mayoral candidates said they would run only if he was off the ballot.
His most lasting contribution may well be returning City Hall to a firmer financial footing after those freer-spending days. Under Rybak, the city paid down enough debt to regain a top credit rating lost under Sayles Belton and put the city's pension funds on more stable footing. To do it, he used hefty property tax increases that more than doubled the city's levy until a tax revolt in 2010 forced him to dial back spending.
Rybak also scored a big victory as a one-time airport noise activist when he led the city into a lawsuit and settlement that forced the Metropolitan Airports Commission to pay for noise insulation packages for thousands more homes in the city and nearby suburbs.
An emphasis on jobs
Rybak strove to close the gap between the North Side and the rest of the city, but the twin devastation of a wave of foreclosures and the 2011 tornado undermined those efforts. Yet his strong emphasis on job training helped to close the city's job gap with the rest of the metro area, a rarity among U.S. cities.
"He fought for good neighborhoods and to bring down crime, for the best education and for housing for low-income families," said Clyde Turner, director of the Sabathani Community Center. "He was the kind of mayor to draw the community together, and he was comfortable in working with different ethnic groups."
In the past, Rybak put his reputation on the line to promote quality-of-life projects that sometimes became lightning rods for his critics, such as bike lanes and artist-designed water fountains. The city he inherited lacked the deep pockets of the past, so he has often played the role of enthusiastic idea man behind outside ventures: bike sharing, the City of Lakes Loppet, a cooperative workspace in an abandoned grain trading floor.
"R.T. has brought an infectious optimism and enthusiasm about Minneapolis to the mayor's office. ... With R.T. you always feel everything and anything is possible," U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar said in a statement.
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, with whom Rybak has cooperated on a number of economic initiatives, said his leadership improved the city, region and state.
Some residents had more personal recollections. Small-business owner Sarah Piepenburg, who lives in northeast Minneapolis and whose store Vinaigrette is in the city's southwest corner, remembered Rybak as a mayor who seemed to be everywhere at once.
Health, biking initiatives
Longtime supporter and Longfellow resident Diana McKeown recalls Rybak's health and biking initiatives getting her on a bike for 99 consecutive days. "He helped launch us into this healthy, fit city," she said.
Rybak's years included tragedy as well. He repeatedly showed up when youths were slain on the streets and paid respects at their funerals. He helped the city deal with the trauma caused by the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge and advocated for a replacement that has space to accommodate mass transit.
Rybak's neighborhood base crumbled somewhat in his most recent term, when his budgets left many activists dissatisfied by the reduced levels of funding for neighborhood programs. The stadium tax deal also cut into his popularity in some quarters.
A Minneapolis native, Rybak came into politics from a background in journalism and economic development. He scored an upset when he blocked party endorsement of Sayles Belton, then appealed to an electorate as a breath of fresh air coming into a stale City Hall. He won handily a hard-fought reelection bid in 2005 against Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin and coasted to an easy win against 10 lightly funded contenders in 2009. But his attempt to convert that popularity into a statewide run fell short in the DFL endorsing convention the following spring.
Had Rybak won another term, he would have eclipsed former Mayor Don Fraser's 14-year tenure in office, the longest in city history. Minneapolis has had only three mayors in the past 34 years, remarkable stability after the top job changed hands repeatedly in the 1970s.
Rybak gave little hint of what he expects to do after leaving office, other than seeking another stint as a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, a role that gave him prominence in the presidential election.
"I love where I live," he said, and although he professed to not know what he'll do next, "my strong preference is to do it in the city."