With connections that stretch from his hometown to the White House, the Minneapolis mayor has leveraged charisma and skills to become a formidable gubernatorial candidate.
R.T. Rybak stood in an elegant St. Paul house on a warm spring evening last week, regaling 40 wealthy and well-connected guests with a story about persuading his wife to move away from her beloved capital city, years ago.
"I've got a house for you on Summit Avenue, with a gate," said one of the guests, offering up the governor's mansion.
The fundraiser attendees cheered in delight.
As the DFL endorsing convention draws near, the Minneapolis mayor and onetime community organizer is emerging as a formidable gubernatorial candidate, with connections that stretch from his hometown to the White House.
Rybak has walked a fine line to get this far, holding his progressive base close while aggressively courting mainstream business leaders. A big-city liberal, he also has spent months trying to overcome rural skepticisms.
Now he's neck-and-neck with A-list rival Margaret Anderson Kelliher, the powerful speaker of the Minnesota House, and seemingly edging past a raft of other candidates in the race to replace departing two-term Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
If he wins the nod from his party on April 23, he'll immediately be thrust into a mettle-testing primary against one the best-known and monied names in Minnesota politics: former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton.
To that end, Rybak is logging hours on the phone daily and squeezing in three to four fundraisers a week to feed the $100,000-a-month campaign machine needed for a dauntingly expensive and early August primary.
His basic message? "I was born in a great state and I don't want to retire in a mediocre one." His approach: results-oriented, with a heavy emphasis on job creation and his executive credentials.
Rybak's path could be rocky. No Minneapolis mayor has ever gone on to win the state's highest office. And after eight years of leading the state's largest city -- one in perpetual need of money -- Rybak is hardly bulletproof from political fire.
Over the years he has raised property taxes and endured the wrath of the city's police union over cuts to law enforcement. While he styles himself as the city's top dog, Minneapolis' weak-mayor form of government has limited Rybak's power.
As Rybak stumps across the state, some have found him light on specifics. At the St. Paul fundraiser, former University of Minnesota psychology Prof. David Wark left dissatisfied with Rybak's response to a query on higher education. "He didn't answer the question," said Wark, a Rybak supporter. "I wasn't inspired by his intellectual focus."
Yet, Rybak is making important inroads. "There are very few leaders who have the charisma to inspire and the authentic empathy to understand the challenges people are facing," said Duluth Mayor Don Ness, who came to know Rybak during their work on Barack Obama's presidential campaign. Ness now supports him over local candidate state Rep. Tom Rukavina.
Rybak's early and dogged work leading Obama's successful Minnesota campaign has broadened his appeal around the state and put him in touch with his party's elite, including the president.
Former national Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean has pledged enthusiastic support. And last week, Lou Frillman, a chief Obama donor and fundraiser in Minnesota, informed supporters in an e-mail that he is backing Rybak.
The e-mail noted that "while the Democratic field is filled with candidates, patriots all ... we support R.T. because ... we believe he can win." Democrats last held the governor's seat in 1989.
Building a coalition
Rybak has a politician's knack for parlaying heartfelt conversations over coffee, lunch or the phone into delegate support and campaign cash. He has raised $500,000 so far, logging 56 hours on his campaign cell phone last month.
Among his converts is Stuart Appelbaum, the former vice president of the Minneapolis Foundation, who opened his home for the first time ever to a campaign fundraiser.
The evening of the event, Appelbaum told the crowd, "This man is a mensch," referring to the Yiddish word for an authentic human being, one of high integrity.
Nancy Larson, a DFL activist and former DFL running mate of Sen. John Marty, who is now a rival of Rybak, said that Rybak "connects well with people."
Larson won't name a favorite until the convention, but said that after hearing him on a conservative radio show, her husband said of Rybak, "That's my candidate.'"
Despite a past that includes a "pajama protest" against airport noise and some quirks (he sometimes deliberately mismatches his socks), Rybak also has built solid relationships over the years with major business leaders.
As head of the McKnight Foundation in the early 2000s, Rip Rapson watched those ties grow. When McKnight helped launch the Itasca Project as a way to bring business and political leaders together, Rapson said business leaders were hesitant about the fledgling mayor -- unsure of his agenda and concerned that he tilted too far left.
Rapson, a Rybak supporter who now heads the Kresge Foundation in Detroit, said those same leaders see Rybak as careful, analytical and engaged.
"Every day R.T. has to make the same kind of decisions CEOs have to make," said Rapson, a former Minneapolis deputy mayor. "Executives understand how difficult those decisions are, and how carefully they must be considered."
Charlie Zelle, president and CEO of Jefferson Lines bus company and an Itasca member, said that Rybak offers a combination of "diplomatic, charismatic, populist, cheerleading kind of qualities" he rarely sees in elected officials.
Dayton brings to the governor's race a long résumé of public service, his own funding, and sterling statewide name recognition. But that's tempered by a "tax the rich" approach to economic recovery that has many business leaders nervous.
One of Rybak's tougher tasks may be overcoming outstate resistance to an urban candidate. Rybak carries two big strikes for a statewide candidate: He's a firm supporter of abortion rights and as a city mayor, has called for crackdowns on illegal guns that could be taken by some as opposition to gun rights.
In short, Rybak will need a lot more people like Granite Falls Mayor Dave Smiglewski, with the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.
Smiglewski said he had favored Kelliher and Rukavina until he heard Rybak at a screening in Alexandria.
"He was very engaging, and it kind of surprised most of the folks at that meeting," said Smiglewski. "For me, it was definitely a connection."
When he's in Duluth for the convention, Smiglewski said, "I'll be backing Rybak."
Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288