Betsy Hodges might well allow today as she is sworn in as Minneapolis mayor that she has a tough act to follow. In a political sense, that claim would be true. Few big-city mayors have built and sustained the popularity that R.T. Rybak enjoys as he leaves office after three terms.
But the task at hand for Hodges is governing, and that assignment looks less daunting today than it was the last time the mayor’s office changed hands. Rybak’s mayoral act is comparatively easy to follow. He leaves Minneapolis in stronger shape than he found it, fiscally, economically and socially. He also leaves an example of leadership that Hodges has often said she admires.
Hodges was elected in her own right and should chart her own leadership course. No one could sustain four years of mimicry, nor should anyone be asked to do so. But in these key respects, we hope the new mayor is a good deal like the old one:
• Regional leadership: Minneapolitans may comprise only 8 percent of the state’s population, but Minnesota’s largest city has disproportionate influence on the state and regional economy, reputation and quality of life. More than ever, the mayor of Minneapolis is expected to make regional needs a priority. As Rybak demonstrated, that person is well-positioned to coalesce other mayors into an effective lobbying force in state and regional government.
None of that is news to Hodges. As a past president of the League of Minnesota Cities, she arrives in the mayoral suite better connected to her Minnesota mayoral counterparts than were either of her two predecessors, Rybak or Sharon Sayles Belton, at the start of their tenures. On a crucial city issue at the Legislature, pension reform in 2011, she was Rybak’s lieutenant.
Yet Hodges faces a more difficult early test of her commitment to regionalism than her predecessors faced. The route and configuration of the proposed Southwest light-rail line through the city’s iconic lakes district is a matter of vexing dispute that needs resolution within a few months. It’s possible that the findings of three engineering and environmental studies now in progress will make the terms of a final decision obvious. But it’s more likely that a less-than-perfect bargain will need to be struck among competing public and private interests in Minneapolis, the southwestern suburbs the line would traverse, and the region as a whole.
Hodges will be obliged by the oath that she swears today to safeguard Minneapolis interests. But she ought not do so to the disadvantage of the region. Her goal should be a solution that allows a new rail link between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie to go forward. “No-go” may be a satisfactory outcome in some Minneapolis precincts, but would be to the region’s detriment and the new mayor’s discredit.
• Teamwork: Rybak shared a secret of his mayoral success with a Humphrey School audience a few days after Hodges was elected. He made a point to establish a personal alliance on at least one issue with every member of the 13-person City Council, he said. That way, no councilor was consigned to across-the-board status as the mayor’s opponent — and none was automatically beyond his reach when he needed help for his initiatives.
As a two-term member of the City Council, Hodges was on the receiving end of that treatment. She should initiate it now, to shore up relationships with her former peers and start on positive footing with the council’s seven new members. After a hard-fought election campaign, it requires considerable discipline to put rivalries aside. Mustering that discipline can be crucial to mayoral success. Hodges should reach out to supporters of her opponents — and particularly to her chief opponents, Mark Andrew and Don Samuels. Those former rivals are now able, public-spirited private citizens who could be enlisted as useful partners in achieving her goals.
Rybak’s teamwork record isn’t perfect. His relationship with the Hennepin County Board suffered after Commissioner Peter McLaughlin challenged him for a second term. Hodges has no such history and should pursue closer city-county ties.
But Rybak demonstrated the value of visible mayoral support for two important city public servants, schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson and Police Chief Janeé Harteau. Hodges got ahead of Harteau on the question of cops wearing video cameras during the heated final days of the campaign. That disconnect should not recur.
• Flexibility: To his credit, the mayor that leaves office today has a different set of priorities for the city than he had 12 years ago. Two recessions, a persistent educational achievement gap and the tragedies of a freeway bridge collapse and a tornado reshaped his thinking. In 2001, Rybak was a critic of taxpayer-subsidized downtown development. As he leaves, he’s proud of the impending redevelopment of Downtown East, anchored by a new taxpayer-subsidized professional football stadium. He campaigned in 2001 on affordable housing and barely mentioned education. He said Monday he considers the achievement gap his biggest piece of unfinished business, and noted that he’ll keep working to close it as he takes charge of Generation Next, a coordinating agency for education reform.
Hodges starts where Rybak left off on education. She made “cradle to K” early childhood health and education a leading campaign theme. We hope she stays on that promising course. But we also hope that she stays open to new emphases as unforeseen events unfold and opportunities arise.
One recurring issue deserves highlight. The horrific robbery and beating sustained Dec. 26 by Hodges’ mayoral rival Mark Andrew happened at the Mall of America in Bloomington — not in Minneapolis. But along with a rash of brazen armed robberies in the University of Minnesota vicinity, Andrew’s story serves as a chilling reminder that while violent crime in the region is down over historic highs, it is still too prevalent. No mayor can afford complacency about crime control.
To her credit, public safety is among the themes Hodges plans to highlight in an ambitious round of activities in coming days (see accompanying schedule) under the banner “One Minneapolis.” It’s a fitting theme for a new mayor who got her political start in one corner of the city and who is now the leader of the whole city and region. Today Minneapolis says goodbye and thanks to Mayor Rybak and welcome to Mayor Hodges, assured by her words and deeds that she can be a worthy successor to a good mayor.