Rybak made Minneapolis credible again

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 21, 2013 - 4:22 PM

As mayor, he put the city’s affairs in order and restored its status at the State Capitol.

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“This tough city was not going to be denied its rightful place as one of America’s greatest places,” outgoing Mayor R.T. Rybak says. “That is about Minneapolis — but it accrues to Minnesota.”

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R.T. Rybak must be counting the days now. His tenure as Minneapolis mayor has 10 more full days to run, plus a few hours on Jan. 2, when Betsy Hodges will be sworn in as his successor.

Pundits and historians who keep score of political performances must also be tallying Rybak’s wins and losses over a dozen years. Permit a suggestion for the “win” column from my vantage at the State Capitol: The Rybak years were when Minneapolis and Minnesota learned to appreciate each other.

I won’t call today’s city/state relationship a romance. Each entity remains wary of the other. That was evident last week, when the city’s police chief and the governor clashed over whether to employ the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to review police conduct when cops kill or injure citizens in the line of duty.

But like many a couple with a long, checkered history, Minneapolis and Minnesota are clear today that they need each other — clearer, I’ll claim, because of Rybak’s mayoral service.

It’s hard to conjure today the scorn with which Capitol power players viewed Minneapolis as Rybak began his first term. The state’s largest city was seen as an island of dysfunction in an otherwise smugly satisfactory state.

The city’s crime rate hit 2.5 times the national average in 1999, and was falling but still scary-high when Rybak took office in January 2002. Rybak’s predecessor had endured the embarrassment of Republican Gov. Arne Carlson sending state troopers to help combat violent crime in 1996.

City schools were deemed so weak that the NAACP won a lawsuit in 2000 to allow more students of color admission to better-performing suburban schools. The city’s financial house was a mess, with some key funds insolvent, pension costs mounting and the city’s bond rating falling.

The 2002 Legislature and Gov. Jesse Ventura were considering the first in what would be a series of cuts in local government aid (LGA) that would over the next 12 years deprive the city of more than $450 million. There was even talk that winter among Major League Baseball moguls about “contracting” the Minnesota Twins into oblivion. The team’s bid for a new home in Minneapolis had been spurned by the Legislature in 1997.

“It was really clear that we were an island,” Rybak reminisced recently. “We had to do something about it.”

The mayor got busy internally, paying down upwards of $350 million in debt, and externally, with stepped-up outreach to state officials and his counterparts around the state. Rybak squeezed spending and convinced city taxpayers to dig deeper than many politicians would have dared to ask, in order to put the city on respectable fiscal footing.

He also changed the city’s lobbying tactics. “We stopped playing defense, and just started using numbers. We demonstrated to people [at the Capitol] that the city of Minneapolis was a producer,” Rybak said.

The Twins finally got their stadium through the Legislature in 2006. Much credit goes to Hennepin County leaders for that coup. But the fact that the beautiful ballpark they secured would be tucked into the city’s reviving Warehouse District represented state and county acknowledgment that despite its failings, Minneapolis remains the region’s heart.

I mark the Target Field decision as the beginning of a change for the better in city/state relations. Tragedy — the 2007 Interstate 35W bridge collapse and a 2011 tornado — did more to bring the city and state together. The competence that Rybak exhibited on both occasions impressed Capitol skeptics.

“Minneapolis got to be like the unsinkable Molly Brown,” Rybak said. “This tough city was not going to be denied its rightful place as one of America’s greatest places. That is about Minneapolis — but it accrues to Minnesota.”

The thing the Capitol gang really noticed: For the first time in the postwar era, Minneapolis started to grow again. And thrive. In October, Minneapolis/St. Paul registered the lowest unemployment rate among large U.S. cities. Crime is way down. So is city spending, which dropped an inflation-adjusted 16 percent on Rybak’s watch. Next year, the city’s tax levy will decline for the first time in this century.

“Minneapolis helped lead the state out of the recession,” Rybak noted. The city’s image as a hip, diverse, culturally lively place made it a magnet for talent. State pols had to notice that the city was generating ever-larger state sales and business property tax receipts. This year, Minneapolis expects to send more than $525 million in receipts from those two taxes to state coffers.

Rybak’s emphasis on fiscal responsibility undoubtedly helped the city convince a Republican-controlled 2011 Legislature to merge two very costly closed city pension funds with the state’s Public Employees Retirement Association. The move saved city taxpayers millions of dollars annually.

That legislative lobbying success was followed by another — the 2012 deal authorizing construction of a new Vikings stadium while relieving city property taxpayers of debt service on Target Center. It tapped city-only sales and hospitality tax receipts to cover debt service on the city’s $150 million share of the project’s nearly $1 billion total construction tab.

It was the most controversial decision of Rybak’s career. Several City Council members who backed it paid a steep political price. But Rybak’s popularity didn’t take a perceptible hit. That, too, is the sort of thing state pols notice and respect.

Rybak is heading shortly to a new gig at Generation Next as an education reform advocate. He’ll still pop up at the Capitol, likely often enough to stay top of mind among DFLers wondering who might run for governor whenever DFLer Mark Dayton relinquishes the job. He’ll keep reinforcing the reality that as Minneapolis goes, so goes Minnesota.

That will undoubtedly be Mayor Betsy Hodges’ message, too. She’ll have an easier time selling it than Rybak had 12 years ago. For that, Hodges and every other Minnesotan can thank R.T.

 

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.

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