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R.T. Rybak

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

What a big difference years make for Rybak

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT
  • Star Tribune
  • October 20, 2009 - 12:03 AM

In his rookie run for mayor, R.T. Rybak promoted a four-point agenda for campaign finance reform, saying he wanted to restore trust in Minneapolis city government.

He said he would ban all contributions outside election years, impose a $100 election-year limit, mandate disclosure of all contributors and require real-time Internet disclosure of contributions.

Not only did Rybak not get his reforms -- he blames state law and the Legislature -- but he has even broken self-imposed rules on political money that were a centerpiece of his maiden 2001 campaign.

Rybak version 2001 scorned contributions by political action committees. His 2009 campaign committee reported $9,000 in PAC contributions by Sept. 1, all but five at the maximum election-year level of $500.

In 2001 he declined contributions from those who did business with the city and derided incumbent Sharon Sayles Belton for taking them. Now Rybak's campaign has taken money from developers and their lobbyists, plus members of a law firm that represents the city.

To be sure, Rybak, in his first term, pushed through tighter ethics rules for City Hall, fulfilling another campaign pledge. The package requires disclosure of conflicts of interest and bars city employees from participating in decisions from which they stand to gain financially. It also tightened restrictions on nepotism and established an ethics board.

"It's the most sweeping ethics ordinance we've ever passed," Rybak said in a recent interview. He said he remains dissatisfied with how campaigns are financed. But Rybak and aide Peter Wagenius said they concluded early on that state law preempts local efforts to tighten campaign laws, and they said they found little enthusiasm among legislators for allowing the city to enact tighter limits. "There wasn't a lot of appetite for it," Rybak said.

Campaign reform faltered

There's disagreement on what the state already allows. Minnesota Senate Counsel Peter Watson said that the city can't tighten disclosure requirements but may impose tighter contribution limits. The state law governing elections in Hennepin County and its larger cities allows them to adopt their own contribution limits. Hamline University election law Prof. David Schultz said he thinks the city can go further in both areas.

Rybak's 2001 idea to bar off-year fundraising represents another reform that didn't happen. He hosted just such an event at the end of his second year in office and never looked back, raising a total of $135,434 in his non-election years; last year he pulled in the most yet: $40,555.

In any event, some attorneys say that Rybak's original proposal to bar such fundraising wouldn't have been constitutional.

The mayor said he has discovered since taking office that he needs a modest sum annually for campaign-related expenses, such as communicating with voters, and traveling to political conventions or supporting candidates such as Howard Dean or Barack Obama. "You need a lot of resources that shouldn't come out of public resources," he said.

Rybak in 2001 wanted candidates to disclose all contributions, but he hasn't done so in the campaign reports he's filed with Hennepin County. The law doesn't require disclosure of contributions of $100 or less, but 2001 candidate Rybak declared: "I'm ready to do so." He said recently that he'll start doing so by the end of this campaign.

Running with the PAC

The 2001 Rybak said that turning down contributions from political action committees and from "special interests seeking big city subsidies" meant that "I'll be able to walk into City Hall with no strings attached."

He has taken contributions this year from PACS affiliated with law firms, labor unions and tribal groups. He has also accepted them from developers who have proposed city-assisted projects. He has taken contributions from several lawyers at the Lockridge Grindal Nauen firm, which has city contracts for outside legal work and Washington lobbying.

Rybak said he has changed his position from rejecting contributions from certain groups -- a 2001 spokeswoman said he'd turned back more than $10,000 -- to disclosing them so that people can make up their own minds.

He said he focuses on policy issues and is not involved with the city's purchases of goods and services. He said he does little development dealmaking, despite claiming in 2001 that he could negotiate tougher with developers than Sayles Belton. However, he does have the power to sign or veto council actions on purchasing or development deals.

Rybak isn't the first office seeker to change his standards once elected. Hennepin County Board Chairman Mike Opat ousted an incumbent in 1992 after saying he'd stay no more than 10 years, not take PAC money and not raise money except in election years. Opat also sought a ban on contributions from people doing business with the county.

Since then he has taken PAC money, raised almost $8,000 in his most recent off-year, and is in his 17th year in office.

Rybak's fundraising has intensified. He raised almost $260,000 through Sept. 1, despite facing only lightly financed challengers. That's over $14,000 more than he'd raised at the same point in 2005 when he faced a much better-known and better-financed opponent -- Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin. And state law prohibits Rybak from shifting cash to a potential gubernatorial bid.

Still, Rybak said he's dissatisfied with the fundraising system. "I'm very frustrated by how we continue to finance campaigns," he said. "I don't think it's healthy to have campaigns financed the way we do."

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

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