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When the U.S. Senate blocked an infrastructure bill backed by President Obama last week, an unlikely Midwestern Democrat appeared on Virginia television to speak up in its defense.
"The sad fact of the matter is there are bridges in terrible condition around the country," Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said in a feed from a Twin Cities studio. "The president had a pretty common-sense idea."
The TV appearance in a key state for Obama's re-election will be the first of many for Rybak, who is jumping into a new role as one of the Democratic National Committee's five vice chairs. Over the next year, Democrats in Washington plan to send Rybak to the front lines across the country as one of its chief message-carriers for Obama.
It begins this week. On Monday, Rybak will speak at the opening of the Obama campaign's first office in Minnesota. A day later, DNC chair and Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz will join the mayor to greet activists in Minneapolis and hold a press event. Rybak then hits the road, landing in Iowa later this month and points beyond as the campaign heats up.
His duties will include responding to Republican debates, making national media appearances, giving speeches to state party groups, mobilizing volunteers and fundraising.
"This basically means that instead of having a hobby, I'm going to be DNC vice chair," Rybak said. "Some people golf, I try to re-elect the president. And that sounds not only really important but incredibly fun to me."
Rybak is no stranger to the president's campaign. He spoke up for Obama before the Illinois senator officially declared his candidacy for president in 2007, eventually becoming the campaign's Minnesota co-chair.
That hasn't gone unnoticed in the West Wing. At a recent dinner with campaign donors at a restaurant in Virginia, Obama remarked to Minneapolis software developer Casey Helbling that Rybak was one of his earliest supporters.
"He knew that R.T. was part of the Draft Obama campaign to even get him in," Helbling said. "He was all about him. He said he was a great guy, and he's really glad to have his support."
The campaign ahead likely won't be an easy one for the president, who continues to be plagued by low approval ratings and the nation's persistent unemployment. Revving up the party base, including the younger voters who swept Obama into office, will be a critical challenge. "It's going to be a tough race, but I believe he will win," Rybak said.
To explain the state of the economy, likely the No. 1 issue of the race, Rybak harkens back to the policies of the Bush administration. "I use the whole line that Ronald Reagan used: 'Are you better off than you were four years ago?' " Rybak said before citing the Bush administration's entrance into the "deadly, incredibly expensive" Iraq war and removal of regulations that he argues contributed to the economic collapse.
Obama, Rybak says, delivered health care reform, implemented a "massive" recovery program, "saved" the auto industry, invested in small businesses and improved the prestige of the United States abroad.
"Part of the problem is that there's been so much done under such horrendous circumstances, that part of the job is to go back and help people clear through the rhetoric," Rybak said.
Party surrogates like Rybak may be more important for Obama this time around, since the president must attend to Washington while his opponents get attention in nationally televised debates.
Wasserman Schultz, chair of the DNC, said in an interview that the party will use Rybak "in any way that we can put him out there. He's a very effective speaker. He's someone who's persuasive and he's a hard worker."
He's also a mayor, which Rybak says makes him uniquely qualified to discuss the Obama administration's policies. He serves on the leadership of the National Conference of Democratic Mayors, which he hopes to fuse with his current role to give mayors a larger voice.
"In our city, the amount of money from the federal government going into our community has more than doubled under President Obama," Rybak said, citing investments in job training, foreclosure prevention, public housing and infrastructure. "Every mayor in America can tell that story, and we need to right now."
Business back home?
As for the business of City Hall, which will rev up at the end of the year as the City Council debates the mayor's budget, Rybak says he can handle the added duties because he has been in an "almost perpetual state of campaigning on the side." Elected as mayor in 2001, Rybak was active in Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign, ran for re-election in 2005, became deeply involved with Obama's campaign in 2007 and ran for governor in 2010.
His DNC role will mean more travel, he said, but otherwise "this isn't a dramatic new body of work. This is what I've been doing."
Eric Roper • 612-673-1732 Twitter: @StribRoper