WASHINGTON – R.T. Rybak’s recent public criticism of the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee has thrust the former Minneapolis mayor into an unlikely role of national party agitator.
As vice chairman of the DNC, Rybak vented his displeasure in the New York Times, Bloomberg and on national airwaves, directly questioning the leadership of Chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and slamming the party for not hosting more presidential debates.
It was a surprising critique for party leaders desperately trying to convey unity as the battle for the White House intensifies among the two leading Democratic candidates and as Republicans are eager to exploit even the slightest hint of discord from the rival party.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been a conventional politician,” Rybak said in an interview. “I’ve never been someone who fits into an easy mold.”
Rybak’s fresh burst of national exposure is fueling speculation about his political ambitions, perhaps making a run to become DNC chairman or even another bid for governor. Since leaving the mayor’s office, he has filled much of his free time supporting Democratic causes and serving as a campaign surrogate for President Obama, garnering accolades and attention from the president’s closest advisers.
But Rybak’s sharp comments surprised and unnerved some prominent Democrats and supporters back home.
“The way he went about articulating his position is not only unfair to the chairwoman, but is also a distraction for the party,” Minnesota DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin said. “It takes away from the excitement of our candidates and focuses more on the internal party battle that frankly has no bearing on Americans’ lives.”
Rybak’s criticism of Wasserman Schultz sounded more like the kind of partisan sniping Democrats usually reserve for Republicans.
On MSNBC, with a Minneapolis skyline backdrop, Rybak called Wasserman Schultz a divisive figure in the party who has “recklessly ignored” others’ advice and “thrown a lot of gasoline on the fire.” In the New York Times, he questioned her truthfulness.
At issue is her role with the DNC, the organization that governs the Democratic Party and focuses on campaign and political activity to support Democratic candidates. For months, some party leaders, including Rybak, privately criticized Wasserman Schultz for insisting on six debates, about 25 percent of the number conducted before the 2008 election. The feud soon erupted in public.
“There are times to pick a fight and times to work quietly behind the scenes,” said Rybak, 59. “In this case, I felt that this issue and the leadership style needed to be brought out in public.”
Rybak’s work for the national party has mostly remained lower profile until now. Most of the time, he spends weekends traveling to places like Idaho and South Carolina training low-level House Democrats to engage voters.
A former reporter at the Minneapolis Tribune, Rybak emerged as a community organizer and airport noise critic who eventually defeated incumbent Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, the first black and first female mayor of the city.
Rybak served as mayor during a time of dramatic expansion and growth in Minneapolis, but decided against another re-election run in 2013, three years after losing the DFL nomination for governor.
He is known to be hard-charging, if sometimes quirky. He bodysurfed a crowd of 300 after delivering an acceptance speech for a second mayoral term. He is often outspoken, even biased, about the local beers he loves. He championed building artistic drinking fountains at $50,000 a pop to get people to drink more tap water, which still draws mocking criticism from Republicans.
People who know and have worked with Rybak say they are not entirely surprised by his latest rebellion. He initially threw his support behind Bill Bradley for president in 2000 over former Vice President Al Gore. Then when Bradley left the race, Rybak endorsed third-party candidate Ralph Nader, deeply irking the state’s DFL leadership and fundraisers. (Rybak points out now that he shifted his support to Gore once he saw the race was going to be close.)
Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, who was Rybak’s chief of staff when he was mayor, said he is someone who has proved willing to challenge conventional wisdom.
“I’ve always known him to be somebody who has a strong sense of fairness, and someone who is very comfortable challenging established power,” Smith said.
Still, some supporters are worried about this latest party disruption.
“I have no idea why he’s doing this,” said Sylvia Kaplan, a Democratic fundraiser in Minneapolis. Both Kaplan and her husband, Sam, have maxed out in primary contributions to Hillary Clinton. “We’re big supporters of R.T., but we haven’t talked to him.”
Dan Boivin, chairman of the Metropolitan Airports Commission, has been friends with Rybak for years. He says when Rybak feels chafed, everyone knows about it.
“I think he tries to be a consensus builder working through the organization and at some point, he feels like he’s beating his head against the wall,” Boivan said. “He would be the first one to say, ‘I’m sick of this’ … He wants to be true to himself and what he believes.”
When not campaigning on behalf of other Democrats, Rybak runs Generation Next, a Minneapolis nonprofit focused on improving student achievement.
“Honestly, this is most important work I’ve ever done,” he said, referring to Generation Next. “I just don’t want to get distracted by the political thing. I’ll raise my head later.”
No clue to future
Rybak is checking off a crucial item on many aspiring candidates’ to-do list: He just announced he is writing a book, chronicling his time as Minneapolis mayor.
The book deal and the latest national party drama is giving rise to speculation that Rybak is itching for another run for public office.
Asked whether he was running for governor, Rybak said, “I’ll deal with that later.”
He has remained close to the president and his top advisers. Rybak was the first big-city mayor to endorse Obama back in 2006, even traveling to Iowa at the time to give a speech on behalf of the then-U. S. senator from Illinois. Rybak has remained a faithful friend and invigorated cheerleader of the president ever since — a loyalty that brought him his current DNC job.
“I have always valued his input, effectiveness, and dedication in advancing the president’s priorities,” said Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to the president. “In particular, R.T. was a valuable early voice as my team got set up to work with the nation’s mayors and cities, a partnership that has yielded real results for the American people.”
Since the public skirmishes started, the DNC has added a forum for the Democratic candidates, which will be hosted by the grass roots movement MoveOn.org.