Most people have hobbies, former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak often notes. Some golf. Some paint. He tries to elect Democratic presidents.
It’s got to be tough for a fellow with that favorite pastime to stay neutral in the run-up to Tuesday’s precinct caucuses, the neighborhood DFL and GOP meetings at which Minnesotans get their chance to help nominate this year’s presidential candidates. But Rybak vowed not to take sides in this year’s Democratic internecine fight when he became vice chair of the Democratic National Committee in September 2011, and he was sticking to his word last week when I asked whether he is allied with Hillary or “feeling the Bern.”
I didn’t press him too hard. Rybak had already supplied a useful frame for thinking about the contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders — and maybe shed some light on the Donald Trump-dominated circus in the GOP, too. I found it in his about-to-be-launched memoir, “Pothole Confidential: My Life as Mayor of Minneapolis,” in the chapter describing a pivotal point in his 12-year mayoral tenure. The chapter is titled “The Thin Line Between Love and Respect.”
Rybak wrote that it took his full first term and a difficult, knee-wrenching re-election campaign in 2005 for him to acquire “a fundamentally different view of my job” than he had when first elected. Like many newbie politicians, he worked hard after his 2001 election to please his supporters. It pained him to disappoint them with the service cuts and property tax increases that were epidemic throughout Minnesota after state aid to cities shrank significantly in 2002-04.
He hated backing away from campaign promises, such as his promise to plow both sides of all streets within 24 hours of a snowstorm’s end. To his credit, he did back away. He studied the matter and came around to realizing that his plowing plan would have packed the city’s impound lot with the towed vehicles of low-income, non-English-speaking residents. But he worried that changing his mind would cost him his job.
To his surprise, some voters whom he had angered put his signs in their lawns anyway in 2005. They may not have loved him as they once did. But they had come to respect him, Rybak learned. “My mandate was not to do everything everyone wanted but instead to do what I thought was right,” he realized.
He decided that from that point forward, his aim would be earning voters’ respect. The successes of his next two terms proved the value of that intention. Through an interstate bridge collapse, a tornado that ripped up the city’s poorest neighborhoods, a return to fiscal health and the rebuilding of nearly a third of downtown, Rybak offered praiseworthy leadership — sometimes reversing previous positions to do so.
The lesson in governing he learned — make respect the goal — doesn’t just apply to mayors, Rybak name-dropped last week. President Obama recently told his earliest big-city mayoral backer about a similar evolution in his leadership thinking through two terms in the White House. (“Pothole Confidential” reveals how a certain Minneapolis elected official helped convince Obama to seek the presidency in 2007.)
Does the lesson apply to presidential candidates, too? On Tuesday evening, DFL caucusgoers will choose between one candidate who is offering ideas many of them love — health care for all, a $15-an-hour minimum wage, free public higher education — and another who insists that she won’t make promises she can’t keep. Sanders is overpromising, Clinton says, and that is disrespectful to the electorate.
It’s an open question whether Super Tuesday voters will reward her restraint. Plenty of voters in other early states told reporters that their “hearts are with Bernie but their heads are with Hillary,” and that they were thus undecided.
Much has been made of the anger that’s guiding votes this year. I don’t discount that sentiment. But it also seems that this year’s primary and caucus participants, in both parties, are in the mood for love. They are falling for candidates who romance them with exaggerated promises of revived national greatness achieved through implausible means, like mass deportation of undocumented immigrants (Trump) and Medicare for all (Sanders).
If an overpromiser wins, it’s a near-sure bet that he’ll break a lot of hearts in the next four years. Then it will be a long, tough slog for him to acquire the respect that successful governance in a representative democracy requires. My guess is that President Obama knows something about that phenomenon, too.
Rybak counsels that candidates earn genuine respect when they engage in straight talk — including admission of past mistakes. “It’s important to show that you can actively listen and visibly change direction as a result,” he advises. “The visible part is important. People don’t want an automaton in office. They want to know that you listen, learn and sometimes change your mind.”
For all the talk of this being an exceptional election year, Rybak holds that American voters haven’t changed. He predicts that ultimately, they will elect the candidate for whom they have greater respect. I’d say Tuesday night at 7 p.m. would be a fine time for Minnesota voters to prove him right.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer. She is at email@example.com.