Here's what Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak told a radio audience about what separates him from his competitors for the DFL endorsement for governor:
"We have to remember what the governor's job is. It's to be chief executive of a multi-billion-dollar corporation. It's a job similar to mine. I walked into a city in a mess and showed you can have strong management."
In other words, Rybak's saying he's got a record as a public executive that his competitors lack.
Rybak plays that as an asset. But in an era of ceaseless political attacks in the blogosphere, a record can also pose a liability.
The 54-year-old Rybak is barely into his third term as mayor. Some of his rivals have served twice as long in public office. But Rybak seems to be the candidate against whom the right is training its howitzers.
State Republicans, for example, have blogged anti-Rybak comments on their website a half-dozen times in the last several months. No other DFLer running for governor has taken more than one blog hit from the state Republican blog in the same time period.
One difference between Rybak and many of his competitors is that the competitors serve in a legislative environment that diffuses responsibility among 201 legislators and dozens of committees. Not even House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher can be held accountable for everything the Legislature produces.
But Rybak not only has to propose a city budget and hire or fire a police chief -- his name is literally on every action the City Council takes because it rarely becomes law without his signature. So when Rybak declared for governor, Republicans were quick to claim that "R.T." stands for "raising taxes," pointing to his pattern of 8 percent increases in the tax levy most years. Yet when he supported a lawsuit against police and fire pension funds that succeeded in dampening property tax increases, Republicans spun it the other way as an attack on the pensions of widows.
The biggest target for those who would like to paint Rybak as a master of excess is his 2007 proposal that the city commission 10 artists to design unusual drinking fountains at a cost of $50,000 each. Such spending is easy fodder, although focusing on those projects ignores that Minneapolis, like many cities and states, has traditionally devoted a percentage of its capital budget to artwork. The proposal has since been downsized to four fountains.
This is Rybak's first foray into such a highly partisan environment that's unlike Minneapolis, where DFLers dominate the political agenda and the Greens are the only other party to have an elected seat at the government table. Republicans and Independence candidates nipped at Rybak's heels in the last election, but he topped 73 percent voter support while barely campaigning.
In Minneapolis, the severest criticism of Rybak comes from plain citizens, whether they're the victims of violence or police misconduct, unhappy property taxpayers or simply folks like me still grumpy about bumpy streets since the Christmas icefall. Some of them vent on the Minneapolis Issues Forum; some confront the mayor when he's out in the community.
"I came into office as someone who desperately wanted every person to agree with me," the gregarious Rybak recalled. He said that desire has been tempered by the realization that it's not possible.
Rybak said he decided early in his mayoralty to ignore advisers who suggested that he distance himself from bad news. He's shown up at murder scenes, fires, a tornado, the 35W bridge collapse, and faced down a gathering of homeowners skittish about a proposal for affordable apartments in their neighborhood. He said he'll take blunt comments from people who get in his face, but has little time for those looking for just any issue that can score political points.
He's no stranger to political bruises. Rybak first ran for mayor in a field that included a Republican-leaning candidate and an independent. He ousted a fellow DFLer to win the mayor's seat in 2001, then four years later fended off a DFL challenger trying to return the favor.
His job as mayor has been no cakewalk, either. He inherited a badly unbalanced budget that got worse in 2003 with the first in a series of state aid cuts. "Virtually from my first moment as mayor, I had to deliver bad news," he said.
That led to some tough decisions, like cutting the number of cops and firefighters, that cost him politically. Police numbers have gradually been built back, but the police and fire ranks are at the mercy of how the Legislature handles Gov. Tim Pawlenty's efforts to balance the state budget without a tax increase.
Rybak said he's learned to ignore the chorus of critics that comes with being a mayor and a candidate. "Every once in a while, one of my kids will send one of the tweets to me as a joke and we'll have a chuckle and go back to work," he said.
Rybak said he learned even before he was elected mayor that criticism came with the job -- and his family learned with him. Shortly after he battled then-Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton to a standoff in the DFL endorsing convention, Rybak was the target of a fax communique from perennial candidate Dick Franson, who labeled first-timer Rybak a neophyte and a milquetoast.
When Rybak's then-preteen kids asked what those words meant, they were directed to a dictionary, where they found that their dad was being called a beginner and timid.
"I learned early that sometimes you learn from criticism," Rybak quipped.
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An addendum to the anecdote above: Dateline noticed just as this column was being put to bed that the political genes are carrying on to that younger Rybak generation. Charlie Rybak, who plans to graduate from George Washington University next year, was elected an at-large senator in that school's student government, finishing second in a field of four.
Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438