With relatively low unemployment, largely stable neighborhoods and positive trends in public safety, Minneapolis is the envy of many large U.S. cities.

The state's economic and cultural hub has been well-served by three-term Mayor R.T. Rybak, who is not seeking re-election Nov. 5. Through force of personality and boundless energy, Rybak has overcome a weak mayor system and has provided forward-looking, fiscally responsible leadership. He will be missed at City Hall.

In some respects, what Minneapolis needs from its next mayor is more of the same as it benefits from a recovering U.S. economy and a more city-friendly Legislature.

But as the Star Tribune Editorial Board's recent "Growing Minneapolis" series argued, the next mayor and City Council should reject a status quo approach. A truly great 21st-century city must have a fully developed transit system, a birth-to-graduation emphasis on academic achievement for all youths, and housing and job opportunities for young and old, regardless of the color of their skin or the neighborhood in which they live.

In a 35-person field that lacks the perfect candidate to address those challenges, Betsy Hodges wins our endorsement based on her City Council record of responsible fiscal leadership, her willingness to take on special interests on behalf of taxpayers, and her potential to grow into the civic cheerleader role that came naturally to Rybak.

Hodges, 44, grew up in Minnetonka and earned her bachelor's degree from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. She was working at a New Mexico home for the mentally ill in 1992 when three Los Angeles police officers were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King, and the event sparked her interest in racial inequalities and public service. That led her to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she earned a master's degree in sociology before returning to Minnesota in the late 1990s.

Hodges won her first four-year term on the Minneapolis City Council in 2005, and not long after started work on what would become her most notable accomplishment: reform of fiscally irresponsible pension funds in the face of a fierce counterattack by the powerful police and firefighter unions. The reforms saved city taxpayers from $20 million in potential property tax increases in 2012 but were politically costly for Hodges when mayoral endorsements were handed out. Taking on special interest groups has never bothered Hodges — an attribute that helps her stand out in the field of top mayoral contenders.

Hodges challenged the Fire Department after learning that firefighters were calling in sick more often on summer weekends. And she took a lead role in the budget-driven but controversial restructuring of the city's Neighborhood Revitalization Program.

As budget chair, Hodges has made enemies while helping Rybak put the city on sound financial footing despite the recession and cuts in state aid. Taxpaying voters should be glad she did.

Hodges is aligned with this page on the need for improved transit, including streetcars and enhanced bus service, as a driver of economic development citywide. As mayor, she'd play a key role in deciding the future of the Southwest Corridor light-rail project.

Although the school board operates independently from City Hall, Hodges says that as mayor she would seek to build consensus around the increasingly desperate need to close the city's achievement gap, and she puts the right emphasis on early childhood development and prenatal health programs with her proposed "Cradle-to-K" cabinet. She's talked generally about longer school days, more flexibility for administrators in teacher labor agreements, and support for reforms proposed by Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson.

Hodges doesn't promise lower property taxes, but her record suggests she'll be a strong steward of city resources and taxpayer dollars.

Hodges also promises to be aggressive in using technology to enhance public safety and would seek more accountability in hiring, training and disciplining cops. In a recent meeting with the Editorial Board, she acknowledged that the police union contract makes it too difficult to fire bad cops.

Hodges differed from this page and was one of six council "no" votes on the Vikings stadium deal. Once the project won council and legislative approval, however, she asked to serve on the Stadium Implementation Committee because she recognizes that Downtown East represents a "huge opportunity" for the city.

We would have liked to hear more specifics from Hodges on her citywide vision, and we have concerns about her skills in building consensus.

But her experience as president of the Minnesota League of Cities — as well as her working relationship with St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, who has endorsed her — suggests that Hodges recognizes the critical role Minneapolis plays regionally and statewide.

• • •

The Editorial Board is offering first, second and third choices in the city's ranked-choice mayoral election.

Our No. 2 pick is Don Samuels, 64, whose strengths are education, North Side redevelopment and public safety. Samuels, who has served on the City Council since 2003, is an ordained minister whose personal charisma and authenticity are undeniable. All of the leading mayoral candidates see the need to close economic and educational disparities in the city, but Samuels is the most convincing advocate for the disadvantaged. "You lead where your passion lies," he told the Editorial Board.

Samuels is steeped in education issues and sees the need for new approaches to attack the achievement gap, including longer school days, teacher tenure reform and expansion of the Teach for America program.

He backed the Vikings stadium as a job generator and believes in the value of transit in economic development. He would lean on his private-sector experience as an executive with Hasbro in Rhode Island and a game-design firm in the Twin Cities to aggressively market the city to prospective employers and residents.

The most intriguing idea offered by Samuels is a plan to target six extended families that he says are responsible for much of the city's crime. It would be a carrot-and-stick approach in which the new mayor would meet with leaders of the six families and offer city services in return for better behavior. It's unclear exactly what the stick would be, or whether the plan would pass muster with the courts.

Samuels is not known to be a strong administrator, and he doesn't offer the budget expertise we see in Hodges. He would need an especially strong staff to keep his reforms on track.

• • •

Our No. 3 choice, Jackie Cherryhomes, was a City Hall powerhouse who served as council president from 1994 to 2002. Cherryhomes, 59, has an impressive command of city issues based on her council experience and recent consulting lobbying work on behalf of business interests.

She also has the strongest record of any candidate in promoting downtown development; as mayor she would have credibility in the business community. Cherryhomes supports the Vikings stadium, arguing it will create jobs for union members and minorities.

Longtime critics rightly point out that those prodevelopment tendencies sometimes led to errors in judgment, and Cherryhomes still carries the baggage of Block E subsidies. Still, the headquarters operations of both Target and the Federal Reserve are downtown assets today in no small part because of her efforts. She also played a key role in developing Hennepin Avenue's theater district.

Cherryhomes has roots on the North Side and would not ignore the city's most economically challenged district. She worked as a community organizer and development director of the Northside Residents Redevelopment Council before beginning her career in politics.

As council president, Cherryhomes was known for her backroom dealmaking and less-than-transparent approach to governing. But today her depth of experience and CEO-like skills bring legitimacy to her campaign promise that she has improved with age.

• • •

The Editorial Board screened what in its judgment were the six leading contenders for mayor. Former Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Andrew has the most transit expertise of any candidate in the field, and he gained valuable business and environmental experience while running GreenMark, a green marketing firm.

Andrew, 63, has much in common with this page on many issues, and he was an effective leader in county government. However, his close affiliations with unions representing teachers, police and firefighters make it unlikely he would champion meaningful reforms in education and public safety. In addition, he has too often changed his campaign messages to suit his audience.

Cam Winton, 34, a newcomer to the political scene, is bright, energetic and full of ideas. We hope he'll get more experience in public service before his next run for a citywide office.

Dan Cohen, 77, is running on an anti-stadium, pro-downtown-casino platform. The blunt former City Council member is more interested in political rough-and-tumble than in building consensus.

The websites for the candidates mentioned in this editorial are: betsyhodges.org, samuelsformayor.com, jackiecherryhomesformayor.com, markforminneapolis.com, wintonformayor.org and dancohenformayor.com. For more information on all 35 candidates in the field, go to startribune.com/opinion.