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Political parallels — and Rybak's incredible turnaround on subsidies

Phyllis KahnRep. Phyllis Kahn

The politician viewed himself as a principled individual drawing a clear line between what was right and what was wrong.  He would demonize his opponents and impugn their integrity and beliefs at every turn. He was ruthless in battle and remorseless about the consequences. He started his career beating a ground-breaking female.  Later in his career, in what was considered a tour de force, he completely reversed himself on the issue that elected him and turned it into a centerpiece of his political legacy.

Richard Milhous Nixon or Raymond Thomas (R.T.) Rybak?

Last session we did something many legislators thought impossible: authorized a $1 billion Vikings stadium. I opposed it and voted against it.

Best supporting actor

Much of the credit for the stadium win goes to Gov. Mark Dayton’s persistence, but there is no doubt Mayor R.T. Rybak deserves an Oscar for best supporting actor.

So how is it that Rybak, who began his political career by railing against the evils of lavish taxpayer subsidies to professional sports teams and private corporations, became the purple cheerleader-in-chief for the Minnesota Vikings and Zygi Wilf?

The parallels to Nixon are worth considering: Nixon began his Senate career by defeating Democratic Rep. Helen Gahagan Douglas, claiming she was a Communist sympathizer because Douglas believed Communist China needed to be engaged. Nixon ruthlessly opposed Douglas and demonized her. Nixon continued his red-baiting through much of his career, making an alliance with Sen. Joe McCarthy.

Rybak did the exact same thing to Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton in 2001, criticizing her support for the Target Center takeover to keep the Timberwolves and the tax increment subsidy for Target Corporation. Just as there was no greater opponent of the red menace than Richard Nixon, there was no greater opponent of taxpayer subsidies for private businesses than R.T. Rybak.  Once upon a time, R.T. Rybak supported the city charter amendment to limit the city’s contribution to $10 million.

The rising cost of subsidies

The public capital subsidy based on first-year attendance at the Metrodome was $26 per visitor. The public capital subsidy of the Target Center was $60 per person. For the Twins stadium the subsidy per fan based on the first year of attendance was $71. The subsidy for the Vikings stadium, assuming 10 sellout games and ancillary public use, will be an incredible $711 per person.

I have no doubt that the initial up-front public subsidy for the Vikings stadium will surpass anything that our state has ever witnessed. It will exceed the Target Center deal Rybak so harshly criticized Sayles Belton about by a factor of 12.

Rybak's turnaround on pro sports public-subsidy bailouts is truly incredible. It does rank up there with Nixon's trip to China in terms of political about-faces. When I saw pictures of Rybak drinking beer out of a Viking's horn in the mayor's office, I flashed back to Nixon toasting Chairman Mao Tse-Tung at the Imperial Palace.

Just as Nixon's move to engage China shocked the world, Rybak's move to fully embrace the long-term $1+ billion subsidy of Wilf and the Vikings has rocked the Minnesota political scene.

Doubts about payoff

No doubt we will continue to hear the rationalizations of the need for jobs, economic development, retention of pro sports franchises, the need to remain a world-class city, etc., from Rybak (the same things Sayles Belton argued 15 years ago). Whether it will be worth the price of 10 times any previous subsidy, I can't say, although I seriously doubt that mortgaging the city's future to such an enterprise will ever pay off at the price Rybak agreed to pay.

What I do know is, like Nixon, Rybak has now tacitly admitted his female opponent was right all along. Or at least he has admitted that with responsibilities of office one has to abandon the role of malicious critic.

DFL Rep. Phyllis Kahn represents Minneapolis District 59B in the Minnesota House of Representatives.

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Comments (9)

Whatever your position on

Whatever your position on public subsidies for sports teams, I think we can all agree that Rybak's gender is obviously the most important part of the stadium financing package?

Is someone

testing the election waters for a new job?

Wait for it..."I am not a crook"

Seems to be pure and simple self aggrandizement. A sincere start to a political career and a Clinton-like need to sell your soul to the monied interests? I doubt we'll hear him agruing for a more progressive tax system....I could be wrong but, I think he saw how he lost the bid for the DFL governorship and decided his future demands..."Go, big money"!

Subsidies per fan

The subsidy per attendee number Representative Kahn looks at things from the wrong perspective. Like the vast majority of Minnesotans and Vikings fans, I don't attend the games personally. I simply don't care about the physical stadium in any respect. I don't care if it's easy to get to. I don't care if it has amenities. Since it's unlikely that I will ever visit it, I don't care where it is built. I would have been happy enough if they had stuck it in Moorhead and let Rep. Lanning's constituents bear the burden of the stadium he was so eager to inflict on the residents of Minneapolis. What does matter is how the stadium looks on television. In effect, the building is one large and extremely expensive TV studio, where games happen to be played that many Minnesotans watch. If it weren't for TV, the Vikings, and the stadium, would be worthless.

So instead of considering the subsidy per attendee figure, which is basically irrelevant to the rationale for subsidizing the Vikings, the figure we should look at is the subsidy per fan watching the games on television.

If Rybak is Nixon

then who is Ted Mondale? Gordon Liddy?

RT and the Vikings Subsidy

Well-written and -reasoned piece by Phyllis Kahn. Some things are less forgivable than switching positions amid the “realities” of elective office. More like the realities of reelection. Integrity takes a bath.

Better Question

I think a better question than any concerning Rybak's about-face is why the legislature refused to even consider the White Earth Band proposal, that could have gotten the stadium built with no public subsidy as well as a continual revenue stream into state coffers, and would have helped the state's poorest tribe. One is forced to conclude that making good policy was not the primary concern.

Disillusioned with DFL & Better Question is a Great Question

Too many people look up to the mayor and think he can do no wrong, even if they do think he was wrong, they still seem willing to give him a free pass on this issue. Others like myself are outraged and disillusioned with the Mayor and the whole DFL establishment who supported this stadium funding plan and even those who opposed this legislation but want to move on without continuing this fight (Rep. Jim Davinie).
PREDICTIONS
1. 5 to 10 % defection of Minneapolis voters will vote Green Party or Independence party in 2012.
2. Overall DFL defections will narrow Senator Kloubachar's margin of victory to Franken/Dayton proportions.She might even lose.
3. In the Long term, Convention Center revenue and "tourist taxes" will decline substantially which will result in a budget crisis and contribute in the downward spiral in the fortunes of Minneapolis.
4. Rybak will have found some face saving way to distance himself from blame by either going to Washington DC or going corporate.

LANCE GROTH is right about White Earth. I predict that the city finance become so dire that Rybak will support gambling and probably a proposal from White Earth

Missing in the analogy

Ultimately, Nixon's decision to engage China was the right thing to do. Whether or not Rybak made the right decision, comparing him to Nixon here is really a rhetorical device draping him with all the other Nixonian baggage.