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Q-A: Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak talks about accomplishments, tough moments and his future

Mayor R.T. Rybak
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
Mayor R.T. Rybak: "I realized that if I didn’t want to have a life, I could do this job for the rest of my life."

This week R.T.Rybak will share his plans for his final year as mayor of Minneapolis, and he promises that it will be the most productive of his 12 years.

In a Friday interview, Rybak, 57, talked about how he had planned to leave the mayor’s office four years ago but changed his mind. He also talked about the challenges he faced as mayor, his proudest accomplishments (some surprise ones!) and the worst part of the job.

He said again that he is not interested in living in Washington, D.C., despite frequent speculation that a presidential appointment might be in the offing. And he might not be done with public office, but there is only one other job that interests him.

Here is an edited transcript of that conversation:

MinnPost:  How did you make the decision to step aside from the mayor’s job?

Mayor R.T. Rybak: I think I started making that decision four years earlier when I wrestled with whether to run for another term or not run and just run for governor.

That had been a hard decision because I wanted to focus on the governor’s race, but just as I was about to make the decision the economy collapsed.  I had to go into a department heads meeting and tell the department heads what this meant for us. 

I had to look around this table at all the people who I’d spent eight years with getting us out of this financial hole and explain that this rock we had pushed all the way up the hill had come all of the way back down.

I came out that meeting and walked into [Chief of Staff] Tina Smith’s office and said, “I can’t walk out on these people.”

That wound up being a really good decision. I wound up having what has been, already, the most productive term and I’ve still got a year left. And I had the most fun.

So when it came time to make this decision, I had that in my head, thinking, “Boy, this was the best time we ever had, the most productive time, we’re at the top of our game as a team and I want to do this again on a lot of levels.”

But I also realized that if I didn’t want to have a life, I could do this job for the rest of my life. But there are personal sacrifices you make, both me and the people around me, especially my family. So I was weighing, really, the difference between the professional and the personal.

At the same time, the president got re-elected, opening up, maybe, an opportunity in Washington. Who knows?

I came to a couple of decisions. One is, no matter what opportunity I have, I would far rather live here than somewhere else. And two, if I live here and I’m not mayor, I can still be involved.

Before I was mayor, I was one of the thousands of people in the city who do a lot of volunteer work for their hometown. I’m going to go back and be one of those people who do a lot of work for Minneapolis.

When I think about the things I have to give up, it just makes me sad. But it also makes me realize that I’m going to double my desire to stay involved in all of this, and I can.

I don’t have that much trouble making decisions, especially about my personal life, but this was super-hard for me. I finally, over the holiday, I came to complete closure with my family. We all said you can stay involved, you don’t have to leave. I’m just not going to be mayor.

After I made the decision, I realized there are lots of things I can do and still be involved. I would say, some of the most productive parts of my career were the times when people wondered, “What does that guy do?”

I’ve had jobs like the Downtown Council, Internet Broadcasting vice president and reporter. But for long periods of my life, I had my own marketing business and then I was an Internet strategist.

So, I did a variety of things and I may go back to that. I have been in business for a good part of my life and I like that.  I may have some private-sector part that mixes with some civic work that may mix with some volunteer work.

Some of it may be national, some of it may be here, but I’ll live here. Almost certainly.

I’ll absolutely finish this term.  No question. All of this speculation that I was going to flit off to Washington is not the case.

MP:  You’re staying here even if the president calls and has a job for you?

RTR: I’m going to be unemployed, so beggars can’t be choosers. I’m not taking anything off the table, but I want to live here.

People see me promoting the city. That’s not because I get paid to do that as mayor. It’s in my bones. I did that before I was mayor. I’m going to do it after I’m mayor. I love this place. It’s as much me as anything.

Washington is a really cool place — a lot can get done there, and it’s amazing that the president’s got another four years. I really want to help, and I’ll bet there will be some ways that I do. I just would prefer to live here. I’m finishing this year.

I’ve said to everybody around here, “Anybody who doesn’t want to work this year, find something else, I’ll help you find it.” We are going to use every single second of this year.  We’re going to make the most of it, and that’s great.

After that, I’ll go back to being what I was before:  somebody who does things for the city.  The difference is I’ll have been mayor for 12 years. I know a lot more. I may be able to have a real impact from the outside.

This has never been a great city because there are great politicians. This is a great city because it has a great civic infrastructure. I’ve been part of that. I’m going to be part of that again.

MP: Let’s look at this job you are going to leave. What is the workday like? What time does the day start?

RTR: That’s been one of the issues.  There’s not really a start to the workday because there’s not really an end to the previous day.  There are times when I’m in the office, but I sure don’t punch a clock here.

When I went to the movies with my wife and daughter the other night, I checked my cell phones — that’s phones — and text messages several times. Did that before I went to bed. Did that when I happened to wake up in the middle of the night. Did that first time in the morning.

It was always a little like that.  But when the bridge collapsed, it became very different because it was abundantly clear to me that things could happen at any time and people had to be in touch with me. When the tornado hit, it reinforced that.

The bridge collapsed when I was on vacation. The tornado hit on a Sunday, and a myriad of horrible, tough police incidents have happened in the middle of the night, so it is very much a 24-hour job.

Part of that I like.  I’m kind of made to be a public person, so I don’t have a problem with that really. I get kind of a kick out of it. And people are really incredibly nice when I’m out in public, so I don’t find most of that an intrusion.

I do think that 11 years of not knowing from one minute to the next whether there will be a catastrophe or a kid will be shot takes a toll.

Even something as seemingly simple as when it snows, wondering about how those plows go. I love snow and I do have to admit that I will love the fact that in a year I will stand out there and watch as beautiful snow falls and think about cross country skiing and not think about how it’s going to get plowed.

Another way I got to make this decision is that I have a year left, and we have a very ambitious schedule.  I believe in a good value for the dollar, and people are going to get four years of work out of me in this next year.  We’re going to do a lot.

This very complicated mayor’s race coming up will mean that it’s good to have the mayor taking all of the energy that would have gone into re-election and focus instead on trying to drive an agenda. We’re going to get a lot done. I honestly believe that. As productive as this last year was, this will be the most productive year of the most productive term.

MP:  I’ll ask again. When I talked to Arvonne Fraser a few weeks ago, she suggested that a job in Washington could give you valuable experience. If one got offered, would you go?

RTR: I love doing business in Washington.  I love this president, and I very much want to work with him. But when it’s a snowy day, I want to cross country ski at Wirth, and when it’s a hot day, I don’t want to jump into the Potomac. I want to jump into Lake Calhoun.

Why would I spend 12 years of my live doing everything humanly possible to make this a better place and turn around and immediately leave?

I get a fair amount of Washington experience now. I will still be vice president of the DNC {Democratic National Committee}.  I would love it if I could do some work with the administration or the folks in Washington. That’s something I would love.

I haven’t taken anything off the table. If some miracle came around or some huge thing, I would look at it, but I’m mostly going to be looking at things here.

MP: It’s been 11 years. Looking back, what is the very best thing that has happened during your administration?

RTR: No question. The single thing, more than anything else, that means the most to me is that we put 16,000 kids — 86 percent kids of color, 50 percent immigrants, 90 percent kids of poverty — through our Step Up Summer Jobs Program.

MP: Better than the stadium?

RTR: Oh, no question. Stop and think about it. Know that there are 16,000 kids who got a quality summer job, many of whom we’ve stayed in touch with as they go through college and get their first job.

I know a decade from now that the workforce in Minneapolis is going to be dramatically more diverse, tremendously more globally savvy and the employment gap between communities of color and the rest of the community will have closed because of the work we did in Step Up.

If a piano fell on my head as I walked out of City Hall, I could die happy because of Step Up.

On the physical part of it, the Midtown Exchange and the Global Market was probably the most improbable. That was vacant and filled with bat dung. We brought in 1,400 jobs and the Global Market. It’s going well.

This sounds really strange, but the third part would be taking a city that was in serious financial trouble and its bonds had been devalued, and getting it back to a AAA bond rating, paying off a couple of $100 million in debt and reforming pensions.

That financial work has been hugely gratifying and is leaving a really big mark. It’s also kind of funny because I walked in here without a speck of background in public finance. I had to learn a lot on the job really fast.

Thankfully, there are people around here a lot smarter than me. I think we’ve put together a pretty good team.

The stadium was a wonderful accomplishment, but it is maybe in the middle of the list of things we’ve gotten done. It’s gotten a tremendous amount of attention, and it should -- it’s a huge project. The biggest public building in the history of Minneapolis.

Now over the next year, we’re going to be doing a lot, and I’ve already done a lot, to transform the entire [stadium] district so that’s going to be a really, really exciting project.

The stadium is very very important, but it’s not on the top 10 list.

MP: There was some speculation that the prospect of building the stadium would be enough to have you seek another term.  Not so?

RTR: I had to think very hard about whether my not being here jeopardized that project.

My work on the stadium itself will be largely done by the end of this year. The district is only just getting started, and I do feel a tremendous amount of pressure to triple my efforts to attract new development to that area because I have a year to do that.

That’s one where I will, frankly, drive myself a little crazy to get that done.

I’m not going to be the one who cuts the ribbon for the stadium, but I am going to be the one who makes sure we plan that district right and we get some great development.

And I’m not going to be the one who cuts the ribbon for the new Nicollet Mall Street Car -- which is going to be really hard. But I am going to be the one who is going to figure out the financing plan and the design.

The big part about this is I’m not going anywhere. I was always somebody who wanted to be working the community, and I’m going to be that again.

I’ll be here when the stadium opens and the mall opens.

MP:  So those are the things you are proud off.  What parts of this job were the toughest?

RTR: [Pauses] Funerals. A lot of them. Kids’ funerals. Especially one cop funeral but a lot of kids’ funerals. That was really horrible, and I hope I don’t have another one of those this year.

MP:  More than the bridge collapse?

RTR: Yes. The bridge collapse, there were 13 funerals. I went to most.

I went to all of the funerals for Accent Signage, so I would say funerals definitely have been the worse part of it.

As hard as they have been, there is a certain privilege you get in a situation where the whole public wants to do something and they don’t know what to do. You can go and deliver that message.

When the bridge collapsed or the tornado came, or in any of those horrible murders, people see it on TV and they want to do something to help somebody who is in such trouble.

Well, the mayor can. I choose to do that. I went not as R.T. but as the representative of all those people who wanted to do something. My message usually was “So many people are with you.”  That’s what I carried.

People around this community were so desperate to help when the bridge collapsed that they felt terrible. I could help lead the response, the recovery, counsel families, go to funerals, stay in touch and build memorials.

The most difficult thing when you have raw emotions is to do nothing.

There have been a surprisingly large number of tough things happen when I was mayor. The bridge collapse, the economic collapse. I won the primary on 9-11. I should have known it wouldn’t be a normal four years, which turned into eight years and will have turned into 12 years.

MP:  What have you learned in these 11 years?

RTR: I have learned that when things get really difficult to open the door. I don’t always get that right. Very rarely has the answer to any of the problems I’ve had been in my own head.

I’m really glad I was a reporter before I had this job because it taught me, especially somebody with a big mouth like me, to shut up and go out and listen.

When I’ve done that right, I’ve spent more time listening than talking, but I made sure I also knew how to act.  I knew that I had to act.

If you take any of the issues that we have solved, it’s about bringing more people to the table and opening the door, rather than closing the door and being by myself.

You have to, at a certain point, dig within yourself to make a lot of tough calls.

The second biggest thing I’ve learned, if I think about this for a second, is I came in here wanting to be liked by everybody — and now I want to be respected. There’s an enormous difference.

Rybak quoteEveryone will not ever all like the mayor. My job is to make a lot of tough decisions. Over the course of 12 years, it is likely that you’ve pissed everybody off at least once. Especially if you do it right.

I believe the majority of the people in this city respect the fact I’ve made decisions based on what I thought was right even when they didn’t agree with me. That’s very different from being liked by everybody.

Unlike a lot of people in public roles who seem to put on a public façade, the thing that is out in public is very much me. Probably because I’m a very public person. I’m comfortable with that guy everybody sees all of the time, because that’s who I am.

There is a part of me that is a much quieter, contemplative person, and I know who that is and sometimes I just have to retreat into that.  I think I’ve learned where that balance is.

I’ve sort of surprised myself how much I’ve been able to be me in this job. I think, in fact, that in recent years I’ve been exactly who I am. I’ve gotten more comfortable in my political skin. I’ve always been comfortable in my personal skin.

I’ve gotten comfortable with the fact that the people of Minneapolis generally support what I do and would much rather that I be R.T. and let the chips fall where they may, rather than have me guess what will make every single person happy.  You can’t do that.  That’s been a revelation to me.

I think a series of things — winning elections, making some tough decisions that wound up turning out OK and, on some level the advent of social media that let me talk direct to people — all have combined to make me feel I can be myself in this job.

MP:  When you need to be that contemplative person, how do you get there?

RTR: One of the sacrifices, personally, I think I’ve made over this time, is that I haven’t had enough time to think.

I haven’t had enough time to be just with myself. There are very rare times when I can get to that.

It used to be, as a kid, that I could get there walking around Lake Harriet, which I love, but it’s very different now.

My wife has really taught me a lot about finding peace in nature. That has been the best. If I’m having a rough time and it’s winter, I go skiing.  If it’s a hot day, I go swimming, or I sit in the middle of the prairie and listen to all of the sounds and that’s really great.

I know on this balance of being by yourself or being public, the thing I’m going to be is less public. That’s healthy, I think. If I did this for four more years, it would be four less years to be who I am versus who the mayor is.

MP:  Are there questions I haven’t asked that you were hoping to answer?

RTR: You haven’t asked me how important my wife [Megan O’Hara] has been to this. It’s very interesting, because my wife is a very social person who is not public, loves to go to parties, loves being around people. But has not sought to be in the public eye and has been the source of what I’ve cared about. Kids, environment and local food are some of the things she’s been especially focused on. It’s been really helpful to have somebody as deep as she is to go through this with.

This is not the life she would have chosen at all, and yet she has always known what we were getting done together, and that has mattered a lot.

If either of us had thought back then that I would be mayor for 12 years, we would have been shocked. To be honest, the first race that I ran I frankly thought I would lose, but it would get my name out to set me up to run four years later. I didn’t expect to win for most of that race.

It was a real surprise to us. That wasn’t what was planned.

My wife has been central to a lot of the policy work I’ve done, a lot of the things I’ve cared about, how personally I’ve reacted in this job and has been an amazing supporter. My kids have grown up in public.

A month after I made the decision to run 12 years ago, I remember laying awake at night and thinking that the only thing I’ve done completely and 100 percent right was my family and I’ve just made a decision that was going to ruin that.

I remember staying awake all night wondering if I should not do this because my dad had died when I was a kid and I wanted to be this dad who raises kids. And now I was going into this thing that was going to take me away and rip our family apart. I was really petrified when I first ran that I was going to ruin our family.

My wife laid out the whole way to do this — which was to have dinner four to six nights a week together. She sacrificed a lot of her career to make that happen. She stepped back from working full time and made a lot of personal sacrifices to make that possible.

Now our daughter [Grace] is graduating from college and moving back here. Our son [Charlie] is in Washington, but we’re extremely close. Throughout the whole period I’ve been mayor, our family has gotten much closer, rather than the other way around. That’s 98 percent my wife’s work.

To have gotten to this point and to think that we’re able to keep our family together is a huge deal to meand that’s about Megan. That’s pretty cool.

MP: Last question. Are you interested in running for office in the future?

RTR: I would run for governor if it was open. I certainly wouldn’t run against Gov.Dayton.

So I would expect that wouldn’t be for six years and I have no idea what I’ll be doing in six years. That’s the one office I would want to run for.

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Comments (1)

Great interview, Karen.

I love our mayor. And I love how much he loves his wife and family....and the city. RT will be an enormously tough act to follow.