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On 'Pothole Confidential': A Q&A with R.T. Rybak

Photo by Thomas Strand Studio LLC
R.T. Rybak

During his time in office as Minneapolis’ mayor, R.T. Rybak could hardly have been less out of the public eye. He was ever-present: If he wasn’t crowd-surfing at rock shows, he was mingling with constituents on the streets and at events, skiing in the Loppet or tooling around town in his Prius, dashing from person to person, always connecting, always talking, talking and talking. In private, however, he was always wrestling with the tragedies that make one wonder why anyone would want to hold public office. The deaths of Minneapolis children, police officers and commuters on the I-35W bridge figure large in “Pothole Confidential: My Life As Mayor of Minneapolis” (University of Minnesota Press), a deep and detailed look at what it was actually like to hold the job Rybak had dreamed of since he was a child.

Rybak doesn’t shirk from writing about the mistakes he made, the supporters he disappointed and the hard decisions he had to make as mayor during the post 9/11 recession. He also writes about the good stuff, exploring work-life balance from a dad’s perspective, and connecting with children and families in Minneapolis’ less privileged neighborhoods, which inspires the work he does today as executive director of Generation Next, an organization that is working to close the achievement gap. “My time as mayor showed me that this is my mission, and I will be working on equity and education for as long as it takes.”

MinnPost: Most political biographies are ghostwritten, but you have a background in journalism, so I have to ask: Did you write this all yourself?

R.T. Rybak: It’s 100 percent me. I did have a wonderful editor and a copy editor, though, who played pivotal roles in telling me where I should say more here or less there. For instance, my editor, Erik Anderson, suggested I do some thinking about my father’s death and how it affected how I handled death when I was in office. When I handed him my first manuscript, he said, “Don’t read another political biography until you are done.”

MP: Did you read any political biographies that helped shape this book?

RTR: Yes, I loved “Prayer for the City” about Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell. [Written by Buzz Bissinger.] I read that when I took office, and it’s a great inside view of being a mayor. I wanted to do something like that, but write it myself, and go deeper and have it be directly from the horse’s mouth.

MP: Early in the book, you write about “leaning out” during your children’s early years. Were you saying that your political ambitions almost went away?

RTR: I wanted to write about being a man in a demanding job, and also wanting to be there for my family. I wanted to be a great father but also successful in my career, and explore what that meant since I lost my own father so early. I also wanted to give light to the people who died on my watch. I wanted to bring back names like Tyesha Edwards and Brian Cole, wonderful kids who were killed in gun violence, and the people we lost when the 35W bridge collapsed. I wanted to remember it all, even when it made me uncomfortable, and tell it like it really was.

MP: What made you uncomfortable?

RTR: Well, when I attended the new mayor’s school [at Harvard], one of the speakers said it is the mayor’s job to deliver the good news, not the bad. And I thought right then that it would all be my job, that I would show up whenever things did get bad, even if people were yelling at me, and especially when people died. I guess I haven’t talked about this with very many people, but I had a hard time managing my emotions around death. I remember when my father died, people said the most insulting, condescending things to me. He had a heart attack and stroke, and was in pain and had considerable physical and mental changes; he wasn’t the same person anymore. So it was a mixed blessing. But people would come up and say insensitive, ridiculous things. I guess I had a lot of anger about that. Now I understand that anger is a natural part of what happens in the grieving process. So when I am with someone who has lost a loved one — I just wanted to be real.

MP: One of the surprising things about your book is how large a role death factors in your role as mayor. Do most mayors keep it at a greater reserve than you did?

RTR: I think so. I don’t know. I never quite figured out a way to shed the load that death carries. I wanted to be there, and I considered it part of my job, but now I understand what a huge toll that takes, and maybe other people are smart to avoid it. I just did a lot of talking, and then one day, I couldn’t talk about it anymore. Kids were dying. I just remember standing there after a shooting, and saying over and over, “Who is putting guns in our children’s hands? Who is putting guns in our children’s hands?” I was so enraged. And then again after the Accent Signage mass shooting — I knew Reuven Rahamim, I thought he was just a wonderful guy, and that’s when I realized I really had to get away from this, this part of the job, the death. It was just so abhorrent to me, and there was nothing I could do.

MP: So that was the moment you decided not to run another term?

RTR: I think so. It was part of it. There were a lot of terrible things that happened during my time in office. There are a lot of people — ministers, people, mayors — who deal with tragedy all the time. I have such deep respect for people like Don and Sondra Samuels, who attend every vigil when there has been a shooting, and V.J. Smith of Mad Dads, who is also at every one of these horrible things — that is heroism to me.

MP: In order to write about these things, you had to live through them twice. What was the most fun memory to revisit?

RTR: I loved writing the “Big Night in the Summer of Love” chapter, in which I wrote about marrying the first 46 same-sex couples in Minnesota. I still get choked up reading it now. There was so much love and happiness that night, on so many levels.

MP: As you were writing this book and exploring issues of policing in black communities, your successor, Mayor Hodges, had to deal with it on a much greater scale. What advice would you give her?

RTR: She has a very tough job and I don’t want to make it any tougher by throwing advice from the sidelines. I would just say, you have to show up and listen. It’s a very tough situation, and all you can do is listen.

MP: So do you keep these events at a certain remove in your post-mayoral life, or are you paying close attention?

RTR: I watch really, really closely. I can’t not. It’s difficult for me not to jump in and try to help, because this is the city I love.

MP: Do you see yourself playing a future role in which you’ll be able to jump in?

RTR: I was pretty clear on what I wanted to do when I left office. I want to help address the enormous gaps we have in this community, and I am doing so with my work with Generation Next. I haven’t ruled anything out, nor should I, but I will always be in Minnesota.

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Comments (1)

Well said, well done!

RT, I really appreciate the honest and compassionate approach you have taken in this Q & A, in your book, and as Mayor. Your description of grieving around the death of your father I found particularly sensitive and insightful.

Our 16 year-old daughter, Sarah, was killed as a result of a car accident on highway 169 in Zimmerman in 1988. An accident caused not only by a careless driver of the car that Sarah was riding in, but also by a city who had not yet erected semaphore stop lights on one of the most dangerous intersections in Minnesota.

I say this for two reasons. One is to underscore that few people understand the role of a mayor, other than other mayors. I wonder if others recognize that a mayor feels responsibility for ALL its people, constantly worries about their welfare, and also grieves deeply when one of their citizens dies.

Every day as a superintendent of schools I worried about our 40,000 K-12 students, 6,000 staff, and 14,000 preschoolers. I worried about the 30,000 students at icy bus stops on a frigid morning. You, as Mayor of Minneapolis, worried daily about your 400,000 residents and how they were living, or sometimes dying, in your city - the city you had responsibility for. These very public positions are grossly misunderstood and seldom recognized for the complex, extremely difficult jobs they are.

Secondly, when our Sarah died, a few thoughtless comments were made not only in our company but directly to our faces. "It is God's will." "It is part of God's plan, we don't know what that plan is now, but someday we will." "She is in a better place." How are those comments possibly helpful to someone who believes in a loving God and has just lost a precious child? As you can tell some anger in me remains.

As mayor you were constantly in the public eye, often the subject of unwarranted criticism, blamed for things that were out of your control, and sometimes attacked from both the right and the left for doing the job you were elected to do. My hope for you in this very public process of shedding light on an often misunderstood job is that people see you as the caring, compassionate public servant and strong community leader that you are. Well said, well done!