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Political parallels — and Rybak’s incredible turnaround on subsidies

How is it that Rybak became the purple cheerleader-in-chief?

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.

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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.

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


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