R.T. Rybak was one of countless pols and millions of folks who made the trek to Washington, D.C., this week for the swearing in of the 44th president of the United States. But unlike others who attended, the mayor of Minneapolis had a reason to be there, aside from witnessing history: Rybak is tight with Team Obama.
Rybak had been to Washington two weeks before, on Jan. 8, when Obama gave a speech on his proposed stimulus package. And Rybak met with Obama friend and domestic-policy adviser Valerie Jarrett in Chicago before Christmas. In short, the mayor has some ears to bend in Washington.
“I’m very pleased,” Rybak said last week, “because it puts me in a key position to help the city of Minneapolis.”
But to what end? Rybak has his sights set on the $825 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan that Obama hopes to usher through Congress in the coming weeks, but he’s hardly alone. Some 40 states are running deficits, and most of them are looking to Washington and Obama for a handout.
In the midst of chatter about bailout and stimulus packages, top U.S. cities are hardly mentioned, but Rybak wants to change that. He hopes to persuade Obama’s people that some of that money would be better spent going directly in the coffers of the country’s largest cities, rather than trickling down from the state level.
But it’s unclear — and Rybak acknowledges this — exactly what the president can and might do. Certainly Rybak would like to see some federal money for local infrastructure and transit — which can go directly to cities — be figured into a bill. And Rybak talks about block grants and other programs as a means to funneling money to municipalities.
A press release from Rybak’s office after the Obama stimulus speech quoted Rybak as saying “Obama’s message to us was that ‘help is on the way’ for cities and states like ours that are struggling during this economic and financial turmoil,” but the terms of that may be vague enough to border on wishful thinking. Still, Rybak is in the mix, and putting ideas and strategies out there.
“In [Obama’s] stimulus speech, he was talking specifically about critical positions like teachers and police,” Rybak reasoned. “States don’t employ those people, cities do. If that money goes somewhere else, that’s a huge concern [for] mayors around this country.”
How close to Obama’s team?
Rybak has always prided himself on being a salesman for the city of Minneapolis; the question now is whether he can translate that to a national policy of some sort. Is Rybak really that keyed in to the president’s people?
“He is,” said Ralph Remington, an African-American on the Minneapolis City Council who, like Rybak, volunteered on behalf of Obama during the election season.
Obama has said in the past that Rybak was one of the first public officials to encourage him to run for president, and the mayor was on that bandwagon early. Though some may sense more than a whiff of political opportunism (while Rybak has announced that he’ll run for a third term as mayor, he’s still coy about the possibility of running for governor), Rybak seems to have arrived at his relationship with Obama from a sincere place.
Rybak pointed to a speech Obama gave over the summer during a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors that he offered input on, and said that during the campaign, he “advised the Obama team on urban policy.”
For longtime R.T. observers, his status with the first black president is either somewhat ironic or a remarkable transformation, given his sometimes rocky past with African-American leaders in Minneapolis.
“Oh, it’s ironic, but it’s happily ironic,” Remington said last week, noting that Rybak offered little support for him during his run for the 10th Ward council seat. “I’m grateful and happy that my mayor was supporting Barack Obama. During the course of the campaign, we understood each other better.”
Remington notes that he and the mayor have clashed over issues like perceived racism within the Minneapolis Police Department, but that Rybak has grown in some capacity.
“I think Obama has moved him emotionally, obviously, but politically as well,” Remington said. “I think R.T. has always wanted to do the right thing regarding black America and black Minneapolis, but didn’t always know how. It’s tough to lead if you don’t understand a community. I think we have a guy who is out to do good — he has a huge heart — he really is.”
Rybak said that reading about Obama’s work on Chicago’s South side “echoes so clearly my work in North Minneapolis.”
Although Rybak has focused his attention to North side economic development in recent years, some black leaders are skeptical. Natalie Johnson Lee, an African-American who represented the North side from 2001 to 2005, said that Rybak “supporting Obama was phenomenal, it was great,” but that the jury is still out on what it means to blacks in Minneapolis.
“I don’t think many of us are fooled by his support for Obama,” Johnson Lee said. “Many in the African-American community are happy for his support, but we are not fooled.”
Rybak, shrugs off his critics on the race matter, saying, “I have relationships with African-Americans all over the city.”
Race relations aside, there’s no doubt Rybak is in a unique position, suddenly, and he knows it. “There’s never been a president more tied to what happens in cities,” Rybak said. And he acknowledges the irony that he may get a better response from the White House than he has from his own state Capitol, where Gov. Tim Pawlenty and several Republican lawmakers were viewed as dismissive of Minneapolis and the mayor early in Rybak’s tenure.
Indeed, given the $4.8 billion shortfall in the state’s budget, Rybak is probably wise to forge a new path for federal dollars — it’s unlikely the state will cough up much of any portion of the stimulus package that comes its way. And it should be noted that the main hallmark of the Rybak era has been fiscal management, despite the reputation of the mayor and the City Council as tax-and-spend liberals. He inherited a city budget that was in crisis and righted the ship, something he seems poised to do again during the current recession.
He has already made his case, he said, to Obama’s people about getting money for infrastructure and transit to spur development.
“We have shovel-ready projects,” Rybak said, adding that he wants to “show Minneapolis can move quickly.”
In the end, though, Rybak is just like anyone else in that he has no idea what form a portion — if any — of the $825 billion might come this way.
“How this works is still unclear,” Rybak said. “It literally changes by the hour.”
G.R. Anderson Jr. covers politics, the state Capitol and issues related to public safety.