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Mystique of electability: There is something about R.T.

In 1998 a popular movie starring Cameron Diaz was a hit. It was the story of a quirky, but extremely popular, young woman that men couldn’t get enough of. It was never clear specifically what attracted these men to Diaz, but she kept them all pining for her. The movie, “There’s Something About Mary,” even includes a cameo from Minnesota’s most popular Viking — Brett Favre.

The same might be said about the political fortune of Minneapolis Mayor R.T Rybak. Rybak is quirky, has attracted a diverse base of supporters and surprised many with his rise to a leading contender to be the DFL nominee for governor next year.

Rybak’s entry into the governor’s race wasn’t a surprise to anyone who follows Minnesota politics. But the mystique that follows him leaves many confounded. He doesn’t exude power, or magnetism, or inspiration, but rather an approachability and down to earth sense that most political observers find difficult to define.

After serving as mayor for eight years, and easily winning a third term, few can name a big-picture initiative that Rybak has stood for or campaigned on. In essence, Rybak remains a blank political slate, but a popular one at that.

One unscientific barometer of swing-district voters and suburban mood was Rybak’s contingency at this summer’s Edina Fourth of July parade. It was very impressive in size and the response was overwhelmingly positive. If Rybak plays well in Edina as a Democrat, that’s a good sign for his gubernatorial aspiration.

Positive demeanor
One major political asset that Rybak has is his seemingly always positive demeanor. In Minneapolis he replaced an extremely poor political communicator in Sharon Sayles-Belton. Over his eight years as mayor he has avoided being divisively partisan (that is aided by the absence of any GOP presence in Minneapolis and few nasty clashes with the City Council).

Among DFL activists he has been forgiven for his early political sins. In 2000, he supported Bill Bradley for president, and after Bradley was out of the race he supported Green Party candidate Ralph Nader over Democratic nominee Vice President Al Gore. A mortal sin for most loyal DFLers, and something few others could get away with. It’s also unlikely something he would have been able to do had he been mayor at the time.

A year later, in his campaign for mayor, he blocked the DFL endorsement of Sayles-Belton in 2001, and was blocked from getting the DFL endorsement by Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin in 2005. Until this year’s mayor’s race, R.T. Rybak has never been endorsed by the DFL.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, one of the earliest supporters of Barack Obama, took part in this Draft Obama March in January 2007.
Photo courtesy of R.T. Rybak
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, one of the earliest supporters of Barack Obama, took part in this Draft Obama March in January 2007.

His early support of the Draft Obama movement created a larger political profile for him among party activists and the thousands of new volunteers who were engaged in the Obama campaign. Among those Obama volunteers is clearly the base he hopes to engage in his effort to be the DFL nominee.
Business issues
Republicans and some pro-business Democrats still remember — and will likely raise — the issue of Rybak’s leadership in campaigns against two major Minnesota business players. First, he led the pajama parties against expansion of the MSP airport and Northwest airlines. Second, he campaigned for mayor an outspoken critic of subsidies to Target’s expansion downtown.

As Rybak prepares to create a statewide profile he will likely rely on two fundamental facts: While mayor, the reduction in crime in the city was significant. And despite the recession, the jobless rate in Minneapolis is less than that of the state. Add to that high marks for his response and handling of the 35W bridge collapse and his ability to talk about early childhood issues and education, he could be the optimistic messenger DFLers are looking for.

In most states a three-term mayor from the largest city would be a logical front-runner for a statewide campaign. Early polls indicate that Rybak is a front-runner. But in Minnesota, we haven’t elected a big-city mayor statewide since former Vice President Hubert Humphrey won his U.S. Senate seat. Minnesota is quirky. Just like there is something about Minnesota politics, there is something about R.T.

We’ll see if anyone figures it out.

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Comments (25)

  1. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 11/24/2009 - 08:48 am.

    I don’t think it’s quite fair to consider him a “political blank slate”. Running a city is less expressly political than haggling over the budget in state senate.

    People like him because he has a reliably progressive vision – one that he’s true to with his reliable support for bikers, environmental issues, and art in the city – and that simultaneously he seems to run the city very smoothly, seems business-friendly, and managed to keep the city out of trouble during some really tough budget situations, all while crime was falling steadily. I can’t imagine what else could be asked of him.

  2. Submitted by Holly Cairns on 11/24/2009 - 09:22 am.

    I’m still wondering about this statement: “If Rybak plays well in Edina as a Democrat, that’s a good sign for his gubernatorial aspiration.” Hasn’t Edina changed a lot over the last ten years? It feels that way to me.

    I’m running into Rybak supporters all over the place. He is well liked and can certainly work a crowd.

    One thing we didn’t mention here is that Rybak has executive branch experience, setting budgets, etc.

  3. Submitted by Bill Coleman on 11/24/2009 - 10:57 am.

    Since Rybak has been mayor, lots of great stuff has happened in Minneapolis – Twins ballpark, light rail, North Star, Midtown development, Gopher football stadium, Guthrie Theater, Walker expansion, Washington Avenue redevelopment. Rybak does not seem to take credit for any of it, yet it happened on his watch as mayor. Most with a minimum of controversy. Seems like he is pretty good at managing his organization and bridging to people outside his organization to attract resources and investments into the City of Minneapolis. Sounds like what Minnesota needs!

  4. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 11/24/2009 - 11:07 am.

    I think Rybak has done a lot in Minneapolis and is still well liked in the city and elsewhere. He’s likeable in general, articulate and he’s been doing exactly what a future governor should be doing — learning to run something as an executive. Let’s face it, the only Republican in the field with anywhere close to his executive experience is Norm Coleman

  5. Submitted by Holly Cairns on 11/24/2009 - 11:46 am.

    Good points, Bill. I like fiscal responsibility especially if it includes new growth and good transportation.

    And Jeremy, I agree with you that Norm Coleman has executive experience. Is he going to run? I’m not in the know about that one.

  6. Submitted by Raj Maddali on 11/24/2009 - 11:47 am.

    Rybak will not win.

    He can win the MPLS vote by getting liberal whites to vote for him. But for the statewide election he does not have any minority support. Look at all the issues with the Police force and minorities. You think people will turn out for him ?

  7. Submitted by Robert Langford on 11/24/2009 - 11:52 am.

    I think Rybak is consistent. He does what you would expect him to do, and does it well, giving most of us confidence in the path and comfort that it will be well handled. He has handled very, very difficult budget problems with little negative impact. His position on NWA has proved pretty correct, and I suspect if you were one of the many, many people terminated at Target, you might wonder why the City would spend all that money to keep them around anyway. Rybak puts himself into whatever he takes on, and seems to me to be successful at what he undertakes for himself and the rest of us.

  8. Submitted by Charlie Quimby on 11/24/2009 - 11:53 am.

    Comments 3 & 4 sum it up pretty well for me. He’s moderately progressive and has accommodated business interests without turning into a Republican like seemed to happen over in St. Paul.

  9. Submitted by Randi Reitan on 11/24/2009 - 12:11 pm.

    It takes a certain magic to be able to rally a crowd and also work a room full of people making each person feel they have been heard. Mayor Rybak can do both well. I think he can follow Humphrey’s lead from mayor of Minneapolis to winning a state wide race. I also like his most positive and upbeat personality. There is a joy and optimism about him that is exciting.

  10. Submitted by Marta Fahrenz on 11/24/2009 - 01:31 pm.

    Maybe “sinning” against the DFL (supporting Bradley and Nader) isn’t a bad thing at all, but rather refreshing. One of the reasons I like Rybak is that he seems to think for himself–an astonishing trait for a politician today. (And not the same as going rogue….)

  11. Submitted by Blois Olson on 11/24/2009 - 01:58 pm.

    Thanks to everyone for their comments.

    The premise of my piece is that I am not sure why R.T. is so popular, but his popularity and attractiveness as a candidate are undeniable to many.

    I don’t take my position as a friend or foe, just as an observer. This is in the context of a statewide campaign.

  12. Submitted by David Thompson on 11/24/2009 - 02:08 pm.

    As a Minneapolis resident, I am astounded at the drop in crime. Crime is the issue that led McLaughlin to challenge Rybak in 2005. Rybak and his police chief can take full credit for this drop — it was due to their change in strategy, and not due to some random variation in data.

    Rybak’s opposition to Target’s downtown expansion was misrepresented in the article. Rybak objected to the huge subsidy the City Council gave Target in order to get them to build downtown. I am sure that Rybak would be the first to agree that Target is an important asset to our community. Just don’t open up the City’s wallet and say “help yourself”.

  13. Submitted by rolf westgard on 11/24/2009 - 02:28 pm.

    Sorry, Raj. but the majority will turn out for Rybak all across the state. And G.A. seems to have a gripe about an unnamed cleanup site. That won’t hurt Rybak’s statewide appeal.

  14. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 11/24/2009 - 05:05 pm.

    Raj Maddali

    People of color will show up when Barack Obama comes to campaign for him and Obama will come for the man who ran his statewide campaign in Minnesota.

  15. Submitted by William Pappas on 11/24/2009 - 05:18 pm.

    What do you mean G.A.? Of course Rybak can blame his tax increases on LGA cuts from Pawlenty. The obvious reason Minneapolis has enjoyed a balanced budget is precisely because of those property tax increases. Drops in crime, a revitalization of the downtown streetscape, a jobless rate below the state average are all related to the city’s insistance that it continue to fund programs that support the vitality of city businesses. And he has been realistic about giant sports subsidies! All of that positions him well against the tired conservative rehtoric that has to defend policies that created a horrendous business climate and effectively reduced our competitiveness.

  16. Submitted by Rebecca Hoover on 11/24/2009 - 07:26 pm.

    R.T. probably has more going for him than any of the other candidates. His attributes, however, do not involve mystique. They involve the basics that make a candidate a winner. What are these basics?

    1. R.T. is cute. That’s an important asset right there. A lot of voters will vote for a good looking candidate for this one reason alone. To some extent, this is shallow but true. On the other hand, voters have good reason to elect healthy candidates who look like they have the self control, vigor and stamina for hard work.

    2. R.T. works hard. He seems to be on the go from morning until night and he even takes time, unlike other candidates, to call the little supporters. Voters like candidates who work hard because they want elected officials who work hard.

    3. R.T. seems to actually care about others. He does not give the impression that he is too good for others–he has Bill Clinton’s ability to make everyone feel special. Obviously, voters want this. No one needs a governor who cares only about the rich or some other special interest.

    4. R.T. is intelligent. He was an early supporter of Obama and had the foresight to see Obama could be a national leader. The ability to see ahead is a desirable attribute. (This is one the George Bush lacked, much to our dismay.)

    5. R.T. is progressive and Minnesotans tend to vote progressive. R.T. is a good match for Minnesota’s values.

    These five basics make for a winning candidate in Minnesota. It is not about mystique. It is about exercising, staying in shape and healthy, dressing with a little care, timely hair cuts, working hard, caring about others and being inclusive, and about planning for a prosperous and fulfilling tomorrw.

    What R.T. has not done, at this point is to put forth a platform. He needs to do this if he wants solid, unwavering support.

  17. Submitted by Holly Cairns on 11/24/2009 - 07:27 pm.

    Blois said:
    The premise of my piece is that I am not sure why R.T. is so popular, but his popularity and attractiveness as a candidate are undeniable to many.

    I got that from this. I think you were saying “Hey, look..” while the rest of us were either for or against Rybak. I like talking positives, and there are many about Rybak. He’s just now coming across my screen because he entered the race so late (well, so late might not be the right term…) . There’s a lot to like about him. Working that crowd, baby!

  18. Submitted by Paul Rozycki on 11/24/2009 - 07:39 pm.

    I am not a supporter as of yet, but I was an early RT supporter when he first ran for mayor. The reason was because I saw a person with the ability to think outside the box and from a principled, populist perspective. Than and because I just plain like the guy, which is a sentiment shared by many.
    I’ve seen blog discussions that focus on equating electability with likeability; RT is bound to do well on likeability ratings – that’s the something about RT! He’s highly likeable.
    He’s the front runner because he’s likeable and gives people the impression that he’s honest and caring. (My personal experience with him is that is true.)

  19. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 11/24/2009 - 08:34 pm.

    I’ve raced in the City of Lakes Loppet cross country ski race when Mayor Rybak was also participating. Rybak is no poseur, he definitely has some athletic skills and is a very competitive skier/racer. It is no wonder that he supports the trails and recreational activities in our city of lakes. He has a personal appreciation of them. He has my vote for that alone. And yes I am willing to pay more for them. Whether it be in the form of the GOP fee’s or the DFL taxes.

    A tip of the hat to Mr. Pappas with his astute observation about the quality of life and how it’s all interconnected.

  20. Submitted by Michael Darger on 11/24/2009 - 11:38 pm.

    A remarkedly positive string of comments; I don’t think that is because everyone here is on the R.T. campaign. It’s that mystique, maybe a hex? I voted for R.T. three times even though I thought Sharon and Peter were credible candidates in the first two campaigns. The guy does have it. “It” being all the things enumerated above plus a keen intellect and ability to verbally defend himself in debate, on the stump, on MPR, wherever. In 1:1 conversations with him, watching him in many contexts, he does have that happy warrior charisma. He can look you right in the eye, hear you out, argue his point and charm you all at once.

    Rebecca’s comments were keen. My wife has always viewed R.T. as a looker, which includes many attributes of health, grooming and dress. And probably his dimples.

    G.A. was talking about the Shoreham Yard railroad facility which is a huge, highly polluted site in Northeast. Many neighbors are frustrated with that. But it will take patient, resolved elected officials many years to fix that thing.

  21. Submitted by Karl Singer on 11/25/2009 - 12:35 am.

    Interesting post Blois.

    Worth pointing out for the record though that Rybak did in the end vote for Gore. Or that’s what I have heard. Can’t find a link, but I’m 90% sure. Would be worth you finding out and posting.

  22. Submitted by John Olson on 11/25/2009 - 06:58 am.

    I am also in agreement with comments 3 and 4 above.

    The real test of electability would be how well his positions and persona play in places like Pengilly and Preston. If he can make a convincing pitch to voters in the local coffee shops far away from the metropolitan area, he could gain some traction.

    If I was a guy like Norm Coleman considering a run for Governor, Rybak would probably be the DFL candidate I would be most wary of.

  23. Submitted by Nancy Gertner on 11/25/2009 - 08:27 am.

    Having just attended two candidate events this month, I’d identify the mystique of Raymond Thomas Rybak Junior as his ability to connect with people, both from the stage and in one-on-one conversations.

    At the Center for Changing Lives candidate forum in Minneapolis on 14 November, Rybak told the people about the business his parents had four blocks away.

    At the Hopkins Center for the Arts candidate debate 24 November, Rybak talked about working in Hopkins at the Sun Sailor (community newspaper) as a journalist.

    While these ‘geographic connections’ may be harder for him to make outside the metro area, he’s a skilled communicator and does not need to rely on geography to connect with people. (Maybe he can crowd surf?)

    What I don’t think Rybak told us at the candidate events that Wikipedia tells us, is that he and his children are graduates of Breck School in Golden Valley. Breck has some interesting notable grads, and a student to teacher ratio of 11:1.


    This ratio is quite different from the 34:1 ratio I witnessed in a Minneapolis fifth grade classroom last year.

    If Rybak would have been in a school with 34 students in his classrooms, would he have become mayor of Minneapolis? Could he be a candidate for governor?

    That’s a $6.4 Billion question for Minnesotans to ponder as our elected officials struggle with the state’s budget, and parents send their children off to public schools, hoping they will receive an education good enough to maintain a lifestyle at least as good as the parents.

    So Rybak is likeable. “Is he electable” is the question people ask of all the candidates. Rybak is competent in ways that Governor Pawlenty is not, notably in budgets. Rybak noted at the Hopkins debate that the City of Minneapolis budget increased ONE percent during the period that State of Minnesota spending increased TWELVE percent.

    I think Rybak has a strong appeal to the voter looking for the ‘Anti-Pawlenty’ candidate, just as Barack Obama appealed to voters that selected the ‘anti GW Bush’ candidate in 2008. While Pawlenty likes to take credit for anything good that happens in Minnesota, Rybak is notable in using the pronoun WE when he refers to accomplishments.

    Like a good date, Rybak reveals enough about his character to be likable, but maintains a mystique by not revealing it all, so one wants to get to know him better.

    Rybak didn’t state his motive for seeking to become governor of Minnesota, but what he revealed of his character indicates that a pivotal event in his life was the death of his father when he was 15. Raymond Thomas Rybak Senior moved his business, apparently due to highway construction (c 1969-70, I-35W?), probably an eminent domain issue, where the government took ownership of the business. RT Senior subsequently suffered a heart attack and stroke that were fatal, in which the stress of moving a business may have played a large role.

    RT Junior’s dedication to physical fitness is probably motivated by this family history of stress-induced disease.

    I think his motivation in running for governor is because he has witnessed, in his family, the effects of government’s actions on families. I think RT Junior wants government to work FOR the people in positive ways, instead of fostering fatal medical events. I think that’s a strong appeal during these trying times, when we Minnesotans really need something positive to get us through the dark times. We the People need government to work FOR us, and we need to work together to make it happen, in partnership with our elected officials. A team player like RT Rybak, with a focus on We the People, instead of “I the governor,’ is an appealing candidate to Minnesotans that want a competent governor that can deal with tough issues like balancing budgets without resorting to arbitrary measures like unallotments that stimulate lawsuits.

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