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.
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.
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.
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.