R. T. Rybak launched his campaign for governor last week with a variation on a theme he has used throughout his political life. “I was born in a great state,” he said. “I’m not going to retire in a mediocre one.”
The Minneapolis mayor likes the line not just because it fits his buoyant/defiant personality, but because it matches the frustration his audiences feel about their home state — that Minnesota’s exceptionalism is slipping away.
Many Minnesotans take personally their state’s perceived decline. They’re worried about jobs, pensions and homes. They’re anxious about economic security for themselves and their children. Rybak responds in his stump speeches with two themes: that Minnesota must restore its status as a brain-power state capable of growing good jobs; and that a fresh approach is badly needed at the Capitol. “The state is in financial chaos,” he tells his audiences. “We need to try something new.”
He describes facing a similar chaos after taking office in 2002. He and his allies changed an ingrown City Hall culture, he says. They added a strong dose of discipline to the budget, emphasized debt relief, and produced a city government that’s more fiscally sound than the state’s.
The problem for Rybak comes in convincing DFL voters and delegates — especially, perhaps, in rural areas — that his achievements as mayor are real and not just froth, as his opponents suggest. It’s Rybak’s effusive personality that can lead to an impression that he’s all sizzle and no steak. The man has no problem lighting up a room; he possesses the star quality that DFL rivals lack and Republicans most fear. But, where’s the beef?
Actually, there’s quite a lot. Probably more than any candidate in the Democratic field, Rybak’s daily work life over the last decade has been consumed by running a government diametrically opposed the to direction set by Gov. Tim Pawlenty. The two men are of the same generation, but their outlooks are miles apart.
For eight years Rybak has chafed under the reality of Minnesota’s governing structure: a mayor, even of the state’s largest city, can play only the cards that a governor deals. Making the best of a bad hand, especially when a governor routinely dominates a Legislature the way this one has, becomes the substance of running a city. Given all that, Rybak has done remarkably well by most accounts, even those offered by critics who have worked closely with him.
Crime is down. Employment has held its own compared with job rates in the suburbs and state. Poor kids have been offered summer jobs and the chance to go to college. Transportation has been realigned to match a greener future. City government has been made smaller, more streamlined and more techno-savvy. And an inherited financial crisis has been admirably managed.
Let’s explore each of those points more closely.
Mayors shouldn’t really be blamed or credited for crime statistics, since not even criminologists can account for crime’s rise and fall. The economy, police tactics, court and penal policy and culture all play a part. Nevertheless, custom demands that big city mayors be measured against crime statistics.
By those measures Minneapolis is a far safer place now than when Rybak assumed office. Homicides are at a 25-year low. Violent crime has dropped 20 percent in the past two years, and juvenile crime is down by 40 percent.
Police Chief Tim Dolan has employed predictive analysis to pinpoint where crimes are mostly like to occur. But Rybak has tried to integrate all kinds of efforts — truancy officers, housing inspectors, summer jobs, private security guards, sidewalk ambassadors and citizen reports — as a way of deterring crimes, big or small.
Big cities are often seen as drags on metro economy but Minneapolis’ employment rate has kept up with — and often exceeded — the metro and state averages. Allina and Coloplast are major employers that moved to Minneapolis in recent years, although Rybak’s emphasis has been on small business and on job training. Using money from various public and private sources, the city’s refocused jobs program has provided training for nearly 10,000 people over six years.
On the negative side, Minneapolis has done a dismal job of clustering office jobs. A report by CB Richard Ellis shows that between 2002 and 2008, the western suburbs added 4.1 million square feet of office space compared to downtown’s 160,000. That’s a ratio of 26 to 1, ample evidence of the city’s failure to curb the kind of “job sprawl” that adds to freeway congestion and auto pollution.
Minneapolis mayors have no direct authority over public schools. Still, Rybak emphasized what he called “next generation” policies aimed at trying to improve the chances of disadvantaged students willing to learn. He cobbled together private money to provide 2,400 kids with summer jobs this year. The aim was to introduce kids to a working environment, teach them responsible job habits and inspire an interest in college or advanced training.
He also fashioned a public/private effort called “Minneapolis Promise” that gave two-year community college scholarships as a way to attack the high school drop out problem. The problem lingers as the city’s steepest challenge. City schools and students still underachieve. But Rybak was unwilling to sit entirely on the sidelines.
After years of deferred maintenance that left many of the city’s streets in Third World condition, Rybak launched “Access Minneapolis,” a plan to systematically reinvest in transportation in a way that would realign the city to a greener future. Efforts were made to capture federal money for bicycle and transit improvements. The biggest was the $133 million Urban Partnership Agreement, a bus transit grant allowing the city to consolidate downtown bus traffic on fewer streets.
Rybak also used a provision in state law to press the state into proceeding on rebuilding the Crosstown Commons, the state’s largest freeway bottleneck. And, together with City Council, he finally forged a public/private effort that has made downtown sidewalks far cleaner and more appealing to pedestrians.
Although his grand vision for Washington Boulevard remains just a dream, the city under Rybak has reaped the benefits of hundreds of millions of dollars in transportation investment without spending much of its own money.
Financial management has been Rybak’s strongest suit. He inherited a government without much financial discipline. Internal borrowing and a credit card mentality had placed the city’s credit rating at risk. Mountains of debt had piled up. Rybak and former Council Member Barrett Lane devised a new budget process that emphasized paying down debt while sacrificing redevelopment subsidies.
Keeping to the debt repayment schedule while absorbing massive cuts in state aid and declining real estate values required a series property tax increases to keep the city functioning. To ease the pain, Rybak cut the work force, merged departments, and has tried to lessen the city’s unwise and extravagant pension liabilities.
Even Rybak’s critics at City Hall concede he’s done a good job of keeping the city afloat against all odds.
“We could have gone in a fiscally disastrous direction,” said City Council member Paul Ostrow, who chose his words carefully in commenting about the mayor.
This assessment was drawn from lengthy interviews with a half-dozen current and former high-ranking city officials who are both allies and critics of the mayor. Most remarks were offered “on background” as a way of prompting a freer and more straightforward discussion of Rybak’s record.
The upshot is that Rybak, while not without flaws, is viewed as among the best mayors in the post-Hubert Humphrey (1945-48) era. If viewed as a CEO, he has laid out a reasonable vision for the city, hired a competent staff, worked collaboratively with partners (both public and private) and, against considerable odds, helped make Minneapolis a better city than it was in 2002 — and quite a lot better than it might have been without the fiscal discipline he helped to impose.
It’s true that he has pushed property taxes to the brink. But even Rybak’s critics tend to blame the governor and Legislature for heaping the state’s burdens on local governments, leaving cities — especially those with impoverished populations — no choice but to raise the taxes on middle-class homeowners.
“In Minnesota, excrement runs down hill,” is how one official described the situation, noting the state has cut local government aid by more than $750 million over the last seven years, resulting in drastic cuts in core services and a 64 percent increase in local taxes.
For the most part, Rybak has avoided whining about the situation, understanding that complaining isn’t a politically appealing trait. He did say this earlier this week as City Council reached agreement on a new budget: “Let the record show that while spending by the city has increased only 1 percent since 2003, spending by the state has increased 12 percent in the same period. Once again, we call on the state to follow our lead in reining in spending responsibility.”
His energetic personality has matched the role required of a mayor in Minneapolis’ paralytic governmental structure. He’s been good at rallying support behind public/private efforts. He’s used his force of persuasion to accomplish things beyond the power of his office. The city’s charter places the mayor in an awkward pose. The mayor is a CEO with no real staff to carry out his directives and a cabinet that’s not solely answerable to him.
“He’s a great face for the city and has made people proud again to live in Minneapolis,” said Lisa Goodman, a City Council member who admires Rybak but is not supporting him for governor.
He’s credited generally with hiring good people, despite early failures at police, fire and public works. Techno-savvy improvements — especially 311 — have made City Hall more accessible and accountable to residents. He’s worked well with fellow mayors and has adopted a cooperative rather than adversarial approach with St. Paul and other metro cities.
Rybak’s political courage is a question mark for some. He stood up to Pawlenty on the Interstate 35W bridge collapse. “It was not an act of God,” he said, “but a failure of man.” His disaster management staff drew high praise for its heroic response.
But he hasn’t gone nearly far enough to merge city departments that overlap with state and county agencies. City-county libraries were a good start. But he balked at other mergers (civil rights, health department) that should be under way, in the view of some. One council member even suggests that Rybak should have sought the authority to take over the public schools.
Some question whether Rybak will be willing to make himself unpopular by making the decisions he needs to make as governor. Some also claim that the mayor’s collaborative skills have eroded as his run for governor has revved up, and that he’s no longer paying enough attention to city business.
‘Raise taxes’ Rybak
Republicans have begun what may be an effective campaign against Rybak. “R.T. stands for raise taxes,” the party says. The GOP portays him as the DFL’s farthest left candidate; one who favors “confiscating” guns and wasting money and one whose urbane persona will “go over like a lead balloon in Greater Minnesota.” State GOP Chairman Tony Sutton issued a statement Wednesday attacking Rybak’s fiscal record, saying as mayor Rybak has “wasted millions in taxpayer dollars on artistic water fountains, the promotion of tap water and vegetative roofs.”
It is one of Rybak’s worries that he lacks rural manners to compete outstate. He looks great in a polo shirt but foolish in a feed cap or a duck-hunting outfit. He talks endlessly about his Czech immigrant roots going back to the founding of New Prague in the 1850s as if to authenticate his credentials. (Actually, Rybak’s boyhood in the Linden Hills section of Minneapolis runs pretty close to the classic Lake Wobegon narrative.) Much is made of the fact that no Minneapolis mayor has ever been elected governor.
But maybe it’s outdated to assume that outstate voters cannot embrace an urban figure. They voted for President Obama in large numbers. They helped elect Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, both from Minneapolis. Legislative leaders in both houses — although not elected statewide — are from Minneapolis. Norm Coleman’s stint as mayor of St. Paul didn’t hurt his statewide appeal.
The metro area now makes up three-fifths of the state’s population and drives three-quarters of its economy. Two states with similar profiles urban-suburban-rural profiles — Maryland and Pennsylvania — have recently elected governors that were big-city mayors (Martin O’Malley of Baltimore and Ed Rendell of Philadelphia). Times are changing. Whether they’re changing fast enough in Minnesota may dictate the next chapter in Rybak’s career.
Steve Berg reports on a variety of topics, including urban issues, transportation and politics and world affairs. He covered Minneapolis city government and other metro issues as an editorial writer for the Star Tribune from 1998 to 2007. He can be reached at sberg [at] minnpost [dot] com.