Six state senators and one state rep stood next to R.T. Rybak Monday afternoon and, in glowing terms, spoke of why they are supporting the Minneapolis mayor in his bid to win DFL gubernatorial endorsement.
The seven represented the first active legislators to come out in support of Rybak.
That total is a paltry number, compared with the support of legislative/ super-delegate support enjoyed by House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, who has been endorsed by eight senators and 32 House members.
Despite the huge difference, the endorsement of the seven is no small thing for Rybak, who is in a neck-and-neck endorsement race with Kelliher.
Monday’s endorsements scattered across state
The seven come from all regions of the state, from Duluth to Bemidji to the Mankato/St. Peter area to Rochester to the Twin Cities suburbs. The support offers some evidence that the long-held political belief that a big-city mayor can’t win the trust of greater Minnesotans may not be true.
Additionally, four of the seven are women who are choosing Rybak over Kelliher.
Given her political pedigree and Minnesota’s history of never having had a female gubernatorial candidate on the November ballot, the House speaker was supposed to be able to win over the vast majority of women delegates who have grown understandably weary of hearing, “Wait until next time.”
How is Rybak, whose successes no longer are coming as a surprise to DFLers, winning support in unexpected places?
Start with geography.
The big-city mayor agrees that he owes some of his success in Greater Minnesota to Gov. Tim Pawlenty, whose slashing of Local Government Aid has united local government officials across the state.
“Tim Pawlenty has done a wonderful job of developing a tight fraternity of mayors across the state,” Rybak said Monday. “Every one of us — small-town, big-city mayors who are Republicans or DFLers — have been having to deal with the same problem. People ask me, ‘Do you have any experience dealing with a state budget?’ I say, ‘I sure do. I’ve been balancing it for eight years.’ Every mayor, every county commissioner in the state understands what I’m saying [about local governments having to absorb cuts to help balance the state budget]. I just wish that mayors would have super-delegate status at the convention.”
These shared problems have meant that Rybak has developed friends in city halls and county governments in the state. He has worked with all of those mayors and local officials, who have spread the name “Rybak” throughout regions far from the bright lights of the big city.
“R.T. has shown he won’t pit one region against the other, one community against the other,” said Rep. Tina Liebling of Rochester.
Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon of Duluth initially backed Sen. Tom Bakk, an Iron Ranger, but said Monday that as much as she likes him, her support was based in part on regional “parochialism.”
“I do think that R.T. has a statewide perspective,” she said. “Our cities aren’t that different from each other. The challenges we face in Duluth aren’t really different than the challenges he’s been dealing with in Minneapolis.”
The others who endorsed him Monday — Sens. Mary Olson of Bemidji, Kathy Sheran of Mankato, Kevin Dahle of Northfield, Jim Carlson of Eagan and John Doll of Burnsville — made similar points: Rybak has shown that his view extends beyond Minneapolis.
Sheran goes so far as to say that she believes that Rybak will be willing and able to explain to metro area people “why it’s important for the state to invest in all areas of the state.”
Just as importantly, it should be noted, most of these new supporters said that his view extends beyond the state Capitol.
There is a fear among many DFLers that voters will reject any state legislator who is running for re-election, seeing them as part of the problem, not the solution.
“All of the [DFL] candidates have many wonderful qualities,” said Sheran. “But R.T. has all of the positive characteristic, plus he has executive experience running a city.”
Gender a dicey issue in Rybak-Kelliher competition
For Rybak, the potentially dicier issue is gender.
By rule, half of the delegates to the DFL state convention will be women, and within that group, there are a core of women who are tired of waiting for “next time.”
“Any woman would love to see a woman as governor,” said Olson, “but that is not going to be the primary reason you pick one person over another.”
She believes that Rybak will be empathetic to women’s issues and is more qualified to take on the issues of managing the state than Kelliher or Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner, the two women in the DFL field.
“Under different circumstances,” said Sheran, “I would love to see a woman. But I think R.T. is best prepared to deal with the difficult circumstances we face.”
It should be noted that this is not the first time Rybak has run up against the gender “problem.”
In his first race for mayor, he opposed two-term incumbent Sharon Sayles Belton, who now is a Kelliher supporter.
“This race is more complicated than that race,” said Rybak. “It’s certainly more than one man versus one woman. I think the great concern [of the delegates] is winning in November. Every issue is trumped by the ability to win. One of the reasons it is so important to win is that tens of thousands of women in this state are suffering because of the policies of this governor. I can’t change my gender, but my policies are about working for those with the greatest need, and that’s often women.”
Rybak said that he has been told by some women that they can’t support him because they feel compelled, by gender, to support Kelliher.
“But that’s happened in far fewer cases than I expected,” he said. “People are desperate that we [the DFL] win this race. They’ve seen the consequences of what happens if we don’t win.”
In conversations with large numbers of women, the importance of gender in many instances does seem to be a factor of age. Older DFL women activists seem to place a much higher level of importance on gender than do their younger counterparts.
Rybak also appears to be helped by Amy Klobuchar breaking the state’s glass ceiling when she won election to the U.S. Senate. Klobuchar’s 2006 victory proved that a woman can win powerful office inMinnesota.
Of course, receiving the endorsements of seven legislator won’t swing this race.
And one other factor could help Kelliher as the convention approaches.
It’s clear that state legislators are rushing to complete this session early, explaining in part Monday’s passage of a partial budget fix. These legislators understand that a long session and more feuds with the governor will do nothing to help them win re-election.
Nothing would be more helpful to Kelliher than an early, relatively quiet ending to the session. It would allow her both more time to campaign and a chance to distance herself from the partisan fighting that most Minnesotans have grown so weary of.
Asked for comment, the Kelliher campaign says its statewide support is much broader than seven legislators and wants to have a longer conversation about both the House speaker’s campaign and some of the issues that Rybak has raised. A more in-depth look at the Kelliher campaign will appear in MinnPost soon.
“It is,” said Rybak, “a very fluid race, and it’s probably going to stay that way.”
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.