The Partisans Will Never Find Us Here: Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and the Art of Getting Shit Done
From our winter issue, GOOD 025: The Next Big Thing
To most Americans, Minneapolis is a stranger. There are exceptions, moments when the city percolates up—the first time a kid somewhere hears the Replacements, say, or when a bridge falls into the Mississippi. But to most people most of the time, Minneapolis is a place with no real shape or texture.
Perhaps the city is to blame for its anonymity. Maybe the people hard at work in this laboratory for progressive culture should worry more about outsiders taking notice. The attention, when it comes, is certainly appreciated.
Minneapolitans relish the steady drumbeat of “best city” rankings: No. 1 Bike City (Bicycling magazine, 2011), Gayest City in America (The Advocate, 2011), Most Literate City (America’s Most Literate Cities study, 2007-08). In 2008, Minneapolis was one of only two American cities to make the British Monocle magazine’s list of the most livable cities in the world.
Sure, these are sometimes frivolous and arbitrary contests. But for a city that lives in the imaginations of Americans as a culturally isolated outpost of extreme and permanent cold, they are small but significant triumphs—and evidence that something is going right in Minneapolis.
Civic achievement, banal as it sounds, can be found without following a flow chart during a public meeting at City Hall. It is a buzzing park, a painter turning a street corner utility box into art, block after block of thriving independent businesses, a festival for every obsession and persuasion—it’s growing, engaged immigrant communities. Minneapolis is all of these things. It is not a utopia, not by any stretch. It’s just a city that works.
Across the country, progress tends to come easier at the local government level, if only because partisan politics don’t have the same grip on city hall as they do on the statehouse or on players in Washington, D.C. In Minneapolis, this is especially true. While Minnesota’s state government shut down for 20 days because the GOP-dominated Legislature couldn’t make a budget deal with the Democratic governor, the city’s Democratic mayor answers to a 13-member City Council with nary a Republican member. (Or, for that matter, an independent; the only non-Democrat represents the Green Party.)
City Council President Barb Johnson insists that the city’s one-party makeup is not the reason Minneapolis runs well—theirs is just a less party-centric level of governance.
“That party stuff just does not get in there,” she says. “Why? Because there is no Republican or Democratic way to pick up the garbage. And because you have to be able to perform. When somebody calls 911 and needs a police officer, you have to send a police officer. If a water line breaks in front of somebody’s house, it has to be fixed. It isn’t policy, it is doing the work. And that’s what city government is all about.
“My mother was on the City Council for 23 years and she used to say she liked city government because if somebody asked you to do something, maybe you could actually get something done. We own equipment, we build stuff, we take care of things. The other people are just pass-throughs.”
“We Build Stuff and Take Care of Things” would be a fitting motto for Minneapolis (the current version—“City of Lakes”— could use an overhaul). In this city, “bike friendly” doesn’t just mean painting a few stripes on busy roads; it means entire streets being converted to “Bike Boulevards.” In a place deeply committed to locavore values, the city has fueled a thriving network of community gardens through its “Homegrown Minneapolis” program.
Or take a more urgent issue: youth violence. In 2008, the city launched its “Blueprint for Action” initiative, which required broad involvement from the community, paid special attention to young people who turned up in emergency rooms with injuries from fights, promoted employment programs for people with criminal backgrounds, and paired young people with adults to help get them through summers. Since 2006, youth homicides dropped by half and youth violent crime overall fell by more than 60 percent.
Oh, and that bridge that fell down? The city convinced former Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty to make its replacement lightrail ready.
The City of Lakes is not without its problems and failures. The economy is stagnant. Poverty is increasing. But many of the city’s issues are rooted in decisions made far beyond the reach of City Hall.
“Shit rolls downhill, right?” says David Brauer, who has covered Minneapolis city government on and off for three decades. “They can’t pass their obligations off to some other unit of government, so on some level that is where it all settles.”
Standing right there, where all of it settles, probably smiling and waving in his trademark mismatched socks, is Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.
“City governments are the last standing functional form of government in the United States and possibly the world,” says Rybak, who was 13 when he decided he wanted to be mayor.
The 56-year-old Minneapolis native has had the job for a decade. Over that time, he has paid down the city’s debt, maintained a healthy relationship with the City Council, and steered the city to that list of scattered accolades.
And he’s managed to make himself a national figure. Rybak was the first mayor to endorse Barack Obama, and that was after leading an effort urging him to run. This fall he was selected to serve as a vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee, a position rarely filled by a mayor. It’s no surprise to anybody who has been watching Rybak’s evolution. He embodies the progressive ethos just as fully as he does the city that has elected him three times.
“I was watching that show Undercover Boss,” says Barb Johnson, “and they had the mayor of Cincinnati disguise himself and go out to talk to city employees about their work. It was fascinating, and I was thinking, ‘That could never happen here, I don’t care what you put on him.’ He is Mr. Minneapolis. He walks down the street and people call out, ‘R.T.!’ They have this personal connection with him. He has changed the mold for Minneapolis mayors just on the force of his personality.”
For all his charisma, he’s not a Chicagostyle Mayor Daley type. That kind of arrogance would be unbecoming of a Minnesotan, and Rybak is all Minnesotan. “I have a lot of strong opinions,” he says, “but I don’t want a job where I just walk into a room and say, ‘Here’s my idea!’ and slam my fist on the table. I do some of that, but mostly what I do is try to lead a very complicated, empowered coalition of public and private partners.”
There is no room for dictators at any level, says City Council member Gary Schiff. “In many cities across the country, I meet my colleagues who just relish the role of being a ward boss and the only person you can go to if you want a broken manhole cover fixed,” he says. “Those are cities, frankly, that do not work.”
“It would have been a lot of fun to be a mayor during the Great Society, where you could write a big fat check and make something happen,” Rybak says. “Now you have to bring your resources to the table. Very few mayors can solve any major problems on their own. You must bring what the city has to offer and inspire people from other levels of government, the private sector, business and residents to come together. There are close to 400,000 people living in 60 square miles here, and my job is to figure out a way to get them to do as much of the work together as possible.”
Rybak didn’t expect to win. It was his first campaign for public office, and his opponent seemed unbeatable. Sharon Sayles Belton was the city’s first black mayor, its first woman mayor, and she had been in office for eight years—an incumbent hadn’t lost in Minneapolis in nearly a quarter century. Rybak’s plan in 2001 was merely to run, get name recognition, and lose. He’d go back to his family and his work as an internet consultant, and then he’d run again later.
He took 65 percent of the vote.
In an early profile, the newly elected Rybak dismissed the traditional up-the-ladder approach in politics: “This isn’t the Army, where you have one rank then go to the next rank,” he said. “I’ve trained for this job in ways that no one’s trained for this job. If people think the only people qualified to elected office are the ones who are already there and the rest of us who have never held office are somehow supposed to be subjects of that permanent ruling class then we have a pretty lousy idea of a democracy.”
At Boston College in the mid-’70s, Rybak studied urban affairs, political science, and communications—a makeshift major in mayoral studies. “I went away to college with the express idea that I wanted to come home, write about development for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and then be mayor,” he says.
Rybak basically stuck to the script, though he added a half-dozen steps between his years as a reporter and his first day in the mayor’s office. He learned real estate from the inside, developed plans to bring valuable businesses to the city (and met mixed results), became part of the local media landscape as publisher of a now-defunct altweekly called the Twin Cities Reader, and gained tech savvy as an internet consultant. In his spare time he worked with a group of friends to host annual events—quirky galas with cheap tickets—to raise money for nonprofits working to make systemic changes in the lives of the poor.
Oh, and there was the time with the pajamas. One of the last bold endeavors of Rybak’s civilian life was Residents Against Airport Racket (ROAR), a group of locals living near the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport that became known for “pajama protests.” Organization members and sympathizers would show up in whatever they wore to bed to underscore a simple point: the noise was keeping them up. Not surprisingly, they were covered generously. Rybak’s next public stunt was running for mayor.
His talent for eye contact is the stuff of legend. When we met this fall at a south Minneapolis cafe, he locked eyes with me before I had even asked my first question. I waited for him to break the stare. An hour passed and it didn’t happen once. I swear— not once. It was like he was trying to send me quotes telepathically.
Rybak’s gaze is just as intense when he is listening. He says it was his years as a newspaper reporter that taught him to listen. On his earliest door-knocking expeditions,one would open and, “I’d launch into this big speech. People would be polite, or glaze over or slam the door. Then I realized, ‘You’ve done this before; go back to your training as a reporter.’ So I’d walk up to the door and just start asking people questions.”
What he heard began to shape his political philosophy. “When I’m no longer asking questions and can’t tell the story of Minneapolis,” he says, “I shouldn’t be mayor.”
One Minneapolis story is familiar to cities everywhere: debt. In 2001, while Rybak was still door-knocking, Minneapolis lost its AAA bond rating. The city was hundreds of millions of dollars in debt after years of awarding bonuses for businesses moving into town, including a $62 million taxpayerfunded subsidy to lure Target’s corporate headquarters and $39 million for an entertainment and retail complex that has been dying a slow death ever since.
Campaigning against this kind of spending, Rybak told a Star Tribune reporter, “You need to know when to write a check from the citizens’ checkbook and when to make the private sector pay their own bill.” Once in office, Rybak focused on paying down the city’s debt. “As a mayor, you can be a very progressive person who is also a tough fiscal manager,” he says. “I don’t know where else in politics you can do that anymore.”
Another Minneapolis story: diversity. The city has the largest Somali population in the nation. The refugee community’s connections to suicide bombings and other attacks inside Somalia have made international headlines and drawn the attention of federal law enforcement, but the lesscovered story is one of boundless contribution to the city’s culture and economy.
The city is also home to a large Hmong contingent; refugees first started settling in the United States after the Vietnam War. And there are significant Latino and Native American communities. Statewide, Minnesota’s population is largely homogenous; looking and feeling more than a little like the world of Lake Wobegon, Garrison Keillor’s fictional, white-bread town. Still, as immigrants and refugees find work away from the state’s urban center in small-town processing plants and other agricultural enterprises, Keillor’s Minnesota grows more fictional by the day.
The hardest Minneapolis story for Rybak to tell: the one about its inequality. According to a 2011 study by the Minneapolis Foundation, more than half of the city’s black children are living in poverty. People of color make up 40 percent of the city’s population but just 17 percent of its workforce. A 2010 report from the Economic Policy Institute ranked the nation’s 50 largest metropolitan areas by the black-white employment gap; the Twin Cities, where the unemployment rate for blacks is three times that of whites, was the worst of the bunch.
“This town often has a more extreme reaction to people of different races than any of us like to admit,” Rybak told a reporter in 1990. He was quoted in a story about young people of color feeling distrusted, and worse, in downtown Minneapolis. The 30-something Rybak was in real estate at the time.
“The biggest issue with our city,” Rybak says today, “is this place, which has done phenomenally well, has one of the worst haves-and-have-nots situations of any city in the country.”
Nowhere is the gap more glaring than on Minneapolis’ north side, where neighborhoods have been taking one hit after another. There was the foreclosure crisis, of course, which hollowed out entire city blocks. Then, this year, a tornado wracked the area; one estimate put the number of families made homeless at 100. And this summer, though violent crime overall has been on the decline, three teenage boys were murdered on thenorth side.
“I want to solve north Minneapolis,” Rybak says. A moment later, he is more measured: “We won’t ‘solve it.’ But we will continue to move the dial forward.”
The city has poured resources into youth mentoring, job training, and other initiatives on the north side and in poverty-stricken neighborhoods of the south side. Just as important, Rybak insists, is the simple act of being present.
At a national meeting of American mayors not long after taking office, Rybak was pulled aside by a mayor he’d rather not name. The unsolicited advice: Never bring the bad news, and never be where the bad news is. “I reject that,” Rybak says. “When something happens, I dive in. I show up.”
That might mean showing up to a meeting to discuss allegations of police misconduct or it might mean showing up at the scene of a crime.
Ask Rybak about Tyesha Edwards and he exhales slowly. At 3 p.m. on November 22, 2002, 11-year-old Tyesha and her 8-year-old sister were sitting at their dining room table, settling in for math homework. Gunshots were heard outside. A bullet came through a wall and went into Tyesha’s chest, knocking her to the floor.
The mayor got a call at his office. The victim, who was the same age as one of his own children, was at the hospital, her condition unknown. Soon, Rybak was in a waiting room with Tyesha’s parents.
“We were in a room together as complete strangers and the doctor comes in to tell them that Tyesha was dead.” He struggled then, as he struggles now, with what his role should be at times of great personal tragedy.
At some point, he says, he realized, “I’m representing all the people who see it on the news and feel horrible and want to say something. So I just go there.” If a family doesn’t want him around, Rybak says, he gets out of the way. “People don’t want me there, I’m not there.”
“Over time, when you do that a lot, it takes a toll,” he says. “I’ve wondered how ministers do that kind of thing so much.”
He rattles off the programs the city has in place to address the full spectrum of issues that lead to violence—the Blueprint for Action, North 4 Project (intensive job training and case management in four north Minneapolis neighborhoods), Summer612 (1,000 kids working on youth-led, microgrant-funded creative projects)—and says, “Years ago, when a kid got shot and I was dealing with grieving family members, there were a couple of times I honestly thought, ‘I don’t know what to do.’
“Now we do. It’s resources, it’s focus, it’s sometimes just, you know, compassion. We know what to do. We’ve got a plan.”
Every week Rybak and his staff meet and stare up at a whiteboard where everybody has listed their priorities. There is a column off to the side called “Incoming.” This is where major catastrophes like a bridge collapse or a tornado might go, as well as urgent matters of lesser intensity. As we spoke, the Occupy Minnesota protests, planned for a spot across the street from City Hall, were in that column.
“One of the appeals of this job to me is that you have to keep lots of plates spinning at once, and they’re very different shapes,” Rybak says. “I need to take very seriously the issue of a kid getting shot in north Minneapolis, but in a different way, equally seriously, the break-in of a neighborhood that expects to be safe all the time.
“Every day you wake up and there are thousands of actions you could take. But the most important thing is to pick one and stay there.”