Rybak reflects on priorities for his final months at City Hall

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September 25, 2013 // UPDATED 5:08 pm - October 2, 2013
By: Sarah McKenzie
Mayor R.T. Rybak next to the white board in his office.
By Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie
The mayor also offers words of advice for his successor

The white board in Mayor R.T. Rybak’s office reveals an ambitious agenda for his remaining months in City Hall.

He’s focused on negotiating deals to ensure that a host of major projects come to fruition after he leaves office at the end of the year. Many of the deals still have a lot of logistical hurdles to clear and financing plans to finalize.

While the stadium deal has been one of the most controversial causes Rybak has championed in his 12 years as mayor, he said he’s confident that the new Vikings stadium and development deal envisioned by Ryan Cos. adjacent to the football team’s new home will come together as planned.

“When a spaceship comes in from outer space it shakes like crazy — that says it's almost home,” he said of the various setbacks that stadium planners have faced in recent weeks.

While he didn’t offer specifics about what he plans to do after his mayoral tenure ends, he said he’s looking forward to digging deeper into fewer issues — ones related to tackling the city’s notorious achievement gap in the schools and other significant racial disparities that have attracted so much attention on the campaign trail this year.

Rybak said he’s committed to staying in Minneapolis, adding he turned down a job with President Obama’s administration because he didn’t want to move to D.C.

He’ll be doing a mix of public and private work, he said, including serving on an oversight group charged with reviewing the Mayo Clinic expansion project in Rochester.

“My best work is ahead of me,” Rybak said.

Here are highlights from a recent interview with the mayor reflecting on his final few months at City Hall and the state of the city he’s leaving behind for his successor. 

>>> What’s your take on the fact that 35 people are vying for your job?

I think it’s fantastic to have a big open conversation about whose leading the city next. It’s complicated to have 35 people with Ranked Choice Voting, but it would be a lot worse to have one or two people in a boring election nobody was talking about. Let’s have a big open conversation, but lets also remind the residents of Minneapolis this will take a lot of work to sort through a field of some very good people .

>>> What’s your advice for voters?

First off don’t try to imitate the mayor who is walking out the door even if you happen to like him. Different people should bring different skills, and after 12 years you shouldn’t be looking for a clone.

Second, pay attention to whether someone can be independent enough to make the tough choices you need. Those who think I was successful or not successful often mischaracterize the situation that got me here. I was able to do a lot of significant things in large part because I got elected in a near fluke where I owed very little to the people who ask very much of City Hall.

Usually when you run for an office like mayor and you win, you’ve gotten a lot of money and support from people who have special, vested interests. I sent more than $10,000 back in checks to people who were doing business with the city, and I also had almost none of the “usual” suspects backing me in that race.

It allowed me in the second week to cut $5 million out of the budget from the previous year that hadn’t been finished, and over the next 12 years to pay off a couple hundred million dollars in debt, reform the pension system, say no to a bunch of development interests who wanted subsidies and a multiple other things I never could have done.

Pay attention to whose funding what campaign. Pay attention to who is a special interest. That comes in many forms. There is one person who happens to represent the pensions, the police and fire unions, the Park Board named Brian Rice — perfectly good guy but he is supporting Mark Andrew. Make sure Mark Andrew can turn around and say no to him, which is perfectly legitimate. Maybe he can, but make that be proven. When unions endorse people that’s a sign of support from people who do work for the city , but it’s also a sign the candidate is going to have to turn around and say no to them.

We should have complete scrutiny on who is writing campaign checks, and whether they are developers who do good business … but make sure that candidate can say no to the developer when they ask for public money.

I think it’s imperative for media to comb through those records of contributions and make them public, and it’s imperative for the voters to actually look at that.

There’s a lot that has been written about how I got elected and reelected, but the bottom line is through a lot of intentional work on our part and the dumb luck of having nobody think I could win, I got here with very few hooks in me.

People who got money or support from people with interests in the city can do well here if you are guaranteed that they can say no to that person.

(Editor’s note: When Andrew was asked to respond to Rybak’s comments about Brian Rice, he said: “My career of bringing people together to get things done for our community speaks directly against any idea that I am beholden to any particular person or interest. Take a look at my campaign — it’s a broad coalition of people, many of whom disagree on this or that issue, but do agree that I'm a proven progressive leader who collaborates and gets results.”)

>>> How would you compare the state of the city when you took office to the one you’ll be leaving your successor?

There was a lot of good work done before I got here — especially the work on Heritage Park and the work on the central riverfront.

There was a lot of financial work that I was and continue to be critical of — we spent many years cleaning that up. There were a few tough decisions that should have been made earlier and forced us to make some even tougher ones later, especially regarding pension reform.

Today the city spends less money compared to inflation, has reformed scores of regulations that have made it easier to do business, has results-based management that has clear indicators for every department, which are made public, and has a 311 system that allows for two-way governance.

There are many physical things that I think are improvements. Number one being the vacant Sears building is now Midtown Exchange and the Global Market. Number two being the Riverside Coal Plant that was a major polluter and responsible for extremely high childhood asthma rates has now been converted to cleaner natural gas. And many physical improvements in transportation — like the Marquette and 2nd bus rapid transit corridor — and all the bike improvements. We got a lot done over 12 years.

The irony is that the biggest things are now just about to happen — landing the stadium, redoing Target Center and a five-block redevelopment [in Downtown East] that’s going to include a two-block park and the Nicollet Mall redesign. …

We’re really trying to shed smaller things. SW LRT is taking a tremendous amount of our time, and on a different level, the Orchestra. They are two things we didn’t expect to be dealing with right now.

Or on the upside, the response to our marriage equality tour has gone wildly beyond what anyone expected. None of that was on our agenda. The whole marriage thing wasn’t on our agenda at all this year — that was a labor of love.

>>> What’s your advice for the next mayor?

Try to be respected more than loved. You can’t make everybody happy, and they won’t agree with everything you do. Just hope that they agree with about 51 percent of what you do, and they generally think  you’re honest about decisions. If people wanted a mayor they agree with on every issue, they’d stick in a call-in poll in the mayor’s chair. They’re paying you to bring your judgment to City Hall, and they might not always express that when they deeply disagree with you on an issue. But you’re paid to get as much information as you can — keeping the people’s voice in your head — but at the end of the day you’ve got to make a decision. Keep the door open. Whenever you have a problem open the door, but at a certain point you’ve got to close it and make a choice. Make up your mind and get it done.

>>> What are your top priorities in your final months? 

My priorities in my final months will be slightly different than my overall priorities, which is just a function of what’s going on. I’m spending a lot of time on a couple of physical improvements — the stadium, Nicollet Mall, Target Center, Southwest LRT, streetcars. They are all physical things, and [previously] almost all of my time has been focused on issues involving people — crime, economic development, including programs like STEP-UP and job re-training. “A Safe Place to Call Home” has always been our core goal. We have a great new police chief up and running with real challenges, and I’ll continue to be engaged in that.

But frankly I have to be really focused on landing these things that I have deep experience in that would be much more difficult for someone walking in. So I’m focused a lot on the things where I have a deep well of knowledge that would take another person a lot of time to catch up on.

I also personally think the largest piece of unfinished work is making sure every school in the city is performing as high as it needs to be for every kid. That is not at all on the mayor’s agenda, but  it is absolutely on mine so I’m spending a lot of time on that work in partnership with our superintendent. That is something I will be very engaged in when I leave.

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Share your thoughts on Rybak’s legacy

As Mayor R.T. Rybak approaches his final months in office, we want to collect thoughts from readers about the mayor. We’d love to hear from you.

What do you think Rybak’s legacy will be? What do you think his greatest accomplishments have been, and what important issues remain to be resolved by his successor?

Also, what are your hopes for the new mayor of Minneapolis? Email your thoughts to smckenzie@mnpubs.com. (Please include your name and neighborhood with your email.)