Bumps, bruises and pride: Rybak begins re-election quest

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February 7, 2005 // UPDATED 1:51 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

When Mayor R.T. Rybak announced his relection bid last week at Franklin Art Works, 1021 Franklin Ave. E., he was just blocks from his parents' former corner store where he launched his first campaign three-plus years ago. In other respects, he was a long way from the Rybak of 2001.

Rybak then was a scrappy political novice, business consultant and airport noise activist known for pajama-party protests at the airport. The guy who boasted mismatched socks surprised DFL insiders when he blocked the party's endorsement of incumbent Sharon Sayles Belton and eventually won the election.

The Rybak of 2005 has had three-plus years to develop a record, with the political bumps and bruises to show for it. Now he is the pursued rather than the pursuer, challenged by veteran Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, and surely others to follow.

Rybak's announcement came as no surprise. The mayor has said all along that he loves the job.

"Go back and look at the past four years - I am proud that we were able to accomplish what we set out to do," said Rybak, during an hour-long, open-ended discussion at Anodyne Coffeehouse, 4301 Nicollet Ave.

"I promised to be a very visible reform-minded mayor, who would be out in the community every day. I have delivered on that promise," he said. "I have led this city through some of the toughest times possible. We have delivered five balanced budgets in three years and more than 2,000 affordable housing units."

Rybak and the City Council have faced huge money challenges not of their making. The state cut tens of millions in city aid. State tax policies shifted property tax costs from commercial property to homeowners. Previous administrations passed on internal borrowing problems. Past city pension debt came due.

Rybak and the Council set a five-year budget, which included an 8 percent overall annual property tax increase. (Some homeowners have seen bigger percentage hikes because of state rate changes.)

Supporters such as Rep. Margaret Anderson Kelliher praise Rybak for his visibility at the Capitol and for working with the Council to get the city on better financial footings.

"I don't see an argument to make change at this particular point," she said. "I think he is doing a good job."

Meanwhile, the Minneapolis Police Federation has criticized Rybak and the Council for cuts to police officers.

Rybak said he made public safety a top priority and "people in Minneapolis are safe." Still, he acknowledges the city needs more cops on the street.

The city lost 120 officers because of federal and state aid cuts, and those are tough to replace, he said. He doesn't have a specific number of police to add back but talks instead about better targeting resources, as different parts of the city have different needs.

Asked how long city taxpayers could sustain 8 percent property tax increases, Rybak reiterated the city's fiscal bind. He said he wasn't "wedded" to the 8 percent annual increases, adding the city needed to diversify its tax base. But, he said, state-aid cuts mean higher property taxes are a necessity.

For example, the state cut business property-tax rates, so Downtown pays less into the city's general fund than it used to - at a time Downtown needs more city services because of more visitors.

"I have been blunt and direct with people about our finances," Rybak said. "I have opened the books, and have done more than 30 community meetings, sometimes with only a few folks in the room, to make sure everyone understood the truth about the situation we are in."

He said he is "seriously considering" increasing the city's half-percent sales tax to pay for police and fire services. He has talked to Council President Paul Ostrow about asking state authority for the sales tax or a new city parking tax.

The mayor has had a bumpy ride trying to improve police-community relations, a key issue raised by residents he door-knocked in 2001. Early in his term, he came under fire for attempting to oust former Police Chief Robert Olson. He took more heat when he appointed Chief William McManus from Dayton, Ohio. Some Council leaders preferred an internal candidate.

Rybak recommended McManus after community leaders helped him screen finalists; he believed McManus would improve relations with minority Minneapolitans. They mayor's efforts have earned him the support of key African American politicians, including Councilmember Don Samuels (3rd Ward) and Rep. Keith Ellison (DFL-Minneapolis).

Said Ellison, "For the first time since I have lived in the state - it is now in 17 years - we have African American leadership openly praising the police chief."

In 2001, Rybak touted his campaign standards. He turned down campaign contributions from people who do business with the city - and will do it again this election, he said. He released the names of all contributors. He worked for new city ethics policies.

However, last month, he took a political uppercut from State Auditor Pat Anderson for sending out a mayoral newsletter that even some supporters thought amounted to taxpayer-funded self-promotion.

Rybak said people have had different interpretations of a state law regarding city newsletters. Asked if he would pay back any of the $42,000 printing and mailing costs, Rybak said he and others have asked the city attorney for guidance. "I will live by that policy," he said.

Rybak deflected questions about McLaughlin, a fellow DFLer who was one of Sayles Belton's strongest supporters.

"I am not going run my campaign based on what Peter McLaughlin is saying," the mayor said. "Peter is not the only person running for mayor. There will be a Republican and an Independent."

Rybak and McLaughlin have made improving public education a top priority, even though the School Board controls the schools. Rybak has chaired the Youth Coordinating Board for the past year. While door-knocking for the 2005 campaign, he said he was particularly interested in people's views on improving the future for Minneapolis youth.

"That includes the role the mayor should play in the schools, but [also] the role that everybody in this community should play in creating strong support around our kids," he said.

A number of Southwest legislative leaders besides Anderson Kelliher have announced their support for Rybak, including state Sen. Jane Ranum and Rep. Paul Thissen, Frank Hornstein and Jean Wagenius. They said Rybak has been active and present on key city issues.

"He said he was going to be a cheerleader for the city. I think he has been," Ranum said.

(Southwest-area representatives Karen Clark and Neva Walker and Sen. Scott Dibble did not return phone calls. Sen. Linda Berglin swapped phone messages with a reporter but was not interviewed in time for the story.)

State Sen. Wes Skoglund (DFL-Minneapolis) backs McLaughlin. He said Rybak has been attentive at the Legislature. Yet Skoglund didn't like how the mayor treated former Chief Olson and he thought Rybak flip-flopped on the baseball stadium issue.

Skoglund supports McLaughlin because "he knows how to close the deal. He gets things done. He brings people together," he said.

Others have touted Rybak's bridge-building efforts - and not just his natural city allies.

Karen Anderson, Minnetonka's mayor, said she worked with Rybak on the Mayor's Regional Affordable Housing Task Force and Rybak provided visible leadership to encourage suburban affordable housing initiatives. Rybak had taken a leadership role in a new regional mayors group that is working on a range of related housing, job and transportation issues, she said.

"Mayor Rybak has reached out to suburban communities on a number of occasions," she said. "I am one of his biggest fans."

James Hovland, Edina's new mayor, said he has talked to Rybak and Minneapolis leaders about the Crosstown Commons project and the smoking ban. They didn't necessarily agree on the issues, but they were talking.

"I have been on Council eight years, and since [Rybak] has been mayor I would say it is the first time we have had dialogue on any level on any issue and it has been on a couple of issues," he said.