Mayor R.T. Rybak and Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin squared off for their first mayoral debate Feb. 23, and it looked more like an October general election run-up than a February precaucus spar. Approximately 700 people packed the Washburn High School auditorium in southwest Minneapolis, with a good number spilling over into the balcony.
Candidates struck already-familiar campaign themes during the hour-plus debate, which came a week before the March 1 city DFL precinct caucuses. Rybak painted himself as a strong mayor who has made tough decisions to right the city's financial ship amid state funding cuts. For example, during his tenure, the city has started paying off old debts. Still, Rybak promised "the best is yet to come."
McLaughlin said the city is "in grave danger" and faces "serious problems" just below the surface - in public safety, schools and neighborhoods. He said it takes "more than cheerleading" and, as mayor, he promised, "vision," "focus" and "follow-through."
Based on hoots and applause, Rybak appeared to have more partisans in the crowd, and at one point moderator Kerri Miller asked the audience to tone down its response (they responded with an apparently playful hiss.)
Friends Jeff Brockmann and Aki Yoshino of Downtown's Laurel Village entered the debate undecided. Brockmann said he probably wouldn't go to his March 1 precinct caucus and didn't have a burning issue he wanted the candidates to address. "I don't know what the difference is between the two."
Georgine Knutson from Northeast left the debate in a quandary. "I'm torn," she said. "I like both candidates a lot. Rybak has a better presentation. Peter has a lot of good ideas."
Rybak said during the debate that he and McLaughlin probably agreed on 98 percent of the issues. Still, the two traded barbs; key volleys were over public safety and budget issues.
McLaughlin said Rybak had not made public safety a priority and that he would. He said the city's Fire Department cuts made it so the city was a "one-fire town," meaning it did not have enough staff to cover two simultaneous fires.
Rybak shot back that the city had mutual aid agreements with surrounding communities. He likened McLaughlin's police and fire characterizations to scare tactics President Bush has used on Iraq and Social Security. He told the audience not to let anyone tell them there would be more cops on the street without laying out a financial plan explaining how they would do it.
Miller pressed the candidates on how they would face the city's worsening financial picture. Both decried state changes that shifted tax burden from commercial industrial property onto residential owners.
Rybak said he and the Council had created five-year budgets that project ongoing cuts in services for all departments. He criticized past city administrations for passing hidden costs to future generations. "I won't go back to the old ways of doing things," he said. "I do believe it is the responsible way of doing things."
McLaughlin said he had helped balance the county's budget in the past and would be more effective than Rybak at working with the Legislature in securing money. There are no easy answers to the city's budget problems, he said. "I don't have my list of cuts."
The two sparred on the thorny and dense issue of public pensions. McLaughlin criticized Rybak and the Council majority for turning down state pension aid legislation that could have pumped $24 million into the city long term - paying for more police. Rybak said the deal had hidden costs and that a panel of financial experts led by former State Finance Commission Jay Kiedrowski had recommended against the plan.
Rybak and McLaughlin also sparred over the Sears building redevelopment at Lake Street & Chicago Avenue. Rybak touted his negotiating role in getting Allina into the old Sears building; McLaughlin said Rybak gave a "truncated" history, noting the Phillips Partnership that he worked on for years helped rebuild the neighborhood by addressing crime, housing and jobs, making it an attractive place for Allina.
McLaughlin criticized Rybak for changing positions - on the baseball stadium, on holding nonelection year fund-raisers, and for undermining the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP).
Rybak said his position on the Twins changed when the team faced contraction and St. Paul began its own stadium proposal. He reiterated his pledge not to take money from people who do business with the city and challenged McLaughlin to do the same.