Give me an R! Give me a T!

Happy to be compared to St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, R.T. Rybak wants to use Minneapolis's top office to sell the city

 

In 1979, a year after graduating from Boston College, Rybak landed a job at the Minneapolis Tribune before it merged with the Star. During his eight-year stint at the paper, Rybak did in fact work the development beat. The experience he most often cites, though, was his later "union activism" as chair of the Star and Tribune's worker-participation committee. "It was a really formative experience to be just a regular worker who sat down every month with the publisher of the paper and talked about workplace issues," he recalls, adding that he hopes to set up similar meetings between labor and management as mayor.

The worker-participation committee no longer exists at the Star Tribune. Responding to an e-mail query on the subject, Strib columnist and longtime union stalwart Doug Grow says the committee "was supposed to be a progressive way" for unions and management to work together on issues of common interest. "During one of my trips through union leadership, we tried to jack up worker [participation], but, in short order, both management and workers decided it was pretty much bullshit," Grow says. "But that doesn't mean R.T. was full of it. When he would have been involved, there actually was hope that many workplace issues could be resolved through this sort of group.

"I know R.T. still believes that more conversation between management and workers is a good thing. Without trying to be too cynical, what I have found is that management tends to want to use these sorts of things to manipulate the gullible."

Rybak's sunny view of labor relations is curious, considering that he was disciplined for conflict of interest in 1986 by Roger Parkinson, the same publisher he once met with monthly. At the time Rybak, who was working the development beat, was intrigued by an offer to become development director at the Minneapolis Downtown Council. According to Rybak, when he informed his editors of the potential conflict and asked to be put on a different beat, he was suspended--a punishment he still considers unfair. After his suspension, he was transferred off the development beat. Approximately six months later, he accepted the council's job offer. (Parkinson, who no longer works for the Strib, was unavailable. Tim McGuire, editor of the paper, told City Pages that neither he nor anyone from the paper would comment.)

Even though Rybak's two-plus-year stint with the downtown council ended more than eleven years ago, he cites the experience more frequently than any other item on his résumé, in large part because it provides him with a kind of instant credibility on "bloated development projects" like Target and Block E that have become an albatross for Sayles Belton. This June, when Rybak listed his credentials after a Strib op-ed piece, "A better downtown for millions less," his position as development director received top billing. And of all the things he has done, he says he is most proud of "keeping independent businesses downtown and bringing the Farmers Market to Nicollet Mall when I was on the downtown council."

Rybak was essentially a jack of all trades on the council. He coordinated marketing campaigns, recruited businesses for offices and storefronts, and alerted city leaders if an existing tenant was considering leaving Minneapolis. "His title was development director, but the job wasn't really creating development in that sense; it was more like he was downtown improvement director," says Bob King, the council's president at the time. "And he was very good at that." Although listed beneath King and the council's board of directors on the organization's flow chart, Rybak had a creative energy compelled people to view him as "the voice of the downtown council," says Chris Corcoran, who then served as the organization's marketing director.

Still, that voice didn't pack much clout. Rybak's service on the council coincided with a period when the organization was deeply in debt and had a membership less than half of what it is today. "The council had such a low profile in the late Eighties that I was publisher of the Skyway News and I couldn't tell you what they did," says Todd Klingl, who is now the council's executive vice president. "In terms of advocacy and representation, they just weren't that visible." John Labosky, who eventually replaced Bob King in 1989 and is now president of the Capitol City Partnership in St. Paul, adds that the organization "didn't have enough large corporate support. Most of the representatives were middle managers from small businesses." Rybak concedes that the council was "in the tank" when he arrived.

After King resigned as council president, Rybak was among the candidates reviewed by a search committee. "They told me they wanted to bring in an older, more seasoned person, which I totally understood," Rybak says. "But they brought in Labosky, who was not older nor more seasoned. So there wasn't much of a hat for me there."

Two months after the 40-year-old Labosky took over, the 33-year-old Rybak left the council and went to work for a year at Eberhardt Commercial Real Estate. As fate would have it, most of his time was spent on early versions of the now-controversial Target and Block E developments. "It was like being in a graduate school of development," Rybak says. "I got my real estate license and learned the nuts and bolts of the business. Unfortunately, it was right around this time that the real estate market collapsed."

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