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

"We look at R.T. with admiration and confusion," Grabarski continues. "We have heard he is very critical of some of the business deals downtown and yet we did not hear that from him when he spoke. We like what he says, but then we know of his alliance with Progressive Minnesota, including one of the people advising him on his campaign."

That person would be Niland, who says, "Rybak is absolutely a progressive. I wouldn't be supporting him if he wasn't."

"Some of Sharon's supporters downtown are tying me to Progressive Minnesota," counters Rybak. "I'm not endorsed by Progressive Minnesota. A lot of them are also tying me to Jim Niland. Jim Niland knows exactly where I stand on development issues. I would have agreed with him on some things and disagreed with him on others. I think he sees me as a change agent, and I'm proud of that."

Rybak's more classically liberal leanings are reflected in the environmental reforms that make up the third of his top four priorities. His proposal to ban the sale of phosphorus-based lawn fertilizers in Minneapolis is an extension of his earlier marketing effort with the organization SWIM. The ban would have limited effectiveness; residents could simply drive to an adjoining suburb to buy fertilizer. But in conjunction with similar laws already enacted in Plymouth and New Hope, it would put pressure on the Legislature to regulate usage statewide.

Rybak's other environmental cause is the issue with which he is most often identified--curbing noise and air pollution by reducing flight traffic. Born and raised in south Minneapolis, where residents have been opposing airport noise since 1947, Rybak joined ROAR shortly after it was founded in 1998. As much as anyone, he is responsible for expanding the organization to include more than 200 active members. Combining his public-relations savvy with the irreverence and camaraderie that is the lifeblood of any nascent community-activist group, Rybak put ROAR in the public consciousness by spearheading a "pajama party" media event out at the airport in January 1999 to protest the frequency of night flights.

As mayor, Rybak says, he would get the city's health department to compile data independent of the airport commission to measure toxic emissions from the planes, then partner up with an aggressive law firm and "fight against airport pollution the way we fought against tobacco."

"With more cargo hubs and passenger terminals in other locations, we can reduce [noise] pollution and increase capacity across the state," Rybak claims. "I believe we will always have an airport there, but it will run out of room in ten to twenty years unless we want to wipe out about a third of our city."

There are many who believe Rybak is fighting a losing battle on statewide airport issues while opportunities for more local and tangible gains are falling by the wayside. Most of the Minneapolis business community is also supportive of keeping the metro airport running at full capacity. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Airports Commission just scaled back the second stage of its sound abatement program by more than 50 percent, reneging on a commitment that would have benefited hundreds of homes in Minneapolis.

"During its first stage, MAC spent more than $140 million to insulate and soundproof and fix up the housing stock, most of it in Minneapolis. That's more than has been spent on all of the NRP," says Jan Del Calzo, who served for thirteen years on the airports commission and is among the deans of the anti-airport-noise movement. "I don't think Minneapolis [officials] worked as hard as they should have to fight for this and prevent the [second-stage] cuts." While Del Calzo is particularly critical of elected officials whose constituents are directly affected by the cutbacks (such as Sayles Belton and Lisa McDonald), she believes Rybak's considerable energy and grassroots leadership would have been better spent lobbying MAC on sound abatement, which Rybak has referred to as a "Band-Aid."

"The pajama party was a good publicity stunt," Del Calzo says, but points out, "It was almost two years ago and the number of night flights hasn't gone down. If the goal of the group is fewer night flights and a new airport, I don't think you can give them a passing grade."

Probably the most pronounced and admirable difference between Rybak and the three other mayoral candidates is his fourth major priority: "Restore trust in city hall." Unlike the other candidates, Rybak has foresworn any PAC money and has said that he will release the names and dollar amounts of everyone who has contributed to his campaign. While his three rivals all expect to raise and spend about half a million dollars apiece, he says he'll keep his fundraising to a maximum of $200,000.

The reform Rybak is really after is a ban (or a complete disclosure) of any contributions in the years between elections, which currently are unrestricted. "The real issue is that for three years they can raise as much money as they want when they are taking votes on multimillion-dollar developments and doing huge zoning changes. Lisa is head of the zoning and planning committee. If you're a developer, that matters. Sharon is the mayor. If you are a developer, that matters. Stenglein is on the county board, which has a ton of different contracts.

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