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

"I'm not saying anyone is corrupt," he says. "But the system is corrupt. This isn't an abstract issue for me. As a reporter I stood in the back of the room and saw the developer and the lobbyist motioning the council member out in the hall. I saw similar things at the downtown council and in the private business world. Anybody who says that money doesn't have influence at city hall doesn't know city hall."

 

Given his activist roots, his position on fundraising, and his relative lack of political experience, it's surprising that Rybak hasn't defined himself more clearly as the fresh-faced outsider in this campaign. Whether he has chosen this course because of political calculation or something more personal is difficult to know. But from the start, he has coveted the reputation and respect accorded a player. (In four of the five times we are together, each time without prompting, he relates that Sayles Belton has never once asked his advice or called for him to serve on a board.)

Of the four major candidates, Rybak is the only one you can imagine thinking up a plan to stage a protest demonstration in his pajamas. But during his campaign, he has spent more time trying to finesse the negatives of that irreverence than he has embracing the positives. He makes affordable housing his top campaign priority, then downplays his credentials as a neighborhood activist and NRP supporter, equivocates when given the support of affordable-housing stalwart Jim Niland, refuses a specific dollar commitment of city resources, and spends most of his time talking about private sector solutions. On most every issue, he often overstates the breadth and depth of his experience, frequently referring to his expertise as a developer, union activist, and business executive.

But the truth is, Rybak makes a lousy insider. The candidates for whom he has worked the hardest (Rip Rapson, Tony Bouza, and Bill Bradley, in his presidential campaign) all failed to live up to expectations, let alone win. Even when he dresses up and does his best Norm Coleman impersonation before the businesspeople at the downtown council, they don't trust him--and rightfully so, since he wants to diminish their megabuck subsidies and their convenient, round-the-clock airport.

Rybak is that rare candidate who needs more seven-foot Styrofoam air fresheners and fewer position papers. His knowledge of the inner workings of business and politics is not quite enough to qualify him as a bona fide mover and shaker, but it sure makes for a pleasantly surprising second and third impression once his glib wit and good looks have gotten your attention.

By trying to have it both ways--insider and outsider--Rybak runs the risk of appearing to be neither. With a fraction of the war chest that is available to each of his three rivals, his media ads and personal appearances over these next few weeks are crucial and must be memorable.

It is ironic: Even Rybak's critics admit that he has a great love and passion for this city. Aside from four years of college, he has spent his entire life living in Minneapolis. And yet, despite all his activity during that time, a late June poll in the Star Tribune showed him with just 22 percent name recognition, tied with perennial also-ran Dick Franson. That is not the way to fulfill a lifelong dream. That is the path of an outsider--by default--come Election Day.

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