Weighing In

The Compulsiveness of the Long-Distance Runner
Six months into his mayoral term, R.T. Rybak can't stop campaigning

By G.R. Anderson Jr.

A pack of parade floats are lined up along Minneapolis's Central Avenue, sparkling in the Tuesday evening sun. The tinseled flatbed trailer bearing Miss Columbia Heights blares out "Survivor" by Destiny's Child, while Miss Blaine's float blasts a tinny version of "Born in the U.S.A." Farther down the line, the percussion sections of the Minneapolis Police Band and the Zuhrah Drum Corps compete to be heard.

At the starting point of the Celebrate Northeast Parade, a vacant expanse of gravel at Central and 28th Avenue NE, a veritable orgy of public officials up for reelection wait to do a high-octane meet-and-greet with the floatgazers. Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar is here. So is Hennepin County Commissioner and failed Minneapolis mayoral candidate Mark Stenglein (sporting an American-flag tie). Independence Party gubernatorial candidate Christine Jax and her husband, DFL State Rep. Len Biernat (brother of Minneapolis City Council member Joe Biernat), linger near some old railroad tracks. Ken Pentel, the Green Party's choice for governor, and Buck Humphrey, the DFL candidate for Secretary of State with the famous name, loiter nearby.

Suddenly R.T. Rybak, Minneapolis mayor and chronic campaigner, appears from behind a yellow school bus. He's decked out in running shoes, khaki shorts, and a "Moe--Governor for Minnesota" T-shirt, since he's ostensibly here to stump for DFLer Roger Moe, currently the state senate majority leader. Nicely tanned, perfectly coiffed, and somehow perspiration-free, Rybak is darting furiously from one contingent to another, telling a group of Shriners that his stepfather was one of them, and promising the Twin Cities River Rats, a water-ski show team, that he'll come down to the Mississippi one night and go off one of their ski jumps. This is the Rybak we all know by now, the one who insists we call him "R.T."

For the moment, he can't be bothered with Moe's campaign. Instead, he's pushing his own agenda. He's armed with a stack of small green fliers urging support for his plan to get Xcel Energy to convert its Riverside coal plant to natural gas. The leaflets bear a visage of Uncle Sam framed by the declaration, "Mayor Rybak needs you...to give Northeast a breath of fresh air."

Despite the arcane nature of the cause, Rybak is bending ears with success, even among those who otherwise wouldn't think twice about a coal-burning plant. It helps that he's a natural at distilling his message clearly and quickly--and that he's disarmingly sincere. "It's the biggest air polluter we have in our city," he tells a group of soapbox derby racers and their blue-collar parents, some of whom nod in appreciation. "We want the lungs of the kids in Northeast to breathe clean air."

Rybak chats with a group from the Eastside Food Cooperative, a venture he deems to be "a really cool example of how far Central Avenue has come along." He reflects briefly on his campaign stint at this parade last year, lamenting that he was then an unknown stuck bringing up the rear.

"I love parades," he coos in a display of geeky enthusiasm. "I am completely in my element. I love this." And then, in the blink of an eye, he's off again, looking for more flesh to press.

 

Perhaps the mayor's appearance at the parade is emblematic of what we know about Rybak at this point, just more than six months into his tenure. He's maniacally energetic and personable, and true to his word that he's chipping away at the core issues he campaigned on: creating affordable housing, opening up city hall and taming its notorious bureaucracy, and promoting environmentalism. And for the most part, he claims, it's everything he dreamed it would be.

"I'm like the emcee for Minneapolis," Rybak says. "I love that part. This is the only job where I get to be completely R.T. It's the most natural thing for me; it's just what I'm like. I feel like somebody who's been in a singles bar all their lives and suddenly they lock eyes."

But at the same time, it's clear that the mayor--and the inexperienced and activist city council elected along with him--is still engaged in the tricky act of negotiating his way through a first date. By all accounts, Rybak's first six months have been punctuated by surprises, false starts, and campaign promises both enacted and unfulfilled. On one hand, Rybak has been highly visible--something that his predecessor, Sharon Sayles Belton, could never achieve--and active on grassroots, city, and statewide issues. And he wasted no time in tackling Minneapolis's budget crisis and finding ways the entire city council could agree on to make up for the $5.2 million shortfall he inherited. But on the other hand, Rybak's unwavering optimism hasn't been enough to make up for his inexperience, and his urges to reform city government have met with hard realities.

Perhaps the biggest challenge Rybak is grappling with is finding his role in the city's government. Minneapolis, as legend would have it, operates on what is often referred to as a "weak-mayor system." Under the charter of the city of Minneapolis, the document that has governed the city's operations since 1920, the mayor is largely beholden to the city council. The duties of the mayor, as outlined in the legal document, are laid out on roughly a page and a half, while the power granted to the city council consists of 24 sections running more than 12 pages.

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