The real R.T. Rybak

Up close and personal with the Minneapolis mayor

The real R.T. Rybak
Jana Freiband

Tall stage lights in the back of Java Joe's coffee shop in Des Moines, Iowa, wash the brick-walled space in an unnatural white glow. Wedged behind the soundboards and camera equipment, producers mutter instructions into headsets.

In 30 minutes, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak will be beamed live to America.

"This is kind of fun," Rybak says after seeing the crowded set for the first time. He's dressed the part: a somber gray suit, an olive and yellow patterned tie, his silver hair effortlessly neat.

Rybak and Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan go over 2011 crime statistics for members of the press
Jana Freiband
Rybak and Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan go over 2011 crime statistics for members of the press
Rybak catches up with Mitt Romney's campaign bus in Ames, Iowa.
Jessica Lussenhop
Rybak catches up with Mitt Romney's campaign bus in Ames, Iowa.

The remote interview on MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell Reports is Rybak's first stop ahead of the Iowa caucus. As the vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, Rybak has been chosen to rebut Mitt Romney's attacks on President Barack Obama.

"We're kind of like the wedding crashers," crows Rybak.

He throws his jacket on the back of a chair, and huddles with staffers around a small table to distill long anti-Romney arguments into sound bites. The clatter of dishes and whistle of milk steamers makes for less than ideal study, but Rybak uses his almost inhuman ability to focus on what's in front of him.

"It's almost to the point where I have too much information in my head," Rybak murmurs.

A plate of sliders arrives. "Shit," Rybak sighs, peeling back one of buns. "They put American cheese on here. The only thing in the world I won't eat."

During a momentary lull in the chaos, one of the DNC staff inquires about how the mayor celebrated Christmas. The question sinks Rybak's cheery demeanor.

"It was really hard, to be blunt," Rybak blurts.

His 13-year-old niece Shannon—the spitting image of a young Natalie Portman—was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor in the spring. Over the holidays, her condition dramatically worsened, and Rybak and his wife held vigil at her bedside.

"It's beyond anything I've ever had to deal with," Rybak says, trailing off.

The staffers look on in stunned silence. Breaking the mood, someone says: "Let's bring it to a lighter note before you go on."

"I'll get you a round of ones without cheese for when you're done," chimes in another, whisking the offending sliders away.

"Yeah," Rybak agrees, trying to shake his attention back to the present.

Moments later, he's beckoned over to the seat at the center of the glowing white light. It's showtime.

  

THIS MONTH MARKS 10 years since Rybak—a businessman and former journalist who'd never held public office—ousted a popular incumbent to become the 46th mayor of Minneapolis. He's held the job for three terms, along the way besting formidable opponents and silencing skeptics who assumed he was too green to handle the city's multimillion-dollar debt crisis.

"A lot of people in the DFL didn't think he was going to be up to the task," recalls Larry Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs. "I think those people have been proven wrong."

Since 2001, the city has paid down $183 million in debt. Homicides and violent crime have dropped to levels not seen since the '80s. The city's image—with accolades for everything from bike friendliness to tech savvy—has gotten a significant boost.

"As a mayor, you can always increase your profile, and in doing so, increase your city's profile," says Sen. Al Franken. "It's a good spot for a mayor to be."

The socially progressive, fiscally moderate mayor's image reached new heights in 2007 during his handling of the I-35W bridge collapse, as he surveyed the damage with baleful blue eyes. One year later, he took a flying leap into the national consciousness with his prominent and early support of Obama's presidential candidacy.

"He's just stepped into a new arena," says City Council President Barbara Johnson. "It was a smart move on his part."

Former DFL Party Chair Brian Melendez adds that Rybak's skillful stumping for other Democrats seeking office around the state made him a recognizable face outside the metro area, and bolstered his reputation as a team player. "If you go back to 2004, people knew who he was, but he wasn't on fire like he's been since 2008."

Not everyone has fallen under Rybak's spell. He has a notoriously rocky relationship with the labor unions, especially over cuts to fire and police departments. And his growing star power has some in City Hall grumbling that he's more interested in running for governor than running the city.

Despite detractors, Rybak is ready for his close-up. He was tapped in 2011 to become the vice chair of the DNC and go on a media blitz for Obama in preparation for the tough reelection fight ahead. Even though he's working in service of another, the increase in Rybak's wattage could propel him to higher office.

"He clearly built up a lot of connections and political capital across the country," says David Schultz, a business professor at Hamline University. "He has yet to cash that in. When he decides to do that is a good question."

  

A WEEK BEFORE his trip to Iowa, Rybak rocks on the back legs of his chair in the spacious third-floor office of 350 S. Fifth St. He's trying to sort through a stack of invites with his scheduler, Janna Hottinger.

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