R.T. Rybak's new book, Pothole Confidential, begins with his baseball-loving boyhood and covers his pharmacy-owning father’s death, his gig as a crime beat reporter for the Star Tribune, his downtown revitalization efforts, and his three-term tenure as mayor. As an author, Rybak presents a balanced, journalistic view of a city struggling with budget issues, murders of children, police chief controversy, and transportation.
Rybak’s passion for the city — and optimism in its ability to improve — is obvious in these 300 pages, whether he’s attending to tragedies like the 35W bridge collapse and the North Side tornado or celebrating achievements like marrying the first same sex couples in Minnesota and brokering a Vikings' stadium deal. The parade-lover — who dreamed of being mayor since age 13 — even includes a few snow emergency poems and his post-heart attack tweets.
After leaving office, Rybak became the executive director of Generation Next, which aims to improve academic outcomes for children of color. He is also the vice chair of the Democratic National Committee.
City Pages chatted with Rybak before his big book-release party at First Avenue this Wednesday.
City Pages: You’ve said you wrote Pothole Confidential as a journalist. Why did you choose that approach instead of writing a sentimental memoir?
R.T. Rybak: The world is filled with well-intentioned, washed-up politicians telling war stories. I found that very tempting, but that’s not what I did. I imagined that I was a journalist embedded at City Hall for 12 years and tried my best to put a wall around my ego and simply tell the story as it was. I probably admit a lot more mistakes than you would in a traditional political biography. I tried to give people insight into what was going through my mind in a way I wouldn’t have if I was thinking in my political brain.
The most important thing to do was to try to give people a reality check. I happen to love watching House of Cards but it makes me sick that so many people making choices about whether to engage in public life think that that is reality. The reality is more emotional, more imperfect, and dramatically less sinister.
CP: You describe your early career path as "tidy." Have you ever had a big rebellion or a "dark night of the soul"?
RTR: I probably went through a lot of that in high school. I was a terrible student who screwed around a lot and got pretty off-track for a couple of years. In my current work on equity in education, I’ve come to the searing realization that if you changed one factor about me — the color my skin — I wouldn’t have been able to get where I am. I got a second and a third and a 15th and an 89th chance. Writing the book and doing the work I am doing now took something that I conceptually understood and really brought it deeply home.
CP: How do you think your father would feel about your accomplishments?
RTR: I think he would be blown away. That’s probably the largest backstory [in the book] that’s not in a typical political piece: I talk a lot about what it’s like to be around death in my job as mayor. My father died when I was a kid, and I remember at the funeral having this incredibly angry reaction to all these adults coming up to me and saying these superficial things to me. I committed myself then that I was not going to be “that guy” at a funeral that says irrelevant things. I wanted to be sincere when I was around people who were facing death.
CP: A surprising part of the book was the number of funerals you attended. I didn’t know that was such a big part of being a mayor.
RTR: Well, it isn’t. Harvard Kennedy School brings new mayors in and gives them advice. There was this one guy — I can’t remember who it was — who said, “The role of the mayor is to be there for the good news and never deliver the bad news.” The second I heard that, I thought, “I’m going to do exactly the opposite.” I felt that what I could do was be present. I was constantly plunging myself into these situations and it was super helpful to me as I tried to understand the city for what it is, not for what I want it to be. I needed to physically be there when really bad stuff was happening. Not everyone does it that way, but it was what I chose to do.
CP: Do the people you write about know they’re in the book? Or is it going to be a surprise for them?
RTR: I’m trying to tell people who should be forewarned. The good news is there isn’t anyone who comes off really bad. I tried to be honest about the relationship with Governor Pawlenty, who I felt did some pretty rough things to the city. There will be some things in there that won’t make some people happy. But, generally, I think I was fair.
CP: Since you left office, has there been any moment or event when you wished you were mayor again so you could handle it differently?
RTR: Yeah, people often say to me when something tough is happening, “Aren’t you glad you’re not mayor?” But usually my reaction is, “I want to get in there and be part of it.” One of the most difficult was the 4th Precinct and the shooting and just seeing so many people so pained and not being able to do anything. It reminded me of the privilege you get as a mayor to be able to go there. It’s difficult now not to, but whenever I have that impulse, I go back to the fact that I’ve chosen to focus on what I think is probably the biggest need in the community, which is education.
CP: What office are you going to run for next?
RTR: I don’t know. I’ve obviously had a political career and I may do other political work. I may run for something again. But I’m more of a civic person. I’m really committed to this education work right now. If I was using this to run for office, I would have written a very different book.
CP: What do you foresee as the outcome of the presidential election?
RTR: Oh, man. I don’t know. I can’t tell.
CP: You must have a prediction of some sort.
RTR: The one thing I’m pretty sure of is that there are going to be some Democratic seats picked up in the Senate, which I think will matter a lot, including a pet race of mine, which is Russ Feingold getting back into the Senate in Wisconsin. I still miss Paul Wellstone, who, as you read in the book, was super nice to me. When he died, I kind of adopted Feingold as the next best thing.
CP: Do you think you’ll live in Minnesota for the rest of your life?
RTR: Absolutely. There’s no question about it. This is where I’m planted. You’re stuck with me.
CP: Do you also stay because you can have a bigger impact here than you could potentially in Washington?
RTR: It’s funny — when I was offered a job in Washington, the case was being made to me that I could have a much broader impact working on national issues. I saw it differently. I’ve had a job where I’ve been required to do many things at once and I was able to manage that, but I find it an incredible luxury right now to go much deeper on this one issue that’s so complex.
It’s always baffling to me that people kept assuming that I was going to go to Washington because I was in so early with the Obama campaign. One thing I don’t miss about politics is people questioning your motives. There’s this thing we do to people in political life where we assume every one of their motives is some Machiavellian plot to crawl over people for your own good. There are a lot of sleaze buckets in politics, but there are also a lot of sleaze buckets in every other profession. There are also lots of really good people.
IF YOU GO:
R.T. Rybak’s Pothole Confidential book launch
6 p.m. Wednesday, April 13