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Give me an R! Give me a T!

Diana Watters

THE JUNETEENTH PARADE is winding through the north side of Minneapolis on a humid Saturday morning, and R.T. Rybak is right where he belongs: on the campaign trail, throwing off endorphins with the giddy, attention-getting panache of a groom on his wedding day. The renegade mayoral candidate careens and canters from sidewalk to sidewalk like an ebullient windup toy, shaking hands, slapping teal Rybak for Mayor stickers on blouses, T-shirts, strollers, even a few foreheads. Behind him, campaign workers carry a seven-foot Styrofoam facsimile of an air freshener.

Abetted by a trim physique, strikingly handsome facial features, and a marathoner's endurance, Rybak has reason to believe this sweat equity will translate into political capital. "People saw me running up and down the street and started saying, 'Hey! We need that kind of energy in city hall,'" he enthuses as the parade concludes at Wirth Park. "You only need one message in a parade. Ours is, 'See that air freshener? We're going to blow some fresh air into city hall.'"

Those closest to him say Rybak has always been a ringmaster with neon genes. "He was always the captain, organizing parades and other events in the neighborhood," says Lorraine of her youngest son. "R.T. just has the ability to add flair to any situation," observes Linda Houden, his close friend for more than 20 years. "His family will come up to my family's cottage at New Year's and it will be 30 below zero and he'll go out and make ice candles. His optimism is unflappable--he never seems to get discouraged."

Now, at the age of 45, Rybak is turning up the energy and optimism to pursue a lifelong dream. Back in the late Sixties there were plenty of ways for a precocious 13-year old to imagine his future. The young Raymond Thomas Rybak Jr. pined for two relatively geekish pots of gold. "I decided that my goals in life were to write about development issues for the Star Tribune and to become mayor of Minneapolis."

With big city newspaper reporter already on Rybak's résumé, the timing of this first mayoral run is auspicious. As Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton nears the end of her second term, she finds herself under fire for being both insular and somnambulant. She has run a lackluster campaign pockmarked by events such as the recent downgrading of the city's bond rating and her appointment of a political supporter to investigate corruption at city hall. Now that the boom times of the late Nineties are kaput, critics of the mayor are effectively juxtaposing the rising cost and diminished quality of basic services such as water and garbage collection with the city's huge public investments, often via tax-increment financing, in private downtown developments such as the Target headquarters and Block E.

Sayles Belton's vulnerability has turned the mayor's race into an unpredictable tussle, crowded with four major candidates vying to be among the top two vote-getters in the September 11 primary. The winners will then face off in a general election on November 6. "It seems like the sentiment in the city is pretty evenly divided between Sharon and anti-Sharon," says longtime political operative Pat Forceia, who is not involved in any of the mayoral campaigns. "The question is, Who gets to be the anti-Sharon?"

Of the three main challengers (Minneapolis City Council member Lisa McDonald and Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Stenglein are the others), Rybak is the only true political outsider. Everyone else held public office before announcing their candidacies: Rybak was best known for organizing a rally where people showed up in their pajamas to protest loud night flights near the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. At the Minneapolis DFL convention in May, Rybak parlayed his penchant for exciting activism to deny Sayles Belton what most everyone had assumed would be a slam-dunk endorsement. On the final ballot before the event was adjourned, he actually outpolled the mayor.

Yet, unlike political insurgents such as Sen. Paul Wellstone and Gov. Jesse Ventura, Rybak ultimately chooses not to position himself as a feisty outsider. Instead, he continually refers to his résumé for evidence that he has managed people in the private sector, been a union activist, and mobilized citizens at the grassroots level, and "has a tremendous amount of development experience." "I'd come into that office with more direct experience for [mayor] than certainly anybody in this race, and anyone in a long, long time," he flatly states.

In fact, given his physical attractiveness, youthful vigor, bandwagon-oriented amiability, discomfort with political labels, and emphasis on the private sector, the local political figure Rybak most resembles is St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman. There are differences, of course, most notably his commitment to turn down PAC money and work toward broader disclosure of campaign contributions. Still, Rybak will invoke the Coleman comparison himself, especially when talking about his talent for championing the city.

 

A salesman through and through, Rybak--like Coleman--possesses an innate ability to believe his own hype. After investigating the details of Rybak's résumé and the lack of details in his campaign platform, however, it's clear Minneapolis voters have reason to be a bit more skeptical.

 

In 1979, a year after graduating from Boston College, Rybak landed a job at the Minneapolis Tribune before it merged with the Star. During his eight-year stint at the paper, Rybak did in fact work the development beat. The experience he most often cites, though, was his later "union activism" as chair of the Star and Tribune's worker-participation committee. "It was a really formative experience to be just a regular worker who sat down every month with the publisher of the paper and talked about workplace issues," he recalls, adding that he hopes to set up similar meetings between labor and management as mayor.

The worker-participation committee no longer exists at the Star Tribune. Responding to an e-mail query on the subject, Strib columnist and longtime union stalwart Doug Grow says the committee "was supposed to be a progressive way" for unions and management to work together on issues of common interest. "During one of my trips through union leadership, we tried to jack up worker [participation], but, in short order, both management and workers decided it was pretty much bullshit," Grow says. "But that doesn't mean R.T. was full of it. When he would have been involved, there actually was hope that many workplace issues could be resolved through this sort of group.

"I know R.T. still believes that more conversation between management and workers is a good thing. Without trying to be too cynical, what I have found is that management tends to want to use these sorts of things to manipulate the gullible."

Rybak's sunny view of labor relations is curious, considering that he was disciplined for conflict of interest in 1986 by Roger Parkinson, the same publisher he once met with monthly. At the time Rybak, who was working the development beat, was intrigued by an offer to become development director at the Minneapolis Downtown Council. According to Rybak, when he informed his editors of the potential conflict and asked to be put on a different beat, he was suspended--a punishment he still considers unfair. After his suspension, he was transferred off the development beat. Approximately six months later, he accepted the council's job offer. (Parkinson, who no longer works for the Strib, was unavailable. Tim McGuire, editor of the paper, told City Pages that neither he nor anyone from the paper would comment.)

Even though Rybak's two-plus-year stint with the downtown council ended more than eleven years ago, he cites the experience more frequently than any other item on his résumé, in large part because it provides him with a kind of instant credibility on "bloated development projects" like Target and Block E that have become an albatross for Sayles Belton. This June, when Rybak listed his credentials after a Strib op-ed piece, "A better downtown for millions less," his position as development director received top billing. And of all the things he has done, he says he is most proud of "keeping independent businesses downtown and bringing the Farmers Market to Nicollet Mall when I was on the downtown council."

Rybak was essentially a jack of all trades on the council. He coordinated marketing campaigns, recruited businesses for offices and storefronts, and alerted city leaders if an existing tenant was considering leaving Minneapolis. "His title was development director, but the job wasn't really creating development in that sense; it was more like he was downtown improvement director," says Bob King, the council's president at the time. "And he was very good at that." Although listed beneath King and the council's board of directors on the organization's flow chart, Rybak had a creative energy compelled people to view him as "the voice of the downtown council," says Chris Corcoran, who then served as the organization's marketing director.

Still, that voice didn't pack much clout. Rybak's service on the council coincided with a period when the organization was deeply in debt and had a membership less than half of what it is today. "The council had such a low profile in the late Eighties that I was publisher of the Skyway News and I couldn't tell you what they did," says Todd Klingl, who is now the council's executive vice president. "In terms of advocacy and representation, they just weren't that visible." John Labosky, who eventually replaced Bob King in 1989 and is now president of the Capitol City Partnership in St. Paul, adds that the organization "didn't have enough large corporate support. Most of the representatives were middle managers from small businesses." Rybak concedes that the council was "in the tank" when he arrived.

 

After King resigned as council president, Rybak was among the candidates reviewed by a search committee. "They told me they wanted to bring in an older, more seasoned person, which I totally understood," Rybak says. "But they brought in Labosky, who was not older nor more seasoned. So there wasn't much of a hat for me there."

Two months after the 40-year-old Labosky took over, the 33-year-old Rybak left the council and went to work for a year at Eberhardt Commercial Real Estate. As fate would have it, most of his time was spent on early versions of the now-controversial Target and Block E developments. "It was like being in a graduate school of development," Rybak says. "I got my real estate license and learned the nuts and bolts of the business. Unfortunately, it was right around this time that the real estate market collapsed."

Eberhardt had been hired by developer Ray Harris, who had exclusive rights to develop a huge retail and entertainment complex on Block E. "R.T. was there to recruit tenants," recalls Harris, CEO of Urban Development and the owner of Calhoun Square and other Minneapolis properties. "Do I think he did a great job for me? No. I don't recall him doing anything of significance. But that wasn't why the project failed. It was a rough financial market and we weren't able to arrange the financing in time to meet the city's timetable."

As a member of the Downtown council, Rybak had worked to convince Target to open an urban store. But after extensive negotiations with a variety of firms and potential partners, he could not structure a deal without significant subsidies from the city (still less money, he claims, than what taxpayers are underwriting in the current deal). Target contacted Rybak at Eberhardt to help them reevaluate the possibility of building downtown. He assisted the company in assessing potential locations and design options, and in choosing Minnetonka-based Opus Corporation as the project developer. Some five years later, Target finally struck a deal with the city, albeit with a different developer. (Target spokesperson Carolyn Brookner says the company would not comment on any aspect of its relationship with Rybak.)

In the "About R.T." section of his campaign Web site, rtformayor.com, Rybak describes his work on the downtown council as being "a salesperson for Minneapolis who brought big and small businesses to town." Pressed for specific examples, he cites the restaurant Chez Bananas and the now-defunct Baxter Books as small businesses he successfully recruited. His big-business example is Target. On numerous occasions, in fact, he has described himself as "a major player in getting the Target store downtown." Yet he also claims that if he had been mayor, he never would have approved the deals for Block E (which involves $30 million in city-backed bonds) or Target (which contains $62 million in subsidies).

After his role on the Target-store project concluded in 1991, Rybak was contracted by the corporation to serve as liaison between the Target stores and the then-recently named Target Center arena, most notably creating the TREATSEATS discount ticket program that became a national model. The work was lucrative enough for him to leave Eberhardt and go out on his own for three years under the aegis of R.T. Rybak Co., supplementing his Target account by working with Starbucks and the Minnesota Historical Society, among others. Setting aside 30 percent of his time for volunteer community activities and political work, he became deeply involved in Rip Rapson's 1992 mayoral campaign and former Tony Bouza's gubernatorial bid in 1994. He also co-founded the environmental group SWIM (Save the Water In Minneapolis), with his wife Megan.

The business was going so well that it took six months of lobbying to convince Rybak to sign on as publisher of the floundering Twin Cities Reader in September 1994. "I walked in and things were on fire," Rybak recalls. "The idea was to move on things very quickly. We juiced up ad revenue, redesigned the distribution system, redid the printing contract, hired a new editor, launched an arts section and [the GLBT paper] Q Monthly. I went back to the owners and said, 'We did all this. Now it is time for you to put more money in.' And they said, 'We're not putting in a dime. We're trying to sell this thing.' The owners were called CityMedia at the time and they sucked it dry. They were pricks." (Rybak was hired by Thomas Minnhagen, a former CEO and president at CityMedia, who could not be reached for comment.)

 

Rybak claims he assembled investors and tried to buy the Reader for approximately $2.5 million in 1995, and again a year later. CityMedia preferred to package the weekly into a sale of all its local media properties--including Corporate Report magazine and the weekly paper City Business--to American City Business Journals. (ACBJ eventually sold the Reader to Stern Publishing, which purchased City Pages in February 1997 and closed the Reader soon after.)

Once his second purchase proposal had been rejected, Rybak accepted an offer to become vice president of Internet Broadcasting Systems in December of 1996. In essence, he became the publisher of IBS's Channel 4000, a news Web site set up in partnership with WCCO-TV (Channel 4). Before he took the job, he had been online exactly twice in his life and didn't know how to send an e-mail. He would last 17 months.

"I want it reflected that I think the world of R.T.," says IBS president Reid Johnson. "But the biggest challenge that Web sites have is selling advertising. At the time R.T. was here, online-only advertising was fading, and we needed someone to focus 95 percent of their time on ad sales. R.T. decided that was not what he came to us for."

"I walk in not knowing anything about the Internet and right out of the chute I had to run the newsroom, the partnership with 'CCO, the technical Web shop," Rybak remembers. "One week CBS is going to buy us and we're all going to be multimillionaires. And the next week we're broke. I kind of loved it because I'm more of an open-field runner, but it did get kind of nuts. And after a certain point, the money just wasn't there."

"R.T. is very, very good about getting people excited, and he had a lot of creative ideas," says Andrea Yoch, formerly an advertising representative for the company. Kevin Featherly, an IBS reporter who was fired by Rybak, takes a more sardonic view: "In meetings, R.T. would talk about how we were making great progress; it always sounded like something big was going to happen that would put us over the top. And it didn't. R.T. was sort of like General Westmoreland in Vietnam."

Since leaving IBS in May 1998, Rybak has resurrected R.T. Rybak Co. and refashioned himself as an Internet strategist. He is currently operating Public Radio International's Web site and working to enhance the Web presence of Edina Realty and its parent company, Homeservices. Without revealing any figures, he says that the past two years have been the most lucrative of his career.

To be sure, Rybak has often been the victim of circumstance, from the downtown council's low profile to unrealistic expectations at both the Reader and IBS. Still, there are few shining stars on Rybak's résumé. And where there is a highlight, Rybak has a tendency to embellish.

For instance, the Minneapolis Farmers Market was actually an enterprise concocted and headed by former downtown council marketing director Chris Corcoran. (Corcoran says she doesn't mind Rybak taking credit, because of all the invaluable assistance he provided.) Rybak's Web site also claims that he was a "founder" of the anti-airport-noise group ROAR (Residents Opposed to Airport Racket). He was a member of the group's founding board of directors; the organization was thought up by four other people. And the gay publication that Rybak says he "launched" while publisher of the Twin Cities Reader already existed as an insert in the paper when he arrived; under his guidance, Q Monthly did become a stand-alone publication. None of this is on the order of claiming to invent the Internet, of course, but it does reveal a knack for hyperbolic self-promotion.

Ever the optimist, Rybak insists his roller-coaster work history has readied him for city hall. "I'm proud of the fact that I have not been at all afraid to take risks," he says. "I had never run a business before I went to the Reader and I learned that. Then I didn't know how to go about trying to buy a business and I did that. I didn't know the Internet when I went to IBS.

"I'd also say that pretty much any business I went into I remade in a fairly dramatic fashion. I don't think I would be as good for the city of Minneapolis if things were going perfectly right now. I'm not a caretaker. There are people who make change and people who maintain. I'm the change guy."

 

One hour and two outdoor festivals away from the Juneteenth parade, Rybak is campaigning at Powderhorn Park. There he encounters Anthony, a young black man who says he and his church want to fix up apartments for people in the neighborhood.

 

"Why do we have an affordable-housing crisis? Well, we used to have all sorts of people owning rental property around here--my stepfather was one of them. Then the tax reform act came on and crack cocaine came in and one by one all of them left," Rybak says in a Tommy-gun cadence. He establishes eye contact. "When my stepfather died my mom was 75, and suddenly she's got an apartment building she wants to sell. The city said, 'Here's a list of all the stuff you've got to do before you sell it." Rybak is holding his hands apart from chin to groin. "I think we can shrink that to about this." He narrows the distance of his hands to about six inches.

"Yeah! Is there a way you can do that?" Anthony says, bending his knees in disbelief. "Because we went through that while we were building a church over there. There were so many restrictions having to do with apartment spaces and things."

"God did you a favor, but the mayor could give you better zoning," Rybak answers.

"Ahhh," Anthony says with a hearty laugh. "That's what I like to hear."

"Let's take all those boarded-up buildings and get a partnership going with you guys," Rybak says, cinching the sale. "As long as you do a couple of things and keep the rents low, then you--not only your church but you as an individual and an entrepreneur--can own it."

"Abso-lute-ly. That's always been my goal," Anthony cries.

"Cool," Rybak says. "So let's go do that. First I've got to go get elected."

"I want you to get elected. You need to come by our church and speak. It's the Open Door, right between 28th and Portland."

"Oh sure. I know the area," Rybak says. "See, my dad had a drugstore at 26th and 4th."

With that, Anthony lets out a whoop and shakes Rybak's hand.

 

Just a few weeks of talking to people out on the campaign trail convinced Rybak that generating affordable housing needed to be his top priority. "As somebody who has had a fair amount of experience in the private sector and in real estate, I believe we have to reengage the private market," he says. "I want to look at zoning and building-code changes, where we can do the bare minimum improvements to get boarded-up buildings opened fast. I want to look at targeted property-tax breaks to provide incentives for the private sector to do more renovation and construction. None of what I'm talking about will work if we can't attract new private investors who want to buy that one or two or three buildings."

"It certainly can't hurt," says David Fey, executive director of the nonprofit neighborhood-housing group Seward Redesign. "But realistically, until we engage the federal government, which really does have the power to influence the housing market, nothing is going to be enough. The next best thing is to create a specially designated city affordable-housing fund that isn't subject to the latest political dynamics."

Alan Arthur, president of Central Community Housing Trust, a nonprofit that develops, maintains, and rents 1,100 units of affordable housing in Minneapolis, is more blunt: "All this talk about codes and tax incentives; that's red-herring talk. If you're serious about affordable housing, you need cash for capital costs. To build a three-bedroom unit in this market, you've got to charge about $1,500 per month in rent to make ends meet. If you get all the breaks [Rybak's] talking about, you might be able to knock $200 off per month. That's still much more than a family of four making 50 percent of the metro median income can afford. And even if you do the minimum to fix up an old dilapidated house, at some point you're still going to have to replace that 20-year-old roof and that 30-year-old boiler. In the long run, it costs nearly as much on a monthly basis as a brand-new structure." Arthur adds that even when his organization is able to secure the entire capital cost of a project from various funding sources, the cost of maintaining the property and paying the taxes is beyond the reach of the poorest families.

On his campaign Web site, Rybak proposes the appointment of an "Affordable Housing Czar" who will marshal the city's resources and set targets for the number of housing units created and restored. But how many resources could the czar marshal? What would the target number of units be? It's not clear.

As a benchmark for comparison, in the mid-Nineties, the City's Affordable Housing Task Force estimated that Minneapolis needed to spend $30 million per year (while leveraging another $70 million) just to keep up with the housing demand. Yet, when asked how much city money he believes it will take to effectively address affordable housing, Rybak is vague. "I will never create a program whose outcome is to spend money," he says. "So I couldn't possibly predict what it will take. I think we need to have funding sources....But the city cannot possibly pay its way out of this problem. That's why I am concentrating on private-sector incentives."

 

For years the staunchest advocate for affordable housing on the Minneapolis City Council has been the Sixth Ward's Jim Niland, who also supports Rybak's mayoral bid. "R.T. will dramatically increase the production of housing units for those making 30 percent of the metro median," Niland confidently states. "The smart codes are part of it. Another part of it is selling his agenda to other funders, like the county, the state, and the corporations. That has been sorely lacking in the mayor's office."

Niland's rigorous advocacy for affordable housing is a major reason why he has been the only Minneapolis City Council member ever endorsed by the Green Party. When introducing Rybak at the Green Party convention in June, he said, "I know where he is on the issues. I know where he is on the Kondirator. I know where he is on issues like putting the Guthrie [Theater] on parkland. I know where his heart is." Conspicuously absent was any mention of affordable housing.

The second of Rybak's top four priorities is headlined on his Web site as "reform development & spending." He proposes a bureaucratic overhaul of city development agencies, including the merger of the semi-autonomous Minneapolis Community Development Agency (MCDA) with the Planning Department, to be governed by a citizen board composed primarily of members of the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP). Right now the MCDA has oversight control of NRP projects. Rybak's realignment would essentially turn that relationship on its head, decentralizing the decision-making power down toward the grassroots.

Thus far Rybak has done a good job of finessing the ideological divide between neighborhood activists and the major corporate players downtown. Although highly critical of Target and Block E, he has pledged to be an active salesman for downtown, claiming he will "put down the checkbook and pick up the phone" in order to get businesses to relocate in the urban core. "Supporters of Sharon have tried to convince people that if you're not spending massive amounts of public dollars on bloated developments, you're anti-business," he says. Conversely, he has pointedly not made any specific commitments to financing the NRP's second phase of neighborhood projects so dear to the hearts of community activists.

"I simply don't fit into the ideological boxes that keep us from solving big problems," he says. "If I was simply this ideological cartoon, I wouldn't be supported by a Barry Lazarus [a Republican fundraiser and former member of Gov. Arne Carlson's finance committee] and by Sam and Sylvia Kaplan [the DFL's most formidable husband-and-wife fundraising team]."

After Rybak's appearance at a candidate forum before the downtown council in early June, council president Sam Grabarski remarked, "We saw a handsome, articulate candidate give an energetic, visionary speech. It was not hard to imagine that he was cut from the same cloth as a Norm Coleman.

"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.

"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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