It's the Stadium, Stupid

Rybak last Saturday night: A bear market for used mayors
G.R. Anderson Jr.

The night before the DFL city convention, David Bicking didn't catch a wink of sleep. The 54-year-old auto mechanic from south Minneapolis pulled an all-nighter, working on a flyer detailing the travesties of the Twins stadium deal, something that Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and his challenger, Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, both support. After a 6:00 a.m. Kinko's run, Bicking arrived at Augsburg College on Saturday and passed out nearly 1,000 leaflets urging delegates to vote "no endorsement."

"By 10:30, someone I didn't know asked me if I wanted to run for mayor of Minneapolis, and said they would name me in the nominating process," Bicking says. "I said, 'Well, if no one else will.' Rybak and McLaughlin would prefer the stadium didn't come up at all at the convention. I just wanted to bring the issue out."

And so by Saturday afternoon, Bicking and another anti-stadium advocate, a 22-year-old Marshall Field's cashier named Harry Savage, were suddenly stumping to be the DFL-endorsed mayoral candidate. The pair stood shoulder to shoulder in a gymnasium packed with a record 1,963 delegates, drawing waves of applause for calling out the two main candidates for their stadium support. Neither Bicking nor Savage survived past the first round of balloting, but their mission--making the ballpark the issue du jour--had been accomplished.

And while McLaughlin has been a visible proponent for the new ballpark, Rybak's half-hearted approval of the plan two weeks ago came with monumental political damage. Two months ago, Rybak looked like he had the DFL endorsement--if not a second term--all but locked up. But that was before the latest ballpark proposal, and Hizzoner drew derision from both sides for not quite saying whether he supported the plan. He equivocated for days before finally conceding that if he were on the Hennepin County Board, he would have voted for the stadium. But by then, Rybak had botched the issue. A vast number of the DFL rank and file is against the stadium proposal, and he could no longer count on those votes.

"If he had come out against the stadium," one delegate at the convention said Saturday morning, "he would have walked away with this endorsement."

Instead, Rybak suffered a demoralizing setback, not just by failing to get his party's nod as an incumbent mayor, but also by losing to McLaughlin on every one of the five ballots cast. Rybak and his supporters recalled the convention four years ago, when neither Rybak nor incumbent Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton was endorsed, and Rybak went on to romp in the general election. But that was just spin: Rybak was a challenger then, and he could not do what McLaughlin did on Saturday, getting more than 50 percent of the vote on the final three ballots.

More than that, Rybak's support eroded over the course of a weird, woolly 12 hours that ended with acrimony on both sides. McLaughlin's supporters, convinced that their man could eventually reach the 60 percent threshold needed for the endorsement, tried to drag the convention into the late-night hours. (Final ballot tally: McLaughlin 53 percent, Rybak 45.) Rybak's delegates--and the candidate himself--eventually fled from the convention, spoiling a quorum, and ensuring that there would be no endorsement. It was a profound defeat.

Gail Dorfman, a Hennepin County commissioner who supports Rybak but opposes the stadium deal, said she tried to convince the mayor that he shouldn't support the stadium. "The problem is, he truly believes the stadium is an economic tool for the city," Dorfman offered. "And we're seeing the backlash today."

Maybe Rybak did forgo political expediency to express his conscience on the ballpark, but he greatly damaged himself in the process. "It's a big issue," said one former Minneapolis City Council member and McLaughlin supporter. "Sometimes it's not what you do, but how you do it."

So Rybak is left to ponder what McLaughlin claimed as "a huge, huge win." As both candidates head toward the primary in September, McLaughlin--who relied heavily on organized-labor diehards at the convention--looks to have momentum, a notion that was unthinkable just a few weeks ago. Rybak lamented that many of his supporters (immigrants, students, young supporters from Howard Dean's camp) had to leave in droves as the night wore on. And he also proclaimed that the campaign is "moving onto my turf," away from the confines of the delegation and to voters across the city.

But Rybak couldn't dismiss the main reason he's spinning rather than winning. "I know that most delegates are against a ballpark," he said dejectedly late Saturday evening. "The stadium issue played a huge dynamic in this."

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