The Mayor of Needle Park

There was a whiff of faux humility in the air a week ago as R.T. Rybak's reelection campaign prepped for its big announcement. Campaign staffers hinted that the mayor of Minneapolis would have a plethora of endorsements from local politicos to kick off his quest for a second term. But the real impetus for last Wednesday's news conference was that Walter Mondale was throwing his diminishing heft behind Rybak. The occasion also allowed a former vice president of the United States to cruise some of the more colorful streets in the city.

By mid-afternoon, everybody was gathered at campaign headquarters on 15th Street and Nicollet Avenue, waiting for Big Fritz. State Rep. Keith Ellison seemed to be waiting for the cameras to click, as were fellow Rybak boosters and Hennepin County commissioners Gail Dorfman and Mike Opat, and Minneapolis City Council members Scott Benson, Lisa Goodman, and Barret Lane. When the aging face of Minnesota progressivism finally appeared behind the media microphones, Fritz received the kind of sincere applause befitting a well-liked uncle.

"I've been watching Minneapolis mayors for several years," Mondale bleated, "and Mayor Rybak is one of the best." Then he echoed what everyone else said made this mayor so special, namely that he's "visible."

This notion was pondered afterward across the street, at the coffee shop called International Corner. Owner Ahmed Nooh, who emigrated from Somalia 11 years ago and moved here from Detroit last year, looked skeptically at the Rybak campaign signs in the windows nearby. "Does this mean the mayor will be working from here?" he asked. "We have problems in this neighborhood, the business community. We'd like to see him."

Nooh went on to lament the preponderance of "dopeheads" in the neighborhood, which has been improving from its relatively rough-and-tumble days a decade ago. Then he motioned toward the culprit, a squat brick building abutting the mayor's temporary digs: a needle exchange clinic. Access Works, a nonprofit, has been in the neighborhood since 1998 and serves roughly 1,500 clients. "They're open Monday through Friday, and sometimes on weekends too," Mooh explained. (Posted hours are weekdays 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.) "The dopers come out of there with little brown bags. Does the mayor know about what they do?"

He then walked outside onto the sidewalk and pointed out one, two, five used syringes. "This is bad for us," he concluded. "We can't keep it clean."

No one would fault Rybak for forgoing corporate-looking edifices downtown in favor of a folksier spot in a diverse neighborhood. And being just a couple of blocks from Loring Park seems a gesture toward securing the GLBT vote. (The 19 Bar, believed to be the oldest operating gay bar in the city, is on the block.)

"It's a nice storefront close to downtown, centrally located in an up-and-coming neighborhood," says campaign media flack Bill Hyers, adding that reelection staffers didn't know it was next door to a needle exchange until after they had moved in. "There's no shame or harm in it--it's Minneapolis. We did have people come in and ask for condoms once or twice, but other than that it's been fine."

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