The real R.T. Rybak

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.

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.

Souvenir hardhats from various groundbreakings and photos with dignitaries decorate his office. On one wall is a framed letter dated 1955 from Minneapolis Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey to the elder Raymond Rybak congratulating him on the birth of a bouncing baby boy named Raymond Thomas.

It's December 22, but January's schedule has already been booked solid. For the most part, Hottinger is helping the mayor sort out his February agenda.

"Let's dig in," Rybak says.

The St. Paul City Council inaugural ball?


A place on the Slovak Community Center's welcoming committee should Vladimir Putin accept their invitation to come to town?

"Wha-hahahat?" the mayor asks incredulously. "I don't think I'd necessarily welcome him."

A daylong education convention in Seattle hosted by the Gates Foundation?

"I think I should go. They do a lot of funding," Rybak says.

Hottinger consults her iPad—the conference falls on the same day as the Minneapolis Downtown Council's annual meeting.

"Oh, shiiiii-eehhh," the mayor says, trailing off mid-expletive. "That's a big problem."

Rybak repeatedly rebuffs appointments for Christmas vacation days and Sundays.

"I really can't right now," he says.

A few days later, Rybak plans his itinerary for a trip to D.C. where he is presenting his most prized city program: the Minneapolis Promise, an education program with a summer-job placement component called STEP-UP. He's been invited to present the program at a jobs summit at the White House, which requires fussing over the draft of a pithy "ask" letter and how to drum up media attention.

"I just want to be clear," says communications director John Stiles. "Are we trying to pitch a big story on STEP-UP?"

"First priority is the talking points," Rybak says, glancing at the clock. "I gotta go on this call."

"I don't think we have to make a big deal of this," Chief of Staff Jeremy Hanson Willis offers with a hint of exasperation.

"I feel like I'm getting a mixed message on how big we're blowing this up," returns Stiles.

"I have to go outside," says Rybak, grabbing his coat.

He's got a conference call with the National Conference of Democratic Mayors, an organization that is currently recruiting and training mayors to support the president's reelection. Politicking isn't allowed in City Hall, so Rybak snatches one of his two iPhones—the one he pays for—and speed walks out of the office and down the marble stairs.

As Rybak strides across the street to the US Bank building, he exchanges a cordial nod with two members of a search firm he's contracted. They're here to help him find the replacement director of Community Planning and Economic Development—his 12 p.m. appointment.

Inside US Bank, Rybak takes a seat in the food court and makes exasperated faces as he waits for all the mayors to get on the call. He'll have to be on his best behavior—in a few weeks he's running for president of the organization.

"Do we think we have need for a fundraising event? It strikes me we should," Rybak says into the phone, tapping notes on his iPad. "Should we just do individual calls?"

After barely 15 minutes, Rybak jumps up, rides down the escalator, and heads for City Hall. Back up on the third floor, he closes the double doors to his office for his meeting with the search committee.

In his own office adjacent to the mayor's, Stiles says in a low voice that the mayor is a bit preoccupied with his niece's illness. Rybak is trying to keep some days open for his wife's family. But he's fighting a losing battle with his schedule.

An hour later, Hottinger sticks her head in the mayor's office with her palm up to give the five-minute warning.

Rybak cheerfully shows the search committee to the door, offering optimistic praise for the candidate they've just been discussing, then pulls his coat on again.

Across the street, he reclines on the couches in the main lobby floor of US Bank, with the elevators dinging ceaselessly in the background. He's on a conference call with the Iowa Democratic Chair and a dozen local reporters.

"Mitt Romney has proven incapable of making tough decisions," Rybak says. "We don't know what side of the bed he's going to wake up on that day."

After he hangs up, Rybak shakes his head.

"I've never been comfortable on attack politics, but all I need to do is turn on the TV and listen to Romney and Gingrich and listen to what they're saying," Rybak explains. "I'm really lucky I get to correct the record."



AROUND 10 P.M. on the day after Christmas, Rybak watches TV with his wife, Megan O'Hara, and their two children, Charlie and Grace, when one of his iPhones buzzes with a new text message.

It's Sherman Patterson, the mayor's public safety policy aide for the past six years. At this time of night, news from Patterson is never good.

About two hours earlier, in a neighborhood seven miles north of the Rybaks' stately Lake Harriet colonial, a skirmish broke out at the mouth of a darkened alley. A gunshot rang out and the bullet sailed high and long over the street corner, punching through the blue-gray siding of 2644 Colfax, and crashing into the back of three-year-old Terrell Mayes's head.

Patterson and his wife were in a movie theater watching Mission Impossible when he got the report from Minneapolis police. He made a few calls and found out the boy had been rushed to North Memorial Hospital.

This is hardly new territory for Patterson. Back in 2006—the year he joined Rybak's administration—an 18-year-old basketball star named Brian Cole was sheltering from the rain under a tree when an SUV carrying several members of the Lyndale-Lowry gang rolled past. One of the passengers opened fire, and Cole caught a bullet in his jugular vein. He bled to death soon after he reached the hospital.

That was a deadly year in Minneapolis, with 61 homicides. "In 2006, I was calling him at 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning two or three times a week," recalls Patterson.

Outrage over Cole's murder helped spur the creation of Rybak's "Blueprint for Action," a data-driven, multi-agency program to prevent youth violence. The numbers have steadily declined ever since.

But tonight, Rybak and Patterson must revive their grim ritual.

After Patterson arrives at the hospital, he learns that Terrell's heart rate has spiked to 160 beat per minute—it's not looking good.

Patterson phones the mayor. "You need to come now," he says.

Back in Rybak's family room, Charlie and Grace—who've had the mayor of Minneapolis for a dad since the ages of 13 and 10, respectively—watch their dad's expression shift into what Grace calls "mayor mode."

"I've gotta go," he says.

At North Memorial, Rybak meets Patterson in the lobby, where they spot the victim's family walking toward them. The mayor hugs Marsha, Terrell's mother, and troops up to Terrell's room. The boy's condition has stabilized, but he remains hooked up to life support. Rybak stands over the bed and looks down silently, reliving the bedside visit he paid to niece Shannon just days earlier.

The next day, the Minneapolis police call a press conference in front of Terrell's home. A half-dozen television cameras stand sentry in the dead grass of the vacant lot next to Terrell's house, the bullet hole clearly visible in the vinyl siding close to a second-story window.

About a half-hour before the press conference is set to begin, bad news arrives from the hospital: Terrell has died.

Rybak pulls up to the corner of North 27th and Colfax in his red Prius and meets with City Councilman Don Samuels and members of the police department. As the crowd of press parts, Rybak sees Terrell's aunt, whom he met the night before at the hospital. As soon as she sees the mayor, she loses her composure and begins to sob. Rybak embraces her.

"I don't want to be here," she wails.

The reporters shift awkwardly on their feet and avert their eyes.

Terrell's aunt retreats to a car nearby, and the mayor opens the press conference, flanked by Minneapolis police officers, a homicide detective, City Council members, and representatives of Crime Stoppers.

"His mother looked over him, prayed over him, hoping that he would survive," Rybak says of Terrell. "Sadly, he did die."

Rybak announces a $1,000 reward for information that leads to the identity of the shooter before stepping aside to let a homicide detective speak. When the press conference concludes, the mayor begins to walk away.

"It's just, just ...," Rybak trails off, staring at the ground with glassy eyes and biting his tongue between his teeth.

He walks off alone, hands dug deep into his pockets.


THE MAYOR IS RUNNING on empty. It's been a hectic few days—first in New Hampshire, then the White House presentation in D.C. Back home, Gov. Mark Dayton issued an ultimatum—get their Vikings Stadium proposal in shape in a week's time or forget it. Rybak did damage control from the road, but now that he's back in town he has to meet with Dayton's staffers at 2 p.m. to get all the ducks in a row.


Rybak's flight touched down the night before, but he's feeling sluggish. Nevertheless, he dashes from a press conference at the Third Precinct to a brief appearance at the Minneapolis Building and Construction Trades Council's holiday breakfast, then takes off again for "a radio thing" with Gary Eichten at MPR headquarters in St. Paul.

Afterward, Rybak meets Stiles in the green room.

"You're going to get a kick out of this," Stiles says, pointing to a framed poster on the wall advertising a public colloquy on how to finance a Twins and Vikings stadium. It's dated 1999.

"Oh, for God's sake," sighs Rybak.

Down in the lobby, the pair mull over the rest of the day's schedule: Pat Kessler from WCCO is outside in the parking lot and wants to do a quick stand-up on the stadium proposal. A photographer needs a few shots of Rybak posing outside the building. Then the mayor has yet another one-on-one with a reporter over lunch.

Before he heads outside, Rybak wants to return a call from his wife. He ducks into an open supply room for privacy. When he finally emerges, his face has clearly shifted out of mayor mode.

"My niece just died," he says, ashen.

There's a stunned silence. What does he want to do? Cancel the photo? Cancel the lunch? Cancel the meeting with Dayton's office? What should Stiles tell WCCO?

"I'm trying to figure that out," Rybak says, staring blankly at the floor.

A moment passes.

"No," Rybak says, moving toward the parking lot, where Kessler waits with his camera crew. "Let's do the lunch."

As he powers through the glass doors, Rybak passes a man pushing a double stroller.

"Hello, mayor," the man says.

"Hi," Rybak says distractedly, before noticing the two sleeping babies. He stops.

"What are their names?"

"Laurie and Grace," the man answers.

"Oh," Rybak says, smiling. "We have a Grace."

After the interview, Rybak eats a plate of mock duck and green beans at Sawatdee before his next appointment. But his mind isn't on politics.

"I've had to be around death a fair amount in my life," Rybak ruminates. "My dad died when I was young, and a lot of people close to me have died. In this job I've been around it a lot."

He turns his face to the window, mutters something inaudible, and asks, "Can I go somewhere else right now?"

The conversation shifts to his first term and how it felt when critics suggested he should be a one-term mayor after coming up short on his list of campaign promises. He perks up, reminded of a moment when he was invited to the Oval Office unexpectedly to chat with Obama.

"He just brought me in to say hi, just as a whole bunch of things were crashing down," Rybak says. "He said, 'Sometimes it feels like all we're doing is cleaning up messes,' and this amazing light bulb went off. I've been there."

Does Rybak ever fantasize about occupying the Oval Office himself someday?

Rybak shakes his head.

"If I wanted to go to Washington I would have gone already," he says. "I'm not being cute or coy about it. I'm in the job I want."

Rybak and Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan go over 2011 crime statistics for members of the press
Jana Freiband

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