Citizen Rybak

R.T. Rybak gets candid about life, being mayor, and making Minneapolis better.

RT Rybak
Photo by Cameron Wittig
I met with Minneapolis’s outgoing (in every sense of the word) Mayor R.T. Rybak for two hours in his house the day before Thanksgiving. His family was preparing to host—there were decorative gourds on the front steps, a 12 pound bird lingered somewhere in the kitchen—and Rybak’s son Charlie and daughter Grace had just returned home from D.C. and New York, respectively. As the Mayor and I sat in his front room amidst bookshelves and chatted, his wife Megan brought us chips and salsa (Megan: “picked this up at the Kingfield Farmers Market!”) and asked if I wanted an Izzy soda.

The family came in and out. They seemed happy to be together, possibly because they were getting their patriarch back after three consecutive, challenging terms. They might actually like each other. Or maybe all the domestic bliss was a set-up. This is, after all, one of the most accomplished civic cheerleaders in Minneapolis’ history, so he knows his way around a photo opp. But if it was, it was another example of his gift: Rybak has an energetic ebullience that reads as genuine. He seemed to enjoy explaining what he did and why he did it, and he’s really good at that, even when his enthusiasm strays into so-likeable-it’s-a-little-corny territory. Like at the end of our conversation, as the photographer Cameron Wittig packed up his equipment, the Mayor grabbed one of the big bags and helped us bring it to the car.

Just before we left, we talked about his father’s name—a father that died when he was young—and how the Mayor is actually a Jr., and one of the many who dislikes the name he was handed down, for whatever reason.

“Never liked ‘Raymond,’” he said. “It’s always been R.T. Always.” And then he told us that one of the things he’s looking forward to is losing the “mayor” appellation.

“I’m ready to go back to hearing my name again,” he said.

I told him, respectfully, Mr. Mayor, that even in a city with a general attitude as informal as ours, and as friendly and as personable a mayor as he’s been, after 12 years, give us some time to get on a first name basis.
When did you first want to be mayor? Do you remember when this ambition first occurred to you? 
I wanted to be a mayor since I was 13, and I went off to college with the express idea that I wanted to become mayor of Minneapolis, but first write for the Star Tribune about development and architecture. I trained myself to do that—and it happened. It wasn’t quite that easy, but right when I was getting ready to leave the Star Tribune and get into a political career, we had [our son] Charlie. And I really went through a huge reality check where I realized that my dad had died when I was a kid and I really wanted to be present.
How old were you when your dad died?
What did he die of?
A stroke.

Was it sudden?
No, no. He was sick. But I really had to put my dream of running on the sidelines. The idea was that I was going to run when the kids were older. But Megan said, “Don’t you think they would rather do this when they love being with you than when they’re in their late teens and they don’t want to be seen in the front seat of the car.” So I ran with the idea that I would get my name known and then come back [and run again later]. Well, I won. But the beauty of it was it was very much a family decision. The kids were very much a huge part of it; they saw the ups and downs of it. So now they have a pretty realistic view of all of it. When I got really involved in Howard Dean’s campaign, we spent times in Iowa, and we immersed ourselves in the Obama campaign as a family.

How old is your son now?
He’s 24.
And how old is your daughter?
She’s 21.
How old was she when you ran?
Ten. Ten and 12. We have a picture somewhere around of us playing touch football right when I got elected; they were little.
Let’s start at the beginning. Your dad was a pharmacist?
Yeah. So he ran the Walgreens at 9th Street and Nicollet. When I was a little kid, he opened his first store, which was at 26th Street and 4th Avenue. So my parents had a corner store that was torn down for the freeway. And then they moved to Chicago and Franklin. This is in ’68, ’69—somewhere in there. Almost immediately, my dad had a stroke. So my mom ran the store, and my dad died about a year later. So we were bouncing between the world of Southwest Minneapolis—the neighborhood I was in then was middle class, it’s now upper class—and then down to Chicago and Franklin. The delivery guy at the store would pick us up after work; we’d have dinner at the Chef CafĂ©, we’d deliver prescriptions until 8, and then we would go home. So that’s really where this idea of mayor started to jell—because I had a foot in both worlds.
So you saw the whole city in a way.
Yeah. At a pretty early age, I got this idea that it’s two cities. And while I lived a very middle-class existence, I came to the realization that it was quite privileged compared to what was happening [elsewhere].
Was that a black neighborhood at that point?
It was really mixed. Lots of blacks. Lots of Native Americans. It was the place where white and black people came together. My dad was a white pharmacist whose two biggest clients were African American doctors. Dr. Johnson and Dr. Brown. And that’s really, the fabric of that got ripped apart by the freeway, like so many other cities. When we moved to Chicago and Franklin, it was a very different thing, where it immediately felt more dangerous. And the city in that area was getting a little more dangerous. And our store, a drug store in the middle city that had narcotics, was getting held up a lot. But it also speaks to what a parent can do. Because to me, the very best part of growing up was ironically right at the time that my father died. I loved him, but he was very ill.
Where are your parents’ roots?
My mom’s from San Francisco my dad is from New Prague.
Your dad was a farm kid?
No, they owned the store in New Prague. My great grandpa had the first general store on the main street in New Prague. But anyways, their whole deal was my mom never got to go to college but she always wanted to. So they took all their money and put us in Breck. When my dad got sick and died, my mom kept running the store to keep us in Breck. Finally, when she got held up at gunpoint she was going to take us out, which was a horrible thing for her. And they said no, we’ll give you a job and give your kids a scholarship. So they let her run the bookstore and gave us a scholarship. She went back to college, she got her masters degree . . . and became a college guidance counselor. And now the best thing I’ve done as Mayor is the STEP-UP summer jobs program. It’s all about getting kids on a college track. So it’s the family biz again. But my mom was a phenomenally important factor. Almost everything I am.
Why did they send you to Breck High School? Was it an aspirational move?
Well, to my mom it was. My mom’s way of thinking was I will do everything possible to give my kids the college education that I never got.
And this school would get you in.
That was her deal. And the beautiful thing about it was, once she got us into college, she got herself a master’s degree and she helped get her grandkids into college.
What drove her? Why was missing out on college such a personal failure?
She got married young. It ended in a divorce. My mom is 85 now. She goes to Civil War roundtables, and university women association, she has a super-active mind. And here she was a housewife. She says she always wanted to be a housewife, but she’s incredibly smart and tough. It was just her deal: that her kids will get that one thing.
What was Breck like in the ‘70s?
It was very different. Today it’s a phenomenal but very privileged school. Then it was more alternative. It was a very open school. It was where people whose parents were in the orchestra or worked at the newspaper or the university went. It had very wide open modular scheduling, some would say almost chaotic. I was a terrible student. Really bad. I was 50th in a class of 52. But I was involved in everything.
Were you a pothead?
Yeah. For a while.
In high school or just college?
Not much in college. And I wouldn’t say I was a pothead. I smoked pot.
What kind of a person were you?
I was lost. I was kind of a good kid who went to Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts and all that. And then it was the ‘60s, and for a couple years—my junior and my sophomore year—it was a really different period of time. I smoked pot and I think it got me pretty depressed, frankly.
Was your group of friends depressed?
I wouldn’t pass judgment. I would just say that when I look back on it, it was not a good period. I quit playing football, which I loved. I came out of it when I ran for school president. So I ran—it’s always a senior who’s president but I ran as a junior—and I wound up winning. And it was part of a package of things. All of a sudden I was doing a lot of work on the newspaper. I was organizing kazoo bands. Doing everything except class. But I did come out of there with a lot of confidence that I was a lot better than what I was showing myself to be. I had terrible grades. But I applied to Boston College because I thought, Okay, I want to be mayor and I want to be a journalist writing about urban issues. They had a program where you could put those two things together. And I applied to Boston College, which was way over what I should’ve been able to get in for my grades. But because I had done all these other things, they let me in. It was a fantastic period. I spent days and days just walking around Boston just throwing myself into the city.
And when you were out in Boston were you always planning to come home?
No question. I was basically at the political version of finishing school. I was learning about cities in a great city, in a really unique set of programs that I had put together at college.
So what was your mom’s politics like? Were you influenced by her politics?
I was influenced by the fact that she liked politics. But she and my stepfather were definitely Republicans. She’s now a very progressive Democrat. But it was a period of time when everything was changing. And again I credit my mom for having a real sense of history. At a very early age, I remember her driving us through the Gateway District, where they were tearing down all the historic buildings and she said, remember this, because it’s going to be gone.
When you graduated from college, you went to work for the Sun Newspaper in St. Louis Park?
I did that for a year.
But your dream wasn’t to write, was it?
No, it was. I first wanted to be a reporter for the Star Tribune covering urban affairs and architecture.
You had an extensive checklist of dreams at 13.
Watergate got me into journalism. Everyone wanted to be a journalist in those years. But I was at the Sun newspaper and I started breaking some really good stories and the Star Tribune paid attention. A year later I was writing for the Tribune the Star and the merged Star Tribune.
Were you on staff?
Yeah, they hired me. At first my editor said what would you like to write about? I said, “I want to write about urban planning and architecture and maybe some politics; anything but crime.” He said, “Great.” And I walked in Monday and I was assigned to crime. I hated it at the time, but it was really good because, night after night, I would go to all these parts of town that I now sometimes still go out to for crime. And I understood the complexity and the challenges of the Minneapolis Police Department. This was back when the police was involved in serious brutality against the gay and lesbian community . . . Eventually I convinced the paper to let me write about development and architecture. It was really a great period because the city was being rebuilt. In the ‘80s, all the towers went up. The IDS was the only tower. And then suddenly it was City Center, Wells Fargo, what was called the Piper Tower. The city was transforming. The retail spine was changing. And I was in the middle of all that.
So that’s how you got connected to the downtown business community?
Yeah, and my dad running the Walgreen’s at 9th and Nicollet. So downtown was a cause. It wasn’t where the rich people lived. It was something that you took pride in.
People really wanted a downtown . . .
Right when the Mall of America was being built, there was real trouble downtown, because it was perceived as a real assault, something that was going to wreck downtown. The downtown council created a job for me called development director, to bring new businesses in.
And these were the connections you had made at the Strib?
Yeah, I knew the downtown council. And that to me was a great way to start getting into politics. And I did that for a year and we had Charlie, and I had this huge realization that I was about to walk out on my one opportunity to be a really good dad. In fact, I remember having lunch with a really good friend of mine who was deputy mayor at the time. The first half of the lunch was me telling my friend Rip Rapson that I’ve really come to this big realization that I want to be a dad, and I’m just not going to be able to be mayor. And the second half of the lunch he looked across the table and said, “I’m running for mayor.” It was really a turning point. But it wound up being a great period because I eventually left the downtown council and started my own business.
So you crossed over from media to the Downtown Council.
And that was a ton of fun. I was doing what I wound up doing a lot as mayor, being the pitch guy for Minneapolis. I would try to bring big stores or retail in or try to get new office tenants.
Being the pitch guy, that’s one of your defining characteristics as a mayor.
I’m a real good sales person only if I have a really good product—and Minneapolis is a great product.
Did you learn image crafting techniques or the right marketing techniques from media?
When I went on my own, my first contract—I started a marketing consultant business—was Target stores, when they put their name on Target Center. And that got me working with John Pelligren . . . I met him through Megan. And John Pelligren was really the guy who built the Target brand. You know, changed Target from a discount retailer. He was the advertising marketing genius behind it. One of the greatest brand people in the history of the city.
And then you became publisher of The Twin Cities Reader?
I just kind of hung out my shingle, and started getting different clients and it was really great. We redid the third floor of our house, the kids were at a preschool on the corner and everything was in the neighborhood. It was really great. And so that was a really good life. And in the middle of it, David Carr called me up and said, The Reader is dying, and we need someone to come in and be the publisher. And I’d never run the business side of it. I was a marketing guy, but I wasn’t a business guy. But I thought about it for a while, and it almost seemed like another client. And I thought I’d do it for a little bit of time, but I fell in love with it. Although it was very difficult.
And you got beat by City Pages?
The Reader was on its last legs. And people had already pretty much made the decision that City Pages was the one to ride. And I was really proud of that work, but it was a real disappointment that we couldn’t move it. In retrospect, if that had happened a year later, we had a brand that we could’ve gone on the Internet with. And it would’ve hit really right.
I picked up the Reader in high school at the liquor store in White Bear Lake. And that kind of informed my voice. It was more irreverent than City Pages.
So you understood it. So it was when newsprint went way out . . . it was really crazy. And then David left. I kept trying to do this management buyout. I was teaching myself business. Poorly. I had some good friends who were kind of walking me through it. But we couldn’t get it for the right price, and then I get this call from somebody I knew from way back who said, we started this new internet venture to do TV based websites, we did this for WCCO and it’s exploding. It’s really taking off. We need to go around the country and create a chain so we want you to come in and be vice president of this Internet company. I had not been on the Internet. The Internet was brand new . . . So I go up to the attic, to our third floor where we have our office. And I dial up, and it takes forever to load the page, and suddenly the shackles come off my eyes and I go BOIIING! THE FUTURE. And so I went to work for this company called Internet Broadcast. It’s still around. And I was there for a couple of years. And it was so great to be in on the ground floor of the Internet. One week, CBS was going to acquire us and we were going to be millionaires, and the next week maybe we’ll make payroll. And it was going up and down and up and down. And I learned a ton. But one week it was on one of its down cycles and they fired me. They needed to lop off a management level and they fired me. I’d never been fired in my life. And it wound up being an amazing gift. Because I went out to be an Internet consultant, which was very lucrative at the time, and it also gave me the latitude to run for mayor.
After getting fired, it seemed like a magic carpet ride at first.
I didn’t know what it was. I knew the Internet was doing things, and I didn’t know whether this was it or not. But when I left Internet Broadcasting, I was very hot. Because it was odd to have anybody to have any strategic knowledge of the Internet. So I had lots and lots of clients, both in the private sector and media. I did a lot with Public Radio International. I did a lot with Utne as they were launching a new online venture. Edina Realty I had a big account with. I had lots of work and I had lots of flexibility. Which is when we began thinking about running for mayor.
So when did you decide to run for mayor?
Well it had always been kept in the back of my mind. And at that point, I was thinking that there needed to be a new mayor. And the whole thing was we didn’t want to do this when our kids were little. But that’s when Megan said to me, “Maybe it’s better to run now when the kids want to be a part of it.”
But for that idea to manifest when you were in your 40s, when you have a family. What were those ideas? What was the trigger?
I had a lot of background in architecture and development from writing about it, from being at the downtown council, from being in the industry. And I disagreed with the development level of subsidy at the Target store and the idea of Block E. I had worked on bringing Target downtown in the private sector. So I believed very much in it. But I knew the deal well enough that I felt that the city could’ve struck a better deal. And I had worked on Block E in the private sector before this version, and I thought that it missed the mark. I felt that having my experience there could actually drive better deals for the public. And I came in saying we should stop giving checks to individual projects and instead put money into the common good. And that wound up being the case. When you look at my work, there have been two big projects that put in public money. One being midtown exchange, to bring 1,400 jobs to the Global Market, and the other bringing Coloplast to North Minneapolis. I’ve invested in the common good: A lot of transit, a lot of infrastructure pieces. I consider the stadium and Target Center to be part of the public realm. Not everybody does. But I do.
You campaigned against Block E and you campaigned against the Target headquarters downtown.
I campaigned as somebody who knew enough about development to be a better, tougher negotiator to get more for the public. But the night that I won, nobody wanted to ask me about what I was going to do. What they were all obsessed with was the Twins being contracted if a stadium wasn’t built. And that was nowhere on my agenda. It was suddenly a crisis before I had even taken office. And I had to make a really tough decision about whether I would support what the current mayor was trying to do, to keep them here, or if I would go in another direction. And I decided to support what the mayor was trying to do.
Two days in office and they’re talking about the Twins leaving town and you walk into a $5 five million deficit.
I wasn’t even two days in office. The night I got elected I was dealing with the contraction thing. And within two days I was getting briefed on the budget. So through my whole transition, you know, you’re planning the party and stuff, but really we were going over finances and trying to put a team together that could have some ability to get the city back on financial ground. And then a year later Pawlenty would get elected with a legislature that really, many of them got elected by “Let’s stick it to Minneapolis.” And boy they did.
How did that happen? Why did they want to stick it to Minneapolis?
No. It’s more about, if you’re running from anywhere but Minneapolis, you can get elected in a lot of places by saying, “I want it in my area and not in Minneapolis.” And you can pitch this idea of Minneapolis as a sinkhole, that it’s poorly run. So I had to stand up and say, “Look, here’s our strategy.” And I had to spend a lot of time convincing people that we were going to be in better financial shape. This is not what I was thinking about when I was 13! I remember walking out of city hall one night, about a month in, just bombarded with day after day of bad news. And the budget director saying, “It won’t always be like this, Mayor.” But it was really rough. It was really rough.
So it was exciting.
Yeah, it was definitely exciting. And then we laid out a five-year financial plan and that was tied to a very tough budget. We began to chip away and chip away and chip away. A big piece of advice that I got when I came in was, “Never deliver the bad news.” Have other people do that. Don’t be there when the disaster is there, be there to cut the ribbon. And I 100 percent ignored that advice. And I decided what I would do is that I would be present. I would show up. No matter what.
Does that explain all the appearances?
You show up. And that was just a huge piece. Melissa Schmidt was a police officer that got shot and that was a horrible night, and I’d never dealt with that. But I got the call, and I go to the hospital. She dies, and so Chief Olson and I walked down that grand staircase at City Hall. We were just going to make a media announcement, and this was like 2 in the morning, I think. And the word had spread to all of our police force. Imagine the city hall atrium, the lights are down, and as we come down those stairs I can see the whole atrium is filled with cops. It was stone silent. Because this group of people, who go out and stand between us and harm’s way, suddenly one of them is dead. And their vulnerability is really clear. And their faces were really different. I can never walk through that atrium without remembering that night. My response to that was to knock on every single door in Horn Towers, where she died. Just show up and show up and show up. When Taesha Edwards was shot, I ran to the hospital. We got to know the family really well. They spent some holidays with us. And our kids got to know them really well. And Taesha was Gracie’s age. One of the things that served me well was having been a reporter. I was used to being in tough places. I was used to asking people questions. But mostly I just tried to be a human being. I didn’t like try to be what the mayor was supposed to be.
How would you characterize your relationship with the police department over the years?
It started out really rough.
Because you came in as a reformer?
Well it’s one of the most complicated things a mayor has to do. Mayor Hodges will have her own evolution on it. In my case, I’d been a reporter covering the department and I’ve seen very clearly some of the issues with both race and the GLBT community back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. And so when I came in and really began to see it, I thought that there was huge progress with the GLBT community, and still serious, serious issues on race. So my relationship with the department was rocky at first. Over time, we went through a crime wave together, and I learned more about them and they learned more about me and they saw me showing up a lot. I think that mattered. Really doing the work it took with getting to know many, many, many police officers helped a lot. So my feeling on it in general, is after stumbling through that a bit, I was able to understand how we could help make the city safer together. And we really looked down a massive crime increase in 2005 and dramatically made the city safer. And I’m really proud of that, because it was upstream and downstream. But I do think there remain serious culture issues.
Within the department?
Yeah. The problem with it is, I’ve gotten to know in pretty good depth, many police officers. And I very strongly reject the idea that it’s a department filled with racist cops. It’s not at all and I know that for a fact.
But there are some racist cops out there.
There are a few officers who step over the line, and when they do that, they screw it up for everyone else. And there needs to be more of a culture of those great officers standing up to the very, very few jerks. Nothing pisses me off about policing more than having people not give credit to the cops who do really great work and having the great cops not do more to stop the very few from screwing it up.
It erodes confidence in the entire organization . . .
Completely. Completely. But you know, I think Chief Harteau has it right. And Chief Dolan was a very, very good chief who, by the way, didn’t get much credit for removing more officers for cause than I think any chief maybe in history. But Chief Harteau has a different approach, and I think she is going to serve the city very, very well.
I think in a lot of ways you’re going to be remembered for the bicycles, and marrying gay people all night long. And all the personal appearances. But many might remember you as somebody who came in as an anti-corporate money, against the Target headquarters and Block E, but who left supporting a Vikings Stadium. The transformation in your stance . . .
I never was anti-development. I was pro-development. And I never was anti-corporate. I was anti-stupid. I was anti-bad deal is what I was. And I was always very clear about that.
But a lot of people say this is a bad deal.
Let me just walk through once with you. You know, first off, probably more than anything I did I was able to take a $1.3 billion enterprise that was in serious financial shape and turn it into $1.2 billion enterprise that had a few less employees, dramatic better outcomes, and—I think—a very sound financial and strategic future. I ran the city well, and I’m really proud of that. On the development front, we really changed from putting money into individual projects into doing primarily common ground. Now, the reason I got into this is, part of cleaning up the financial house was Target Center, which sat on our property tax roles.
The city owns that . . .
Before I took over, one of the many development deals that was done, was the city stepped in—in a crisis, granted—but they took over Target Center. And so every year, before we did the deal, $5 million off the top of your property tax dollars went to pay for Target Center. And I kept going over to the legislature trying to get that done, and I couldn’t get that done. It’s important to understand that. I didn’t just do a stadium deal. I did a combination of sales tax to put it together. Do you want me to go over quickly what I did?
Please do.
So there was a lot of pressure on the city to do a Vikings Stadium. And I said, “We can’t. We’re not in the position to do it.” So in the middle of all of that, there got to be a move at the legislature to move them to Arden Hills. And there was an attempt to take excess sales tax dollars away from the city. And near the end of the session I remember sitting on the front step doing call after call after call to try to kill this deal. We almost lost sales taxes that help pay for our hospitality business as part of an attempt to get this stadium. I called everybody in from our team, and I said, “Okay, we’re going to play offense or defense. And if we play defense we will lose our sales tax. So get me three pieces of information. How much do we need to fix Target Center? What will it take to run the Convention Center? And what would it take for our public part of a stadium? And the final point is, how much do we have in sales tax?”
And when your announcement was made it was dramatic. Minneapolis wants to be involved in the Vikings deal all of the sudden.
Well, first we went out and did this thing where we’re going to do a Target Center renovation. And everybody laughed. Nobody’s ever gonna pay for that. Do you remember that one? So we knew that wasn’t going to fly. So then we put all this together and got in a room and for hour after hour after hour looked at all these numbers and put all this stuff together. And finally concluded that there was a path to do this, but we had to get control of our sales tax dollars. So went back and said okay, I want to bring a proposal forward. And they said, “You’ll never get control of those sales tax dollars. You’ll never get council support. And you’ll absolutely never get support for Target Center.” Council president Johnson and I laid this out. The press conference was a joke. People thought we were not only crazy for all those reasons, but also they were going to wind up in Arden Hills and the entire business community was pushing them to the other side of town.
The entire business community was pushing them to Arden Hills?
No, they were pushing them to be over by the farmers’ market. But that would have left us with this whole vacant part of town with this white elephant.
Part of the resistance to the farmers’ market location was the Basilica?
On one level. But our deal was better. So we came up with this deal and it basically said let us get control of our sales taxes and allow us to do these things. Also, there was a lot going on. And eventually we got it done. So now let’s look at the scenario. So people said, “Well we’ll do that, but one of the big problems is nothing will ever be built over there by the stadium.” While all that was happening, I went to the Star Tribune. Back when I worked there, and when I was at the downtown council, there were these grandiose plans to do five-block developments and they were never going anywhere. And so I said, “You’re going to have a window of time in which if there’s something going here we can move this thing forward, but you’re going to have to get a developer on board, we’re going to have to think big. And the key to it all is the parking ramp. We’re gonna build a parking ramp, and if it’s empty on non game days, it’ll be a loss. But if we can put something next to it and generate revenue, we could do something.” So they brought in Ryan. And Ryan began working on it.
This is the Wells Fargo Development.
Yes. So meanwhile Wells Fargo came in and did what I thought was a courtesy call that said, “Look, we’re expanding, we want to do a campus, and there’s no campus in the city so we’re going do it out in the suburbs.” And I said, “To hell there isn’t a campus.” I gave them four sites: the upper river terminal, the basset creek valley, Lake and Nicollet, and—I said ‘Here’s the killer’ and I pointed them to [the Star Tribune property].” Then I called Ryan and put them together. And Wells Fargo and Ryan started working together. That deal now, we’re just finishing up, but that deal will generate about $35 million over 30 years, at least, in property taxes for the city. It’s the largest office development since the ‘70s. And it’s going to lead to a two-block park that’s going to attract other development.
I think you needed to do what you did. The dome would’ve been a disaster and Target Center was run down. And the convention center . . .
And a bunch of parking lots.
But I seem to be in the minority. A lot of people don’t. The coalition that you got to support this deal . . .
Let me finish with one other point that I want to make sure we don’t lose. All of that was calculated on sales tax growing at 2 percent. The history had been 2.7 percent. I said make it more conservative. They’re now growing at 4 to 5 percent. That means along with all of these, an additional $2 million this year into the city’s treasury. But the thing about it is this: People say the majority is against it—I don’t think that’s ever been polled, because they’ve never asked the real question. The question isn’t, “Do you want a Vikings Stadium or not? ” The question should be “Do you want to lower your property tax by getting Target Center off the tax rolls, fix that building, get the Vikings grounded here, attract a million square feet of office with 35 million in property taxes and the park?”
So you’re tying your move to lower property taxes to the Vikings and Target Center deal?
Absolutely tied to it. Because it was $5 million a year and lowering property taxes $2.5 million a year. Had we not gotten Target Center off the tax roles, we couldn’t have lowered property taxes.
But a lot of the people who voted for this deal on City Council lost this year.
That’s not true. That’s not true. The council president [Barbara Johnson] had strong opposition, but she won enormously. Kevin Reich had virtually no opposition, nor did John Quincy. Sandy Colvin Roy lost an endorsement convention that was primarily based on municipalization. And then she chose not to run. Meg Tuthill was in serious trouble before that and so was Diane Hofstede. So Gary Schiff ran on an anti-stadium thing and couldn’t even get through the Democratic convention. So that’s just not the case.
Did you have individual conversations with city council members? How did you make your pitch for this deal to them? How did you get the votes?
The more people understood the complexity, the more they got it. If people locked in and said, “I will never be, for any reason, for stadium funding,” I didn’t get ‘em.
So Betsy Hodges, you had no hope of getting her?
Yeah. From the beginning she just said no. And I get it. I have a lot of respect for Betsy. And I have respect for lots of people who can’t get there on public funding, and I’m not that nuts about it myself. But that will go down as a deal that remade an entire part of town, had a positive impact in lowering property taxes, and solidified our convention business. I’ll defend that thing any day of the week.
Sounds like it.
But it’s not what I want to be remembered for. The biggest thing I did was STEP-UP.
Really? Do you think that gets the attention it deserves?
Well when you take 18,000 kids, 30 percent kids of immigrant families and 80 percent kids of color and get them into high quality jobs, and now you’re getting them out into the workforce; we’ve literally trained a global workforce. And that will always be the one body of work that has meant the most to me, by far. That and the Global Market.
So that was a public funding situation, the Global Market. So you’re not adverse to the right deal?
That’s the whole point. I come out of development. I’m very pro-development.  I just drive a tough bargain. If people could’ve been in rooms with me negotiating all these deals, they know that I’m pretty damn tough in representing the public.
And now you’ve joined Generation Next, which is focused on the achievement gap. What needs to happen to solve this problem?
I realized early on as mayor, that there’s far more power than people assume to be within the job in city hall. There’s dramatically more power if you build the right coalitions. Along with Generation Next; I was on the founding board of the regional council of mayors; the Itasca Group, which is about CEOs in the business community; and I was on the founding board of Greater MSP, which is about competitiveness; the founding initiative of a regional export strategy; and on the founding board of Generation Next, which has all the big funders in the community . . . McKnight, Target, Cargill, Minneapolis Minnesota Foundation, United Way, the president of the University, the president of the community colleges, the two mayors, the two superintendents. The idea is to take anything humanly possible to change the fact that there are kids in this community that have a different future that can often be determined by their race or their income or their geography. That’s scandalous to me. And when I see that I see it as a crisis, and I see my job as being to lead us out of that crisis, just like I led the bridge collapse.
So you see it as disaster?
I see it as a crisis. A disaster would imply everything is wrong out there, and there are phenomenal things working: From the Northside Achievement Zone and the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood to STEP-UP. There are multiple different programs.
But overall those are centers of resiliency in the face of adversity.
Yeah. We simply cannot thrive as a region and have the fastest growing parts of our population lagging behind. It’s not sustainable and, frankly, it’s morally wrong. So I just have a great passion for the work. When they came to me with it, at first I rejected it, pretty quickly. Then after thinking about, I recognized that I was in a really unique position: to take all this energy that I was putting into multiple things and focus it onto what is far and away the biggest crisis and opportunity we have. So I’m really energized by it.
The term “achievement gap” seems to be focusing on a gap between the haves and the have-nots. Why is it not talking about why we have some people that are doing really poorly and that we should all achieve more?
I’m 1,000 percent in agreement with you. Achievement gap is the wrong term. Because what we want to do is have everybody grow dramatically.
What needs to happen to accomplish that?
If there were a single thing that could be done, we would’ve done it. It takes collective action, much of what is happening right now. We don’t lack compassion. We lack alignment. We are the land of 10,000 initiatives, non-profits, and caring individuals. But it has to be moving in as much of the same direction as we can get. And it needs to be tied to data telling us whether we’re moving the ball forward or not. And if it’s not, change this, change that, do more of that. So that’s really where it’s hopefully going to drive.
Finally done (officially) promoting Minneapolis, R.T. Rybak tells us about his St. Paul faves