R.T. Rybak reflects on his tenure as mayor, why he loves this city, and what’s up next
Photo by TJ Turner, Sidecar Studios
Most kids dream of being astronauts or veterinarians. Not Raymond Thomas Rybak Jr.: little R.T. wanted to be mayor of Minneapolis. For the past decade-plus, he lived that dream, guiding Minnesota’s largest city through the Great Recession, fighting to close the achievement gap in schools, and sampling the many local beers that have come to define the city’s DIY culture. On November 5, Minneapolitans will elect a new leader—but that doesn’t mean we’ve seen the last of Minneapolis’s biggest fan.
How would you like to kick off your goodbye interview?
Well, for starters, I’m not saying goodbye—I’m changing chairs in a city where people do that all the time. Minneapolis is a great place because it has a civic infrastructure of people who give all this time beyond what they do for their living. I’m going to go back to being one of those people. You’re not through with me yet.
What made you run in the first place?
I wanted to do this job since I was a kid. My family had a drugstore in the city, and I had a great life. But at an early age, I realized that the solid middle-class neighborhood I was from in south Minneapolis was very different from the—at that time—crime-ridden and sometimes violent neighborhood of Chicago and Franklin where my parents’ store was. I realized it was a tale of two cities, and I wanted to bridge that gap. I went to college with the idea that I wanted to be a reporter for the Star Tribune and then become mayor. Strangely, that happened. The only problem is I didn’t dream the dream any further, so I don’t know what the heck’s supposed to come next.
What was one of the craziest things you did while campaigning the first time?
Run! It was so ludicrous that this person who had never run for office, was not well known, and had no money should even be competing in that race. A lot of things fell the right way and we worked really hard, but it was a long shot beyond long shots.
Do you ever think about that experience now?
It was really powerful. I literally door-knocked almost the entire city and wound up having thousands of intense, sincere, personal conversations about what people wanted Minneapolis to be. Those messages have stayed in my head and wound up playing a role in a decision I choose to make or not make.
How did your experience as a reporter tie into your skill set as mayor?
It taught me to listen—to suppress my urge to always talk first and really hear messages, even when people aggressively disagree with me. That’s made all the difference. When times have gotten tough, I’ve been able to slip back into being a reporter, go ask a bunch of questions, and listen.
How has your approach to the job changed in the past decade?
This is a big job in a big city, but it becomes a whole lot easier when you recognize that everything doesn’t sit on your shoulders. Your job is to tap the collective energy and wisdom of the 400,000 amazing people who live here, synthesize it, put some creativity on top, and then make some tough decisions. I came into office with a desperate desire to be liked by everyone, and I leave office with a desire to be respected. I’ve learned the difference between the two. And that’s huge.
That’s not an easy lesson.
We’re people: we like to be liked. But my job has often been to deliver bad news and then try to help find a way out of a mess. That is a recipe for not making people happy. But at the end of the day, most people will respect you if they get a sense that you’re being true to your principles, you’re listening, and you’re willing to make a tough call.
What advice do you wish someone would have given you on your first day in office?
When you get in trouble, open the door. There’s a tendency to hunker down in the office with a couple people you trust and try to gut out a solution. Over time, I recognized that the solution was primarily not in this office, but that I needed to open the door, talk to more people, hear more people, and get beat up a little bit. That’s when the right answer comes.
Would you share one of your favorite memories from your time in office?
Some of my favorite memories come from some of the darkest times: the amazing number of people who helped when the bridge collapsed or the tornadoes came through north Minneapolis, the outpouring of support for a parent when their child was killed. I always knew Minneapolis knew how to celebrate the good stuff, but I have a deeply enhanced respect for our collective ability to rally when we’re in trouble. This is a city with real grit; I believe we can get through almost anything without tearing ourselves apart.
What aspect of your job will you miss most?
I’ll really miss doing the budget, which sounds absurd. I learned that it’s a billion-dollar values statement: you have a billion dollars’ worth of values, and you have to parcel that out to what really matters.
Are there any perks you’ll miss?
(Laughs) It is a remarkably perk-less job. I by nature don’t like a lot of fanfare or entourage—I think that fits this city—but I’ve had a couple funny experiences with it. As soon as I got elected, I got rid of the big car and traded it for a Prius. I was driving down Broadway Avenue about a year after getting elected, and I saw these kids cleaning up litter, so I stopped, walked up to them, and said, “This is so great that you’re cleaning up this litter.” And they looked at me really skeptically and said, “Who are you?” I said, “Oh, I’m the mayor.” “You’re not the mayor!” “No, really, I’m the mayor.” Then they pointed over at my car and said, “A mayor wouldn’t drive a car like that!” And they ran away!
What do you hope gets accomplished in the next 10 years?
The single biggest thing that I hope happens is we find a way to close some of the unacceptable gaps in income and education. It’s completely wrong that the equity breaks along racial and economic lines. Over the past few years I’ve become much more involved in the Minneapolis public schools, and I intend to stay involved. It’s not that there aren’t a whole lot of people—especially teachers—trying really hard; it’s just that we have to do more.
Would it be better if the mayor had direct involvement in the education system?
I’m mixed on that. The real point is that one person in a mayor’s office or superintendent’s office is not going to guarantee that every kid gets a good education. That can only happen if all 400,000 residents of Minneapolis are deeply engaged in this issue and willing to make some tough choices.
How will you help drive that change?
I’ll continue, maybe even more now, to stand up and make some very tough recommendations—to put my popularity on the line and say, “I’ve been to every one of these schools. There’s phenomenal learning going on in every one of them, but the experience is uneven and that’s unacceptable. It’s going to take tough action and I’m prepared to put my neck on the line to do that—how about you?” One of the reasons I’m comfortable not continuing in a job I love is that I know there’s incredibly important work to do that doesn’t require me to have a title before my name. Fixing schools is job number one for me.
Let’s do a little word-association game:
There are literally dozens of people vying for your job. What are your thoughts on the race?
I’m proud of the fact that this job is more desirable now than before I started. I feel I’ve delivered on the really awkward promise I made when I was first running to help Minneapolis regain its collective swagger. I love that there are so many people out there who will very quickly be able to fill whatever vacuum I leave by being smarter, more innovative, and tougher than I’ve been. This is Minneapolis: we shouldn’t settle for anything but the best.
What’s one piece of advice you would offer to whomever succeeds you?
Make tough decisions you think are right and trust the people of this city to respect you.
What do you say to the people who think you’re already packing your bags for Washington, D.C.?
It’s been the most amazing gift to have this job. On almost every level I want to do it again. What in the world about the 12 years I’ve been here would make anyone think I’d go to Washington? I’m here. You’re stuck with me.
Ellen Burkhardt is the associate editor of Minnesota Monthly.