R.T. Rybak's Next Act
Will he use his talent and charisma to bridge the achievement gap in education or widen a rift and wreck his political future?
Photos by Thomas Strand
R.T. Rybak received his education in economic divides back when he was a youngster, before “experiential learning” was in vogue. After his day at the tony suburban private school Breck, he would travel to the drugstore his family owned on the corner of Chicago and Franklin in Minneapolis. Occasionally, he accompanied his mother on delivery runs in the neighborhood and saw kids living in dirty, rundown apartments without enough to eat—a world apart from his comfortable home east of Lake Harriet, and farther still from the luxurious homes of Breck friends he’d visited.
“It was impossible not to be overwhelmed by a sense I was lucky and that there was a lot more need and hurt with kids my own age than I’d known,” he says. “It really opened my eyes.”
Those bright-blue high beams shine with compassion from perhaps the most familiar face in the city. During his dozen years as mayor, Rybak got to know some of those kids who came from the other side of the proverbial tracks. He ticks off the names—Wes Alcenat, Kafia Ahmed, Alex Glaze—of kids who improbably overcame the odds of homelessness or violence to thrive in school and find a better future. And he got to know the families of other kids, such as Tyesha Edwards, the 11-year-old girl killed by a stray bullet in 2002 while doing her homework in her family’s south Minneapolis dining room. He internalized their successes, their pain. And he came to understand how the economic and racial divide in the Twin Cities had led to a notoriously expansive achievement gap in educational outcomes.
He leans forward, his voice earnest: “I took this job because I felt I needed to,” he says. “It’s very personal.”
The first stop in Rybak’s post-mayoral career is that of executive director of Generation Next, a nonprofit coalition of movers and shakers from the worlds of business, education, and government with the explicit goal of closing the achievement gap for students of color in the Twin Cities. He knows the odds are stacked against success. And he’s also aware of the rap against him: that he came to the cause late, that it wasn’t until his third and final term as mayor that he gave schools all of the attention they deserved. Rybak knows the controversy he’s generated by championing policies that set him against his party. More than anything, he has to know the fate of his political future could ride on what happens next.
Minnesota has had Kirby, Hubert, Garrison, and Jesse, but never a man so recognized that a pair of initials suffices. R.T. Rybak achieved a remarkably high visibility during three terms as mayor of Minnesota’s largest city, befriending President Obama, crowd surfing at parades, and tweeting incessantly. He possesses a rare charisma that leaves even those who disagree with his positions liking him personally. His talents served him well in various careers before politics as a journalist, internet pioneer, and activist.
Today, the trappings of his professional life are markedly humble. A tour of the Generation Next offices tucked in a corner of the Greater Twin Cities United Way headquarters in downtown Minneapolis doesn’t take long. There’s a room with a white board, a conference table, and cubicles along the edges—looking every bit like a startup company—for the five young staff members he introduces. His office barely has space for a desk and a round table. On the wall is a photo of Tyesha Edwards’ grave marker. (“I don’t want to forget her.”)
The achievement gap, what Rybak calls “the shame of this community,” marks the disparity of test scores and graduation rates drawn along racial and ethnic lines. The gap isn’t because its most privileged students are topping the charts. Statewide, a middling 85 percent of white students graduated from high school in 2013, contrasted by an appalling 58 percent of Hispanic students and 57 percent of African-American students. The statistics are especially stark in Minneapolis, where graduation rates fell as low as 37 percent for Hispanics and African Americans and 25 percent for American Indians. The gap in Minneapolis widened on Rybak’s watch.
photo by thomas strand
“I come at this from a moral perspective,” he says. “It’s just deeply wrong that you can predict the likelihood of a child’s success in my hometown based on their race.”
Generation Next is by no means the first group to take on the problem. A recent University of Minnesota study found there were some 500 different efforts aimed at closing the achievement gap. Generation Next aims to identify which measures are working best and unify their implementation.
Rybak lays out the nonprofit’s plans: comprehensive health and developmental screenings of all children at age 3 to better ensure their readiness for kindergarten; common practices and protocols for all literacy tutors so that students can meet third-grade reading benchmarks; and seeing that every student develops a post-high school-plan for college or a career.
“There are multiple factors that are going to take multiple actions, but winning this battle is doable,” he says. “We can solve this.”
The scope is undeniably ambitious, yet Rybak has the deep network necessary to bring together a wide range of stakeholders in the community, government, education, and business. He’s as comfortable at a school-board meeting as a corporate boardroom or a corner barbershop. Whether it’s convincing friends to sign up for the City of Lakes Loppet, or persuading Target to donate $1.1 million to reward best practices in schools, his passion can be contagious. Still, his selection as Generation Next’s chief surprised many.
For starters, Rybak hadn’t distinguished himself as the Education Mayor. While the office has no authority over the superintendent, the school board, or schools, he admits that he could have been more proactive in addressing the city schools’ deficiencies. Yet by his second term he was working closely with new superintendent Bernadeia Johnson, backing her reform efforts. He had already implemented his signature legacy, STEP-UP, a program that has helped 18,000 students—the majority of them impoverished—land summer internships and jobs.
In order to take his new nonprofit job, Rybak turned down opportunities to work in Washington (he declines to give specifics). As the first mayor of a major city to support Obama’s presidential bid, Rybak has met with the president in the Oval Office and enjoys perhaps the closest relationship with him of any Minnesota politician.
A clue to Rybak’s motivation is his description of the “uncompleted work” from his time as mayor, where he says there were always other issues competing for his attention—budgets, crime, development, property taxes, as well as crises such as the northside tornado and I-35W bridge collapse. He describes his current position with the satisfaction of being able to provide “the laser focus” it needs.
While the Minneapolis Public Schools are also connecting with many of Generation Next’s partners, Superintendent Johnson, who is also a member of the organization’s leadership council, welcomes the support. “The beauty and power of Generation Next is that you convene all of those people at one time and get them talking about collective impact,” she says.
Pam Costain, head of AchieveMpls, which administers STEP-UP, adds that Rybak is right for the job because of his past experience and personal commitment. “He understands the gravitas of the situation that some others don’t,” she says.
Rybak insists that no political ambition lies behind his work at Generation Next. Still, it won’t be difficult for some to perceive the move at least in part as burnishing policy credentials before reentering the political fray. Rybak disagrees.
“Taking this job would have been one of the five worst political decisions I could make—with the other four being breaking the law in some way,” he says. “This is not a political move.”
Tucked away in his small office, Rybak admits he misses the influence he left in the mayor’s office. “There are moments when I walk into the room and I’m not called upon to speak or when there’s a problem and I’m not asked to help, and that’s somewhat frustrating,” he says.
That doesn’t surprise Linda Houden, a friend of Rybak’s for the past four decades. “It’s in his DNA to be part of what’s happening,” she says.
Rybak seemed so ubiquitous as mayor, and indefatigable, that the heart attack he suffered after cross-country skiing last January came as a shock (the humorous rhyme he tweeted about it—“My cardiac surprise/Gave me quite a start/But it proves this politician/Has a great big heart”—seemed more in character). He turns 59 this month, says he’s healthier than ever (he was back skiing within weeks of having a stent inserted), and has no thought of retiring. “Oh no. I’m just warming up,” he says. “My best work is ahead of me.”
That could include another gubernatorial run in 2018 (Rybak campaigned for governor in 2010 but did not win the DFL endorsement). He remains one of five vice chairs of the Democratic National Committee. And he admits that another bid for governor interests him.
But his current role could well undermine that possible political future. “Eliminating the achievement gap is a very daunting task,” says Ken Martin, chair of the Minnesota DFL “It’s also very high-risk if he does it in a way that ends up angering some people, especially those people whose help he needs if he is to run for governor.”
Rybak already has alienated some by endorsing and campaigning for his longtime friend Don Samuels in this fall’s Minneapolis school-board race, in opposition to DFL-endorsed candidates. “Being the vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, it would not make sense that he would be working against his local party, which is actually what he is doing,” says Rebecca Gagnon, an incumbent Minneapolis schools board member backed by the DFL in her bid for reelection.
By aligning himself with Samuels and others in the Generation Next coalition, Rybak has further piqued the faction of the Minnesota DFL that equates reform with union busting. Rybak has never proposed that education unions be dissolved, though in an interview while still mayor he said that “seniority and experience can’t be the chief determinant” in making staffing cuts. Many considered that a sacrilegious attack on the unions, even while the state has been developing a sophisticated data analysis of teacher performance that the Minneapolis school district has been gradually implementing to evaluate teachers (and ultimately use in deciding who stays and who goes, regardless of seniority).
“There are a lot of reformers R.T. is associating with that are trying to take down the teacher’s union,” Martin says. “That’s something our party does not support. We support the unions.”
Martin perhaps overstates Rybak’s allegiances and his ultimate political position, but if the party people believe Rybak doesn’t support the unions, they are unlikely to support him.
It’s true that, at times, Rybak has adhered more to his passions than to party etiquette, and the rift between him and the Minnesota DFL is real. He won the party’s endorsement in the 2009 mayoral race, but that was after two victories (in 2001 and 2005) without it. While running without DFL endorsement worked for Rybak at the mayoral level, it would be unlikely to succeed statewide. His position as a national Democratic chair lends him influence, but his term ends in 2016—the same year that his powerful ally Obama leaves office. Bottom line: If Rybak wants to be governor, he’s going to need the Minnesota DFL’s backing—not all of it, but enough of it. And he might be jeopardizing that, as Martin cautions.
Yet Rybak still enjoys a strong following in the party and may very well be able to overcome any hard feelings—because of the same charisma, experience, and talent that have led Generation Next to place its belief in him.
“I don’t think R.T. has burned too many bridges to preclude him from running for governor,” says Richard Mammen, outgoing chair of the Minneapolis school board. “A lot of people like R.T.”
In August, Rybak emceed the Generation Next policy rollout in front of an overflow audience at the Humphrey Institute, an event that feels less like a press conference than a pep rally. After 90 minutes, General Mills exec and Generation Next co-chair Kim Nelson’s closing remarks inspire a hearty round of applause: “I want to thank R.T., the tremendous R.T. and his staff, who have brought a tremendous amount of momentum.”
The audience spills out into the lobby, and there he is in the thick of it: shaking hands, greeting everyone, beaming. Reporters record his comments, a TV crew pulls him aside for an interview. He seems to relish this, the chance to push his agenda in the spotlight. It’s just like old times—and maybe the future as well.
Public and charter Schools’ High school Graduation Rate (2012–2013)
- American Indian—25%
- American Indian—51%
How does the Twin Cities Compare to other American cities?