R.T. Rybak: the MinnesotaBrown interview

Today my series of posts profiling the 2010 Minnesota DFL governor candidates ends with Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. Stay tuned for more news after the post.

The interview

First, the facts:

  1. This interview took place at Zimmy’s Bar and Restaurant in Hibbing on Dec. 9, 2009.
  2. It was very cold outside.
  3. R.T. Rybak is running for governor.
  4. Rybak knows his way around a porketta sandwich.

The first three facts should surprise no one.

First, people who know me know I love Zimmy’s for its food and Bob Dylan motif. I go there often enough that the waitresses bring me a glass upon entering, say “here’s your diet,” and I am never offended. When I can get a gubernatorial candidate to meet me there, I will. Nothing provokes honesty like several dozen massive images of late 1970s Bob Dylan on the wall watching and judging your every action.

Second, this is Minnesota. It’s always cold in December and yet somehow that never cools off the politics. Less than two months remain until the Feb. 2 precinct caucuses — the date that will cement front-runners and begin to drive lagging candidates out of the race.

Third, despite the attempted narrative of R.T. Rybak being drafted into the race after his recent resounding mayoral re-election in Minnesota, the political class knows well that Rybak has been considered a major candidate for some time. His visit to Hibbing this particular day was part of his statewide campaign roll-out tour.

It’s the fourth fact — the porketta proficiency — that caught me by surprise. In addition to a classic and seemingly effective sweep across a large and well-connected Iron Range lunch crowd (you find a lot of young professionals and business people at Zimmy’s at this hour), Rybak downed a classic Fraboni’s porketta sandwich while telling me his campaign platform. He spoke and ate, but you only heard the speaking, you never saw the eating. I don’t know that one can learn that particular political skill, rather it’s the hallmark of a natural born candidate.

After nine other interviews with nine other DFL candidates, all of them viable to varying degrees, this one produced some of the same themes Democrats should expect from their nominee this year.

“I was born in a great state and I’m not going to die in a mediocre one,” said Rybak. This is the line he’s pushing everywhere and it’s pretty similar to the theme advocated by every DFL candidate. To paraphrase, Minnesota is not only in danger of losing its status as one of the best states to live and work, but also of declining in the fiscal chaos of California and the educational outcomes of the Deep South.

Unlike most of the other candidates I’ve interviewed, however, save some of the early ones like Bakk and Thissen who developed their own narrative, and Rukavina, who bleeds Iron Range bona fides, this is not what we started talking about. Our conversation actually began by e-mail prior to the interview and centered around the Iron Range, our changing economy and jobs. He was kind (or prepared) enough to read and apparently nearly memorize my book about the Iron Range. He spoke of one of the concerns I often speak of here on the blog, the so-called “brain drain” of talented young people away from the Iron Range and the difficulty of attracting specialty professionals to the area.

“We’ve got to have the kids learning how to be ready for the economy of the future,” said Rybak, who went on to explain how schools on the Iron Range and throughout Minnesota need to deliver a diverse education that includes not just what you find on state standardized tests but also technology, art, music and advanced language.

The adaptability that comes with a 21st century approach to education and the economy, he said, will create jobs.

“There’s no magic to this,” he said. “One reason I’m running is that I’ve proven in Minneapolis that I can put people to work.”

Minnesota’s best governors, according to Rybak, find ways to grow jobs while expanding the economy. It’s not unsurprising, perhaps, that the governor Rybak cites as a model is Hibbing’s own Rudy Perpich. (You can decide whether he brought this up because we were in such close proximity to an ore dump or because Perpich is the last DFLer ever elected governor — back before the internet).

“The state has always played a role in the economic development of the Iron Range,” and vice versa said Rybak. “The governor has always been either the region’s greatest spokesman or someone who ignored the place.” Rybak said he intends to pay attention. “Rudy Perpich was a salesman for the Iron Range,” said Rybak. “I’ve been that kind of salesman and I can be that kind of salesman for [unique regions of Minnesota like the Iron Range].”

Fundamentally, Rybak’s plan for the Range and the rest of Minnesota goes like this:

“It’s about having a long term plan. It starts the moment a kid is born and ensures that the kid has all the resources he or she needs along the way.”

Rybak cites summer job programs he pushed in Minneapolis that trained at-risk and economically challenged youth for the workforce. He also cites efforts to build economic development from the ground up.

“A home run project can put a lot of people to work, but I come from a long line of small businesspeople,” said Rybak, whose great-grandfather, grandfather and mother all ran stores in New Prague and Minneapolis. None of these businesses were mega projects, Rybak said, but they all created jobs. His focus would be on helping small businesses find the loans they need to grow and operate in the new economy.

That philosophy extends to the Iron Range, where Rybak said he wants to see more investment in new mining technology and in other related industries to help the area compete. It didn’t hurt that in his campaign patrol around Zimmy’s that day he ran across executives who worked for Magnetation, Inc., a newer Iron Range company that salvages previously unusable ore deposits from the mine dumps around the area. Magnetation is one of the few Iron Range businesses that added jobs in 2009. Rybak said that innovative processes like those used at Magnetation are areas to build upon for the future.

Rybak expressed support and interest in Iron Range Resources, the unique state agency that manages the Iron Range’s iron ore production revenue received in lieu of property taxes from mining companies, still the region’s largest employers.

“[The IRR agency] was set up to take money for today to build tomorrow,” said Rybak. “The 21st century mineral fund, and other funds, are a key to the area’s success.” Compared to other mining regions, Rybak said the Iron Range has weathered the economic changes of the last few decades much better because of this agency and its mission.

“The future of the Iron Range is not just on the streets of its towns, it’s around the world,” said Rybak. “If we’re competing around the world we need a governor who stands up for the Range. The mines on the Range — the most environmentally efficient in the world — should not be at a disadvantage in a world marketplace.”

After the Range topics, Rybak responded to questions about the state’s troubled budget situation.

“The state is in crisis,” said Rybak. “We’re not creating jobs and the budget is in chaos. You might ask why would anyone want to be governor? Well, it’s familiar to me.”

Rybak then pointed to his record in Minneapolis, confronting joblessness, crime, a poor economy and a budget out of whack. (Steve Berg at MinnPost recently explored the validity, largely true, of Rybak’s record).

“If the state is in chaos, we need someone who has not just a progressive vision, but also proven results,” said Rybak. I’ve shown this.”

Rybak stresses a progressive but independent-streaked philosophy about the state budget.

“People need to be honest about the budget,” said Rybak. “Tim Pawlenty and I both raised taxes. The difference is that I told you about it. I managed the state’s largest city out of similar budget circumstances. We’ve got to keep our values straight. Those with the most money pay the most. Put less burden on the property owners. Help school districts and maintain [local government aid].

“There has been a lot of rhetoric in people saying they’re not raising taxes when really the burden was being transferred to schools and local governments,” said Rybak.

Rybak touched briefly on health care, chiding critics of health care reform (“We already have health care rationing in Minnesota.”) He related funding problems in health care and education to the larger economic picture.

“Growing jobs is the only solution,” said Rybak. “We need to stop cutting things that could create jobs, but we do need to cut and reform government. Government needs to cut spending. State spending over recent years is up 12 percent while (Minneapolis spending) is up just 1 percent.

“One thing I can do as a Democrat is that I can tell how people are selling this bill of goods and remind them of the damage that the policies of Pawlenty and Bush have done. I’ve shown that a big city can work efficiently with taxpayer dollars.”

On education, Rybak stresses a change to the way we fund schools.

“Right now if you live in a place with high property tax wealth or if you live in a place where your parents and their friends can pass a referendum, you’re fine. But if you don’t, you aren’t offered the same opportunities as everyone else,” said Rybak.

“We’ve got to get more young families to relocate to places like the Iron Range, help people buy their first homes,” he continued. “More important, we need to inspire people to stay on the Iron Range. We can’t have kids getting an education where their whole brain isn’t being developed.”

As we concluded our talk, Rybak stressed his devotion to good government oversight and management, and made parallels to the Iron Range experience based on his experience as the descendant of immigrants from what is now the Czech Republic.

“The neighborhoods where I’m from is full of people who care, but people who are fed up with too much government,” said Rybak. “I’ll be honest about how government should work.

“I can win this race for a generation of of people in this state who’ve never had a Democratic governor out there creating jobs the way a governor should,” said Rybak, pushing away an empty plate. “It’s not just a Range thing.” But, he joked, “I can come to the Range and inhale porketta.”

My analysis

I wasn’t initially planning to mention the mayor’s meal as part of the piece. But I’ve never seen anyone consume a sandwich so quickly and neatly while expressing soundbites as fast as I could write. I’ve seen the prior, I’ve seen the latter, but never at the same time. I only mention this because it fits with how I’d describe Rybak’s appearance in Hibbing, an appearance that seems to match the reviews he’s getting elsewhere:

This guy has star power. Maybe that’s good, maybe that doesn’t jive with our Minnesota-ness, but it’s there. He had three staffers, his wife and a Republican shadow blogger (identity not yet affirmed) in tow with him and he moved around a room like a governor would. People noticed him and seemed to respond positively.

That said, I most appreciated how he had clearly prepared for an interview with a citizen blogger. He spoke fluently about Iron Range issues, not in great depth — perhaps owing to time restraints, but much better than one would expect of a Minneapolis mayor.

My final question to him was what he’d tell a guy at the bar, a guy who generally votes DFL but doesn’t like the idea of “Minneapolis,” known locally as the dirtiest 11-letter word there is.

“If the phrase on the ballot was ‘generic person X,’ mayor of Minneapolis, I wouldn’t expect anyone here to vote for me,” said Rybak. “I’ve done something different with job creation and I’ve walked the walk in a way people here might appreciate.”

Rybak’s weakness is the saleability of a record, even a good one, that includes the word “Minneapolis” in greater Minnesota. There’s also the thing with the initials (didn’t get to talk about that). But as I said to a friend after the interview, if Minneapolis is strike one, and the initials thing is a strike two, I can’t think of a strike three from the point of view of a DFL voter.

R.T. Rybak is an instant contender for the DFL endorsement this spring and one of only two or three who could mount a successful primary campaign against Mark Dayton, probably Matt Entenza and perhaps others. His interview with me shows that he’s already running what seem to be general election campaign messages, and it’s in a traditional, modern, image-driven general election where Rybak might flourish. I don’t know that any Minneapolis mayor could sell Minneapolis to the whole state, especially the Iron Range, but if one could his name would be R.T. Rybak. We shall see, won’t we? And soon.

R.T. Rybak’s campaign website

Campaign bio


My candidate series is now complete. Previous posts have included (chronologically) Tom Bakk, Paul Thissen, Mark Dayton, Matt Entenza, John Marty, Susan Gaertner, Tom Rukavina, Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Steve Kelley. It bears mentioning that my first interview was with Tom Bakk on June 13, 2008, more than 18 months ago. A lot has changed since then so stay tuned in coming days as I release a few “mop up” analysis pieces that look broadly at the DFL field as it now stands. As we near precinct caucuses I plan to release an inexpensive e-book of the interview posts, along with in-depth analysis of the campaign and a one-of-a-kind guide to conducting political campaigns on the Iron Range. Every campaign should buy a few copies for their field staff, as should reporters and other humanoid lifeforms.


  1. Thanks for your work on this. I’m glad you asked him why vote for the Mayor of Minneapolis when you are outstate. That is by biggest concern. He does seem like he has a message for the whole state. He seems to think system wide & that bodes well for his understanding of how our economy is impacted by the cities (& the world) and vice versa.

  2. Aaron — I’d like to thank you for your efforts as well. I’d have been far less informed about many of the DFL contenders had you not compiled these interviews in one place. Hats off.

    It’s a minor gripe, but I believe the phrase is “bona fides.” It’s less egregious, at any rate, than my grade school teacher’s mangling of “orangutan”: Orange GOO-tan? Really?

    Thanks again.

  3. He played you like a fiddle Aaron. Got you in a state of mind where you asked no tough questions..

  4. @Anon,
    Possibly. I did think about that as it was going on. I have not treated these like “tough question” interviews; basically I’ve used them as a way to sort out the philosophical and perceptual differences between the candidates. I tried to ask every candidate one “tough” question relating to the candidate’s most obvious flaw or weakness. For most of them it was name recognition. For MAK it was the negatives of the last session. Dayton and Entenza had other issues. For Rybak I asked him the thing about the Minneapolis overtones in outstate Minnesota. I don’t know, maybe I should have been tougher on all of them — toward the end I was just trying to treat them all equally.

  5. Rybak does possess an undeniable charisma, and that’s not the worst trait to have in a politician or, for that matter, a governor. I think Rybak’s interpersonal skills largely explain his victory in 2004 over Peter McLaughlin, incumbent advantage notwithstanding. More to the point, take another look at Hatch v. Pawlenty through this lens. I’m not saying it’s the best criterion for choosing a chief executive, but it’s one of the realities of our political landscape.

  6. Toni Wilcox says

    Rybak and I have one thing in common. We’re both mayors. However, my city -pop. 99- rarely gets any attention from the powers that be. I had the opportunity to sit next to RT at an event almost 2 years ago and later meet to talk about issues in northwest Itasca county and the Leech Lake Reservation. I believe he not only “gets” rural Minnesota, he believes it’s important.

  7. Anonymous says

    Just found your blog and I really appreciate you taking the time to do this with the candidates. I grew up in a small, rural town and now live in a bit larger rural Minnesota commuity where I am raising my children. It is nice to see one on one interviews like this. I have worked with R.T. on a couple of occassions. For the poster who doubts and from someone who plays the accordian, I don’t think R.T. knows how to fiddle. LOL I believe R.T.’s strength is that he is approachable, thoughtful and creative. He will take the time to understand a problem fully and then and act beyond the status quo political hype. I think he is someone all of rural Minnesota can believe in. Thanks again for doing this.

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