R. T. Rybak

The pride-marching, crowd-surfing former mayor of Minneapolis isn’t slowing down in the slightest at age 60

R. T. Rybak
Photo by Tracy Walsh

R.T. Rybak has always been impressed by the kindness of Minneapolis residents.

Once, while he was taking a walk during a particularly stressful period in the city’s struggle over youth violence, someone simply walked to up to him and patted him on the back. Minneapolis constituents, though compassionate, hold their leaders to a high standard, Rybak said, adding: “But they always had my back.”

These days, those who catch Rybak buzzing around town assume the high-energy public figure — who once officiated 46 weddings in a marathon midnight ceremony after the state’s same-sex marriage law went into effect — has slowed down.

“What’s it like to be retired?” is a question he’s often asked, and it’s hard for him, sometimes, to conceal the steam pouring out of his ears.

Today he’s executive director of Generation Next, a Minneapolis-based coalition devoted to reducing education achievement gaps in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Update: R.T. Rybak announced on May 2 that he’s been named CEO of The Minneapolis Foundation.

Rybak’s also vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee (during a presidential election year no less).

Rybak insists he’s working harder than ever.

“The work I’m doing now is strangely similar to what I was doing before,” he said. “People draw this line around political work. Political work to me is one part of a civic life.”

Now more than two years removed from his three terms in office, the 60-year-old is reflecting on his time at City Hall — and his road to get there — in his new book, Pothole Confidential: My Life As Mayor of Minneapolis.

Supporters carry then mayor R.T. Rebak to Powderhorn Park at the conclusion of the 2010 May Day parade in Minneapolis. photo by Jonathunder / Wikimedia Commons

Embedded at City Hall

Writing isn’t a new skill for Rybak, who started his career as a journalist covering crime and urban development for the Star Tribune.

Rather than copying the style of a typical political memoir for his book, Rybak chose to go with a tone more like that of a reporter “embedded” at City Hall for 12 years.

In fact, Rybak said he didn’t read any political autobiographies while writing his book.

Instead, when the long, hard work of writing his book started to feel like a slog, he turned to the Netflix political series House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey as an unscrupulous career politician.

“I saw what great TV it was, but also how outrageously inaccurate it portrayed what I consider to be public service,” Rybak said. “I wanted to put out something that was real — and hopefully inspirational to people who want to do it for a living.”

Rybak regrets not keeping a journal for his many years before, during and after office to help with his memoir, billed as “a political coming-of-age story and a behind-the-scenes look at the running of a great city.”

Rybak did have one important, perhaps even better, historical record to jog his memory — 12 years of scrapbooks meticulously kept by his mother, Lorraine, who saved every article written about her son (and who famously crowd surfed with him after Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election).

“My mother giving me 12 years of scrapbooks of everything — and knowing that her hand cut every one of those articles out — is something I will never forget,” he said, calling her record keeping an “act of love.”

Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont, calls Rybak’s memoir “a great read” in his praise snippet for the book:

“This is a fascinating look into the personal and political life of one of the best big-city mayors in the U.S. R.T. Rybak, a leader of the American Progressive Movement, started out as a Nixon Republican and became a public servant known for his honesty and his willingness to tackle the really tough problems of urban America.”

Winning friends

Longtime neighborhood activist and former city council member Don Samuels first met Rybak during a meeting organized to discuss quality-of-life issues in North Minneapolis.

The successful toy designer and his wife, Sondra, had moved to the neighborhood — one of the city’s most troubled — in an effort to combat the flight of black, middle-class families from urban neighborhoods.

Samuels said he and his neighbors didn’t feel too indulged by the mayor at the time, but the mayor had passed along his business card. Two weeks later, there was a riot in Samuels’ neighborhood after a child was caught in the crossfire of a raid on a problem property.

Thrust into the spotlight by his neighbors, Samuels stood beside the mayor during a press conference after the riots. Shortly after, his neighbors began pressuring him to run for city council. Samuels remembered he had Rybak’s card.

“OK, are you going to help me do this?” Samuels recalls asking. He was elected to the city council in 2003 without the DFL party nomination and Rybak was an ally during his time on the council.

“We weren’t golfing,” Samuels said. “We were working on real satisfying stuff together — solving human problems.”

Writing parts of the book proved challenging for Rybak as he watched the city wrestle with intense protests after the November 2015 death of Jamar Clark, a 24-yearold African-American who was shot by Minneapolis police.

Rybak rewrote his chapter on police and public safety four times as the Clark events unfolded.

“I didn’t want it to seem like I was giving advice from the sidelines,” Rybak said. He also wanted to explain the inequity in policing in America and why there’s so much anger.

Samuels said investments made in the north side during Rybak’s tenure as mayor helped mitigate the local reaction to the national racial-equity climate. He pointed to the city’s more diverse police department, proactive police chiefs Tim Dolan and Janee Harteau, and Step-Up, a paid internship program for Minneapolis youth, including kids from the north side.

Many young people in Minneapolis were helped by Step-Up at some point, Samuels said, which might be partly why the city isn’t seeing the same rampant violence some other metro areas have experienced.

“When you are able to make commitments, you win friends,” said Samuels, who’s now a Minneapolis school board member.

The Step-Up program, which Rybak started as part of a multi-faceted attempt to improve outcomes for kids, has created more than 20,000 internships since 2004.

Youth voices, opportunities

Mariam DeMello first met Rybak during an annual visit and speech at Southwest High School.

The 22-year-old Hamline-Mitchell law student said the former mayor now sometimes refers to her as “the next Supreme Court justice.”

“No pressure,” she laughs.

DeMello interned in the mayor’s office through the Step-Up program the summer after she graduated from high school.

She spent her days hearing constituent concerns and honing her conflict-resolution skills — and had a clear view into the workings of the city, including negotiations with the Minnesota Vikings over a new stadium downtown.

During the heart of the controversy over whether the city should support a new stadium, Rybak and DeMello rode Nice Ride bikes to meet with Vikings leadership at the former Metrodome.

Afterward, Rybak asked her if the stadium should be built.

“You’re just out of high school and the mayor is interested in what you have to say,” she said. “That just goes to show how much R.T. cares about what people think.”

DeMello, like many others, was against the stadium at the time. It’s one of the decisions Rybak said he most wanted to explain after “bruising” fights at the legislature and within the city council.

Wells Fargo had expressed interest in building new office towers near the stadium site, but wanted to remain out of the stadium fray. Rybak had to bite his tongue daily at the Capitol while legislators told him the stadium wouldn’t attract new development.

The decision was a tough one for Rybak, but he tried to use the situation to get “exceptional results for the city,” he said, including funding tools to pay for renovations at the Target Center, a new public park and more than $500 million in new development.

Today, Rybak is focused on what he calls the city’s biggest issue — inequity and the great divide in outcomes for children of color.

Generation Next brings governments, foundations, companies, schools and nonprofits that are aiming to bridge the state’s nationally known achievement gaps together.

What’s the biggest difference between his current role and his job as mayor? He’s not taken off-task by city crises such as tornadoes and, well, potholes.

“I can get a lot done if I don’t get distracted,” said Rybak, who was mayor during the 2007 collapse of the I-35W bridge.

Growing up middle class as a young Nixon supporter in the late 1960s, Rybak grew up with his sights set on what he believed to be the best job in the world — mayor of Minneapolis.

He graduated in 1974 from Breck in Golden Valley, and from Boston College in 1978. His desire to hold the Minneapolis mayor’s seat, however, took a backseat with the births of his children, Charlie and Grace, who were 11 and 9 when Rybak finally ran for the office in 2001.

For the sake of his family, Rybak said he was ready to put aside, possibly forever, the one big thing he always wanted to do.

“I was shocked at what an easy choice that was when confronted with the potential to be the kind of dad I wanted to be,” he said.

Rybak’s father died when he was 10, leaving his mother to care for three children and run the family’s Phillips neighborhood pharmacy on her own. During those years, Rybak, born Raymond Thomas Rybak Jr., was struck by the disparities among local families.

“I could perceive myself to be poor when I was at school, where people had dramatically more than me; I could perceive myself to be rich when I was around my family’s store; and I could perceive myself to be middle class when I was in my neighborhood,” said Rybak, who grew up in Southwest Minneapolis.

But Rybak couldn’t “accept what was really inequitable,” He said. “It just seemed so wrong. And so fixable.”

Rybak’s decision to hold off on pursuing his dream job while his children were little led him to several mid-career positions that may seem scattered on a resume— publisher, Internet strategist and marketing consultant.

But to him, it all made perfect sense as a part of an “organized, logical, civic life in Minneapolis.”

“While being mayor was the one big thing I wanted to do, I have always led a civic life, meaning sometimes political, sometimes volunteer, sometimes in public-oriented jobs, but always about Minneapolis,” he said.

Rybak’s wife, Megan O’Hara, meanwhile, has developed a civic-minded career of her own as a communications consultant for a variety of public, nonprofit and arts organizations over the years, most recently with Minneapolis-based Wilderness Inquiry. She, too, is featured in her husband’s book.

Looking ahead

Rybak, who took office in 2002, said has few regrets about how his role as Minneapolis’ 46th mayor influenced his family commitment.

“I wouldn’t have done it if I couldn’t do it right,” he said. “My family made some very big sacrifices. I was not there for a lot of stuff, but I was there for an awful lot of it, too.”

When Rybak announced in 2012 that he wouldn’t run for a fourth term, he cited a desire to better balance his work and family life.

He also said that the role of governor of Minnesota was “the one other job” he might one day seek, despite an unsuccessful DFL gubernatorial bid in 2010. (Both Rybak and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman have been the subject of perennial gubernatorial speculation for the upcoming race in 2018.)

About a year later, shortly after his mayoral term ended, Rybak suffered a heart attack while cross-country skiing in Theodore Wirth Park. He endured two angioplasty procedures and had six stents inserted as a result. Rybak said he experienced a remarkably speedy recovery and suffered no lasting heart damage.

While Rybak doesn’t think he’ll ever retire from civic life, his next move is still undetermined: “It’s the first time in my life where I don’t know what’s next, but I know it’s going to be in Minnesota,” he said. “It’s going to involve civic work in some way.”

During his term, Rybak often harnessed the power of social media, including occasionally poetic tweets. And he’s still at it today with energetic, opinionated posts multiple times a day on Facebook and Twitter.

Some see Rybak’s forthcoming political memoir as a signal that he’s gearing up for another campaign, but he said his book might not do him any favors.

“Do you think I would have said some of the things I said if I was trying to run for something?” he said.

While his book is an inside look at his years at City Hall, he said it’s also an acknowledgement of the many “invisible people” — finance directors, community activists, youth — that help the city thrive.

“Wouldn’t you expect to finish 12 years as mayor of a large city more cynical about the system?” he said. “I feel really positive about the way things work and even more positive about the way they can work.”

Update: R.T. Rybak announced on May 2 that he’s been named CEO of The Minneapolis Foundation.

Cali Owings is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and a frequent Good Age contributor.

Attend a reading

Pothole Confidential: My Life As Mayor of Minneapolis will be published by the University of Minnesota Press on April 13. Author R.T. Rybak will host the following book-launch events:

  • April 13, 6–10 p.m. at First Avenue, Minneapolis
  • April 25, 7–9 p.m. at Common Good Books, St. Paul
  • May 3, 7–9 p.m. at SubText Books, St. Paul
  • May 9, 6–8:30 p.m. at The Theater of Public Policy, Bryant Lake Bowl Minneapolis
  • May 11, 7–9 p.m. at Minneapolis Central Library, Minneapolis
  • May 21, 1–3 p.m. at the A-Mill Artists Lofts, Minneapolis, as part of Art-a-Whirl

Learn more about the book, which costs $24.95, at upress.umn.edu or amazon.com.

Volunteer opportunities

Generation Next, where R.T. Rybak serves as the executive director, works with schools to help close achievement gaps at local schools. Here he visits Northeast College Prep school in Minneapolis, which was named a 2014-15 Beating the Odds school by the Star Tribune. Photo courtesy of Generation Next

Generation Next, a coalition dedicated to closing achievement gaps in Minneapolis and St. Paul, launched a campaign called Gen Next Reads in 2015 to recruit and formally train adult volunteers to tutor children through Minneapolis Public Schools and Saint Paul Public Schools.

Executive Director R.T. Rybak believes formal tutor training can give Minnesota volunteers an edge when it comes to improving opportunities for kids from cradle to career.

“We see people — who have so much to give — working with a child and not being given the training to know how to move them forward,” he said. “Compassion is phenomenal, but it’s not enough anymore.”

Minnesotans who aren’t able to become tutors — but who want to help children read at home — can take the ABCs of Reading training, offered in partnership with the Minnesota Literacy Council.

There are other ways to help, too. Community members are invited to become mentors to kids through a variety of local organizations or volunteer in other roles with Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools.

Learn more at gennextmsp.org/getinvolved/gennextreads.