Ten years ago this month, R.T. Rybak began his tenure as the mayor of Minneapolis. Over the years, Rybak has seen the city through both natural and man-made disasters.
On election night in 2001, former Internet consultant R.T. Rybak introduced himself to Minneapolis as the city's mayor-elect. He had just beaten two-term incumbent Sharon Sayles Belton by a healthy margin. Looking back at that night, Rybak says the whole experience was surreal and intense.
"That first night, I was excited about the opportunity. That first week, I was, on some levels shocked by the level of financial challenges ahead," Rybak said.
Restoring the city's fiscal health was one of many challenges Rybak faced, and by many accounts, his singular accomplishment over the last decade was keeping the city on solid financial ground during bad economic times.
Under former Mayor Sayles Belton, the city borrowed nearly $85 million to buy the Target Center. The city also accumulated so much debt that Moody's Investors Service downgraded the city's bond rating from AAA to Aa1.
Just as Rybak started his first city budget, the state made drastic cuts to state aid to Minneapolis. City officials say since 2002, the state has cut $352 million in aid. At the time, state aid made up 40 percent of the revenue to the city's General Fund &mash; the pot of money used to pay for critical city services, such as public safety and road repair.
"Probably a perfect storm of financial disaster," said Sheldon Mains, who served on the board of Estimate and Taxation during Rybak's second term. The board reviews city budgets and sets the maximum levies.
Mains says the city didn't have much discretionary spending to cut, so property tax hikes were the best way to make up for cuts to local government aid, also known as LGA.
"The Legislature since RT has been in office, and since before that, has not been a friend of the city of Minneapolis," Mains said. "The cut in LGA that Pawlenty first did, was designed specifically to cut LGA, by and large, to cities of Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth."
Over the years, Rybak, a DFLer, often sparred with Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty over the aid cuts. Rybak accused the governor and Legislature of forcing cities like Minneapolis to raise property taxes. However, Pawlenty and other state Republicans accused Rybak of overspending.
Regardless of where Rybak placed blame for property tax hikes, many city residents held the mayor responsible. The city's Truth in Taxation hearings were often packed with residents who pleaded with city leaders not to raise their taxes. Some people complained of double-digit increases.
Keith Reitman, a rental property owner and 40-year resident of Minneapolis, said rising property taxes are particularly hard on businessmen like himself who own multiple properties.
"I can't really blame the city directly for high property taxes. But I can say that the profligate spending by the city, particularly on non-profit efforts to civic engineering that they do. They would be better listening more and spending less."
Much of Reitman's rental business is centered in north Minneapolis. Under Rybak, the city has funneled tens of millions of dollars in public and private dollars into commercial and residential development projects on the north side. Reitman says he and other landlords have a hard time competing with publicly-subsidized housing. He says Rybak should be more sensitive to the plight of small business people, especially those in north Minneapolis.
The city's north side contains some of the poorest and most violent neighborhoods in the city. And during Rybak's first term, in August of 2002, a police officer involved in a drug raid at a house in a north Minneapolis neighborhood wounded a young boy. The neighborhood erupted. Rybak remembers how rioters burned cars and assaulted several members of the media.
"Attacking the problems of north Minneapolis was always on my agenda. I think there were times when in those early years when I really had to double-down and figure out how we could do much more when there was this riot, I guess, on 26th and Knox," Rybak said. "That was also what brought me much deeper into north Minneapolis."
Over the last several years, violent crime has decreased in north Minneapolis as well as the rest of the city. Last year saw fewer homicides in north Minneapolis than on the city's south side. However, the north side was the scene of the city's most shocking killing of 2011. On the day after Christmas, Terrell Mayes, Jr., 3, was walking up the stairs in his house when he was struck in the head by a stray bullet.
Rybak and other city leaders held a press conference outside the boy's home a few hours after his death. Mayes' shooting was similar to the killing of Tyesha Edwards, 11. In 2002, Edwards was killed by a single shot as she sat at her dining room table. Her death shook Rybak. And 10 years later, Mayes' death brought the memory back. Rybak could barely contain his emotions.
"I have to admit that driving home I had lots of thoughts about Tyesha and what that meant," Rybak said.
Poverty is a persistent problem for the city's north side, and last year's tornado that tore through north Minneapolis exacerbated the problem. Some say Rybak should do more to bring jobs to north Minneapolis, particularly for African Americans in the metro area, who are three times more likely to be unemployed than their white neighbors.
"If the mayor really believed that black unemployment was in a crisis, he could have used his bully pulpit," said Bill English, a leader with the Black Church Coalition. "He could have used it to encourage every city department to give him a report on how many new jobs could they find ways of bringing in qualified people of color, particularly African Americans."
English knows the mayor doesn't have the power to create jobs out of thin air. But the mayor does set priorities and goals for the city.
English worked on former mayor Sharon Sayles Belton's unsuccessful campaign for a third term. He said Rybak's agenda in north Minneapolis hasn't done enough to improve conditions for African Americans, but he gives the mayor credit for encouraging diversity within the police department. According to police department statistics, nearly 19 percent of officers are racial minorities. That's as diverse as the department has ever been.
Rybak acknowledges there's more work to be done on the north side. But for further progress, he says jobs have come to north Minneapolis. For example, Danish medical device company Coloplast in 2009 built its U.S. headquarters on the river road, and Cub Foods in 2004 opened a store on West Broadway.
Minneapolis operates under a 'weak-mayor, strong city council' system, which means Rybak must work with the council to pass his agenda into law.
Some of the people interviewed for this story say they believe Rybak appointees, such as Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan or other elected officials like City Council President Barb Johnson have had more influence than the mayor.
Yet Rybak is a skilled politician who is good at working with others, especially the council, says Larry Jacobs, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs. He says Rybak deserves credit for keeping the city financially stable.
"Minneapolis has really not faced the kind of dire circumstances we've seen in other cities. And part of it has been a careful monitoring of the state budget," Jacobs said. "It's also been that Minneapolis has raised property taxes and found other ways to raise revenue. That's the key part of the Rybak administration."
In 2010, Rybak ran unsuccessfully for the DFL nomination for governor. Jacobs says if Rybak makes another bid for governor, a Republican opponent will likely take him to task for raising property taxes. The mayor's support for a citywide sales tax to pay for a downtown Vikings stadium may also cost him votes.
Rybak does not rule out a future gubernatorial run. Jacobs says Rybak, who is also the vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, could also be called to Washington, D.C. if President Barack Obama is reelected this fall. But Rybak said he's not going anywhere.
"I am a Minnesotan about as through and through as you could possibly get," Rybak said. "And I am where I am and I happen to be in a job that I love."
In the meantime, the mayor says it's "very possible" he will run for a fourth term in 2013.