In 2001, R.T. Rybak told Minneapolis voters the city needed a more hip, vital and visible mayor. They picked him for the job and he didn't disappoint.
He leaves this week as the mayor who officiated 46 same-sex weddings on the first night gay marriage was legal, the mayor who was carried aloft recently by throngs of adoring fans after diving from the stage at First Avenue. People rush up to him on the street to shake his hand. "It's like walking with a rock star," said City Council President Barbara Johnson.
The cool mayor, however, also changed in office. Rybak railed against corporate subsidies as a candidate. Twelve years later, he became one of the head cheerleaders for the new Vikings stadium and a five-block development next door to it -- both partially financed by the city. He's also taken on city unions in ways observers did not expect.
When it comes to business, he's a very different mayor than when he started, said Sam Grabarski, who served as president of the pro-business Downtown Council for most of Rybak's time in office.
"I think at the very beginning, his very developed persuasive skills -- I think he thought that alone could cause good things to happen," Grabarski said. "But over the course of time, he really understood that he had to have a strong relationship with the major CEOs in downtown, that he had to understand how commerce worked."
Before becoming mayor, Rybak had worked at the downtown council, but he came into office as a critic of large public subsidies for downtown development. In a 2001 debate, he argued the city poured too much money into Block E and the Target Store on Nicollet Mall.
"We cannot continue this subsidy train that is continuing to get us putting more money into special projects, and less into ones that benefit everyone," Rybak said on the campaign trail.
Rybak argues his position hasn't changed. He maintains the financing plans and the developments he's supported as mayor are far superior to the ones he opposed as a candidate.
"I'm proud of what we've done in development, including the stadium. And, by the way, an entire section of this downtown is being rebuilt with tens of millions of dollars coming to the city's property tax coffers to pay for police and firefighters and all that," the mayor said. "I'll take that record to the bank any day of the week, and it's very consistent with what I ran on."
Others aren't convinced and say Rybak ultimately compromised his beliefs.
The mayor's Vikings stadium support served the interests of a wealthy few, said Ty Moore, who ran a strong but unsuccessful campaign for city council this year.
"That was a huge corporate welfare project for the developers downtown, for the Wilfs, forcing working people to pay the bill for it," Moore said. "I think that's the kind policies he really has represented, but most people didn't fully see that until now."
However people see him now, there's no doubt many underestimated Rybak during his first campaign for mayor.
He'd never run for anything before, though he turned out to be surprisingly effective, said University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs.
"Thinking about his opening days, we had no reason to believe that this guy would be a fiscal conservative who would go after some of the core constituencies of the DFL, defeating the firefighters and police on pension issues," Jacobs said. "He comes out, I think, as a tested and pretty skilled political operator."
That leaves Rybak well positioned if he decides to run for higher office, Jacobs added. Rybak made an unsuccessful bid for governor in 2010. He dropped out of the race after failing to win the DFL Party endorsement.
For now he's planning to work education reform issues as head of the non-profit organization Generation Next. He hasn't ruled out running for governor again some day.
Rybak's successor, Betsy Hodges, will be sworn in later this week.