Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak plays big role at both conventions

Rybak in Iowa
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak campaigning at a Des Moines senior center on behalf of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. Obama came in first in the Iowa presidential caucuses.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

R.T. Rybak could say that he had a small part in convincing Barack Obama to run for president. If you need proof, listen to what Obama himself said during a February rally at the Target Center.

"I want to thank somebody who knew I was running for president, before I knew I was running for president. The first time I met Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak he said to me, 'You should run for president.' And I said, 'What are you talking about?' And here we are," Obama said in February.

"The first time I met Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak he said to me, 'You should run for president.' And I said, 'What are you talking about?' And here we are."

Rybak said the sales pitch started three years ago, when Obama was in Minnesota for a fundraiser.

"I pretty much sat down and said, 'Hi, I think you should run for president,'" said Rybak. "And he pretty much laughed and said, 'Hi, my name is Barack Obama and I'm probably not going to.'"

Rybak said Obama listed all of the reasons why he shouldn't run for president: Hillary Clinton's campaign was going full bore. Obama had just been elected to the Senate. He also had young children.

"I looked across the table, and just said something that I was almost surprised came out of my mouth," said Rybak. "[I] said, 'It's not often that a single person with a single act can change the world, but you can.' He kind of laughed and said, 'That's a pretty heavy thing to lay on someone,' and I said, 'It is, but it's there.'"

Rybak said he left the meeting thinking Obama wasn't going to run. He joined a draft Obama movement -- participating in conference calls and writing blog posts with the hopes of getting Obama into the race.

After looking back on all of that, Rybak says he's amazed that Obama will accept the Democratic nomination for president tonight.

Rybak responds
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, along with Gov. Pawlenty, spoke about the I-35W bridge collapse shortly after it occurred on the evening of Aug. 1.
MPR file photo

"Now as I go to Denver and think about that night, and see him stand up and give that speech, and put together what it felt like in Iowa when he won, or in Minnesota when he won, or all of these other times. It's just almost beyond comprehension, how excited I am," Rybak said.

Rybak has put himself center stage in state DFL politics. During Wednesday's roll call vote in Denver, Rybak was standing next to former Vice President Walter Mondale and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar as they announced the delegation vote.

It's an unusual spot for a politician who has never won his party's endorsement. Rybak originally ran for mayor and won against an incumbent Democrat, and the party deadlocked on an endorsement the year he won re-election.

When the I-35W bridge collapsed last year, he demonstrated to city residents that he could handle a crisis.

So what does Rybak want to do next? He says he's not sure. He doesn't sound interested in a job in a possible Obama administration. He said he may run for a third term as mayor in 2009, or he may opt to run for governor in 2010.

Mayor Rybak
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak called for the public's help in finding the people who killed teenager Charez Jones Saturday night.
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

"I am not looking for another job. I love the job I have. I'm more interested in figuring out where I'm best called to be," said Rybak. "I'm talking to lots of people, but mostly I'm doing my job."

Rybak said he won't make a decision on a run for governor until early next year.

The city of Minneapolis still faces significant challenges. Home foreclosures in north Minneapolis threaten the economic vitality of the city. Violent crime is a concern, even though the murder rate has gone down in the past year.

If Rybak decides he wants to run for governor, his opponents will certainly use the crime issue against him.

"He's viewed as a very good-looking ultra liberal," said Rep. Marty Seifert, the Republican leader in the Minnesota House.

"People look at Minneapolis, and they think taxes. They think crime," said Seifert. "In my part of the state, when they open the paper and they see $500,000 being spent on artistic fountains, while at the same time [Rybak] is talking about, 'We don't have more money for police, and LGA is being cut, and woe is me.' It's all about priorities."

Seifert's party will probably see a lot of Rybak for the next week. That's because even though the Republican National Convention is being held in St. Paul, many delegates and convention activities will be in Minneapolis.

Rybak said he has a tinge of disappointment that the Twin Cities aren't hosting the Democratic National Convention. He said he'll welcome Republicans to the city, even as he hopes their presidential nominee loses in November.