R.T. Rybak hopes to become the first challenger to unseat an incumbent Minneapolis mayor since 1977. Backers say the political newcomer has a gift for energizing people toward his causes. Critics, however, say Rybak's vision lacks specifics and his big-tent approach is so big that it includes conflicting ideals that can't be sustained.
Between his short salt-and-pepper hair and a slightly crooked smile, Raymond Thomas Rybak Jr.'s glacier blue eyes are like the light on a stove indicating the burner is on.
Rybak and an assistant start the day of eight scheduled campaign appearances, knocking on doors at a senior residence high-rise in downtown Minneapolis. Rybak knocks on two doors at a time, not waiting for an answer before slipping a campaign flyer underneath. He can cover an entire floor of the building in under five minutes. When someone answers, he sustains eye contact, listens intently to peoples' ideas on things like better placement of public trash cans, and promises to get back with information on polling places and voter registration.
The one word most used to describe Rybak is energetic. He often wears sweater vests and as a personal touch of whimsy, mismatched socks. A sign in his campaign office reminds volunteers to feed the candidate, since he sometimes forgets to eat. Rybak, already thin, says he's only lost four pounds since the start of the campaign.
The DFL challenger for mayor says holding the office has been a dream of his since he was 13. But he has never held any other elected office. In fact, outside of volunteering on other campaigns, Rybak has taken few of the conventional steps toward fulfilling his dream.
"I think people have the wrong impression of how someone's supposed to get up through politics," he says. "This isn't the Army, where you have one rank then go to the next rank. I've trained for this job in ways that no one's trained for this job. If people think the only people qualified to elected office are the ones who are already there and the rest of us who have never held office are somehow supposed to be subjects of that permanent ruling class then we have a pretty lousy idea of a democracy."
"He talks a good game - fiscal conservative, but liberal on this - but he's just a vast unknown quantity. And in these uncertain times, both in the world and in Minneapolis, I think we're better off going with what we know."
- Sarah Janecek, Editor - Minnesota Politics, Sayles Belton supporter
Most recently Rybak ran his own consulting business for Internet strategies. The work ranges from doing background research on how markets are being served to coordinating the right mix of advertisers and content providers.
For the past two years he's worked on various Internet projects for Public Radio International. He was also hired as a consultant for Minnesota Public Radio.
Even Rybak admits his varied work experience makes him hard to pin down. "I cannot be summarized in two words. And I think a leader today can't. I do think a leader is a good word to attach to me because I've been that everywhere I've gone," he says.
Before striking out on his own in 1998, Rybak spent a year and a half as vice president of Internet Broadcasting Systems, his sole job being to coordinate the WCCO news Web site, channel4000.com. He came to that job after publishing the weekly Twin Cities Reader, which was sold and discontinued in 1997.
In the early 1990s Rybak ran his own business marketing firm and did a stint with Minneapolis' Eberhardt Real Estate, recruiting storefront tenants and facilitated development projects.
It was during this time - the early '90s - that he contacted the Target Corporation about locating a store downtown. The fruition of that idea is a key campaign issue of Rybak's. He couldn't pull his deal together, but he says the Target store plan lost his support as the public costs mounted toward the $60 million that the city eventually paid.
While Rybak likes to point to his business experience as training for political life, his organizing a group of pajama-wearing protestors at the airport is probably the signature event that propelled Rybak into the public eye.
Already an activist on clean water issues, Rybak was invited into a group of south Minneapolis neighbors frustrated by increasing jet noise over their homes and what they perceived to be indifference by elected officials to do anything about it.
"The general attitude of the City Council and staffers seemed to be, 'Oh, we've heard you people before. Go away. Don't really want to hear this anymore. The issue's dead we don't want to talk to you,'" said Sara Strzok, one of the four founding members of ROAR - Residents Opposed to Airport Racket.
She says the group would still be a small, ineffectual group of complainers without Rybak's enthusiasm and marketing expertise. She says he created a renewed excitement in people who'd long given up on airport issues.
"He's just got an energy I've seen in very few people. He's almost relentless. He keeps on going when everybody else is ready to poop out. So in that respect he'll be able to carry through on things he began to work on," she said.
The energy and enthusiasm has won Rybak a wide spectrum of support. He has endorsements from opposing candidates in at least two City Council races. Rybak, who supported Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in last year's presidential race, gets the nod from some of the city's most liberal DFLers.
At the same time he's backed by staunch Republicans and the chair of the state Independence Party. Sara Janecek, the Republican editor for Minnesota Politics, says she's openly supporting Rybak's opponent, incumbent and DFLer Sharon Sayles Belton. Janecek says Rybak's attempt to woo conservative voters is merely rhetoric.
"He talks a good game - fiscal conservative, but liberal on this - but he's just a vast unknown quantity. And in these uncertain times, both in the world and in Minneapolis, I think we're better off going with what we know," Janecek says.
What's more, Janecek says, such broad coalitions - Rybak's so-called big tent - are the least effective means to run government. "I think that's part of what's scary about him," she says. "It's always exciting and energizing in a candidate who has not previously not held public office to come in at it with new ideas. On the other hand when you put pen to paper and try to implement those ideas, they're not necessarily workable."
Rybak's campaign has been very skilled at answering any public relations gains by the politically savvy and better-funded Sayles Belton campaign. When Sayles Belton got the endorsement from the AFL-CIO, Rybak got endorsements from the police officers, firefighters and professional employees unions in City Hall. The two sides divide support from the Minneapolis legislative delegation. And when Sayles Belton secured the the endorsement of the city's gay and lesbian DFL caucus, Rybak scheduled an appearance with Russ King, otherwise known as drag queen Miss Richfield 1981 at a Minneapolis gay bar.
Rybak has to shout over the music so patrons could hear his views on the downtown library and historic building preservation. It's 9:30 at night and Rybak is still shaking hands, still making eye contact. He has been at this non-stop since 6:30 in the morning and shows no sign of slowing down.More from MPR