A candid look at life inside City Hall

R.T. Rybak’s new memoir shares the pain and joys that come with being mayor

Former Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak. Photo courtesy of Thomas Strand Studio

R.T. Rybak is a fan of the popular Netflix political drama “House of Cards,” but he doesn’t want young people to think it’s an accurate portrayal of a life in politics.

Sure, he’s run across people with questionable ethics and oversized egos, but that’s true in any profession, he said.

He said he wants to make sure that the young people he’s mentored understand that public service is “noble work.” That people, despite their flaws, can achieve great things in politics.

In his new book, “Pothole Confidential: My Life as Mayor of Minneapolis,” he offers readers an inside look at the highs and lows of his experiences as mayor for 12 years.

Rybak currently serves as executive director of Minneapolis-based Generation Next, a coalition of community leaders working on closing the achievement gap in the Twin Cities.

Here are highlights of a recent interview with Rybak.

Q: What do you hope people get out of reading the book?

First off, I had the choice to either be a washed up politician telling war stories or a journalist embedded for 12 years in City Hall. I felt I wanted to tell the story as I saw it, and the only way I could do that was if I put a wall around expediency and comfort and just lay it out there.

I exposed a lot more vulnerabilities and mistakes than I might have — I exposed a little more of the pain that builds sometimes. I gave people some insight into the fun parts of it, but mostly I just wanted to flat out tell people what it’s like.


Q: Is there anything that stands out in terms of the vulnerabilities you describe?

Of the vulnerabilities, one is I really wanted men to see examples of working really hard, but still putting your family first. I referenced John Pellegrin — the big brand guru who really made the Target brand. When I had decided not to run because of our kids, I was working with John and I saw in my mind the first super successful man I could see who really put family first.

Another vulnerability was talking about the consequence of constantly hurling yourself into places with deep trauma. It was the only way I knew how to do the job. It’s difficult to say this — especially in a book that people will read — but it takes its toll.

Obviously what I went through was nothing compared to the people who were dying on bridges or having their children dead. … When the bridge collapsed so many people would come up to me on the street, clearly in grief, and ask: ‘What can I do?’ There really wasn’t that much to do, and in an odd way, it’s a privilege to be in a position where on behalf of all these people you can just hug someone and say, ‘I’m sorry.’

So a lot of times I would show up — not as R.T., but as the collective city wrapping their arms around someone.

Q: You describe your current role as being your most political job. What do you mean by that?

I don’t mean ‘House of Cards’ politics, I mean getting systems working together. There is so much good intent in this community with schools, philanthropy, community groups and volunteers, but we’re not moving as far as we need to. My job is to map, gap and role. What’s the map (everything happening), what’s the gap and whose role is to fix what — and that’s what I do. So Generation Next is trying to move compassion into impact.

Thank god I had the mayor’s job to warm up for the politics of trying to get the youth ecosystem moving toward better results.

Q: What are you currently working on at Generation Next?

We laid out six goals all the way from early childhood to career. We take the big issue of the achievement gap and break it down into digestible chunks.

In early childhood, we’re doing an effort to screen every 3 year old so we identify issues before school and then improve the quality of childcare in small, multicultural settings.

In literacy, we’ve had a couple years of unifying literacy organizations and sharing what works with kids of color. We’re now improving all the volunteer practices and working with school districts on how to help weave that together.

In high school we’re doing something really exciting — helping both school districts build tracking systems and identify kids behind in credits, not in their junior or senior year, but in ninth grade when they don’t pass a test.

We’re also doing some really deep research in social and emotional learning.

So basically it’s taking a big issue and breaking it into digestible chunks and identifying who’s working in what area.

I love the work. It’s just a super thorny issue that’s not going to be solved with a single action, but it is really clear that it’s a new day with people’s willingness to work together to solve this crisis.

Q: What are some of the things you miss most about being mayor?

I have to admit, I really miss selling the city — the convention business, the branding, the opening of a new business, but I realized I can still do that as R.T.

I do that a lot with my social media, but I miss being a shameless huckster for my hometown. That was a fun part of the job.

I miss doing the budget. It used to ruin my summers, but I got to think it was a $1.4 billion values puzzle — put the dollars on the things that matter. I got to love that.

Q: What don’t you miss?

The only thing I don’t miss is the constant questioning of a politician’s motives. … You’ll be in a movie theater and you’d be walking up to a long line, and someone will say, ‘Oh, don’t let the politician cut in line.’

People are generally extremely nice, but that kind of thing I don’t miss.

Q: Do you have any thoughts on the direction of City Hall right now?

It was unbelievably difficult to watch the 4th Precinct events — the shooting, the reaction and seeing the town that you love pulling apart. … At times like that it is really painfully difficult to watch and not be able to help.

… I think it’s really important for me not to be shoving my nose into the whole thing, so I’ll help if I can be helpful.

Q: Do you have thoughts on how the big developments projects are evolving — like the Vikings stadium?

I’m really happy with how it’s evolving. I had to stand at the Capitol for two years when people were laughing at me and saying nothing will ever get built around the stadium, and for one of those years I knew we had Wells Fargo, but I couldn’t say it.

… When I go back to what it was like when Barb Johnson and I stood up at Target Center and said we’re going to redo Target Center and we were literally laughed out of the room.

… The stadium was not the point. The stadium was the vehicle to get control of sales taxes that were about to be stolen from our city and use it to ground the Vikings, ground Wells Fargo, redo Target Center, get Target Center off the property tax rolls and create what I called in [the book] the big bang.

Q: Are you still optimistic about the Commons park?

For the last year I was negotiating with the Vikings. They wanted more time and I said no, and we went back and forth and back and forth. What I thought was a final deal, I gave them a few more days then I was comfortable with. Then a month after I leave office, they took advantage of the transition and struck what I think is a ridiculous deal, and I still think it’s a ridiculous deal.

The Vikings are not going to use all those days — they don’t need all those days. And it’s counter productive for the relationship with the city.

Q: Switching to presidential politics, do you have thoughts about how well Bernie Sanders did in Minneapolis and across the state?

There are candidates and there are ideologies. It looks like Hillary is doing better nationally and it looks like Bernie’s ideology may be having a long-term impact.

We’re seeing a huge reshuffling of the whole deck, and I think that’s good. I like grassroots politics, and it’s very strange for me because I always jump in early. I was on the state organizing committee for Bill Bradley, co-chair for Howard Dean and chair for Obama, and this time I have to be neutral as vice-chair of the Democratic National Committee.

Q: Are you thinking of running for governor or another office?

I don’t know — I really don’t. This is the first time in my life where I haven’t intentionally set out the path for what’s next. Honestly since I was 13 years old, I always had [being mayor] as my goal.

I love politics and I love running — it’s a riot.

Even more than a politician, I’m a civic person. So what I was doing as mayor and what I’m doing now is civic work — one of them happens to be politics.

I’m always going to do civic work and I’m always going to be here.

No matter what, I’m always going to be in some way involved in this issue of kids and closing gaps. So that’s always going to be part of my work.


Book launch for “Pothole Confidential”

When: April 13, doors open at 6 p.m.

Where: First Avenue Mainroom, 701 N. 1st Ave.

Details: Rybak will discuss his book in between songs from musicians, including Big Trouble + dVRG, Lucy Michelle, the World’s Most Dangerous Polka Band and others TBA. There will also be books available for purchase and free ice cream scoops from Sebastian Joe’s, including Rybak’s favorite — the Flavor Formerly Known as Nicollet Avenue Pothole.

Cost: $10 (proceeds will benefit the city’s STEP-UP youth employment program)

More info: upress.umn.edu