Elected officials line up to support Rybak

Incumbent mayor draws Southwest politicians' backing

Mayor R.T. Rybak's reelection effort has picked up support from a number of Southwest public officials, even before he has announced he's running.

Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman and City Councilmembers Lisa Goodman (7th Ward), Scott Benson (11th Ward) and Barret Lane (13th Ward) all say they support Rybak.

City Council President Paul Ostrow (1st Ward), Don Samuels (3rd Ward), Barb Johnson (4th Ward) also count themselves as Rybak backers.

They said he had taken tough budget issues head-on, from state aid cuts to ballooning pension debt. They touted his work with the Council in creating a five-year financial plan and his commitment to paying off old debts.

Goodman said Rybak deserves a second term. "Here is a guy who had all these great ideas. He steps into a situation where there is not one penny. Instead of complaining, he moves forward," she said.

Rybak faces a strong challenge from Peter McLaughlin, a fellow DFLer who is a Hennepin County Commissioner with a long political rsum, including a leadership role in creating light-rail transit (LRT) and the Midtown Greenway.

Rybak remains mum - for now - on the challenge. However, the unofficial reelection campaign is moving forward. Rybak hired Bill Hyers to manage it.

Dorfman, whose district includes Southwest, said she had a good working relationship with McLaughlin but supported Rybak. She praised Rybak's work to create stronger partnerships with the county on transit, public health, and the upcoming smoking ban in bars and restaurants.

Dorfman has worked particularly close with Rybak on affordable housing, she said. The city and county jointly funded a number of developments, notably Lydia Apartments, 1920 LaSalle Ave., 40 apartments for people who were recently homeless.

"There is a long list of those [developments] and a lot of families living in safe, stable housing as a result," she said. "That is the area that I have been involved with him, almost on a weekly basis, figuring out what projects are in the pipeline, how can we work together to make them a reality in our neighborhoods."

Johnson and Benson said Rybak had been a positive, visible spokesperson for the city. "He is perpetually present," Johnson said. "People feel that he is interested in their neighborhoods."

No Councilmember is publicly supporting McLaughlin yet. Two Southwest Councilmembers, including Dan Niziolek (10th Ward) and Green Party member Dean Zimmerman (6th Ward), said they have not decided whom to endorse. Councilmember Robert Lilligren (8th Ward) said he is "staying out of it."

Also uncommitted is Sandy Colvin Roy (12th Ward) who worked for McLaughlin at the county before she won her Southeast Minneapolis Council seat.

Councilmember Paul Zerby (2nd Ward) bemoaned the fact that two strong DFL candidates were running against each other instead of having one challenge a Republican for a different office.

Natalie Johnson Lee (5th Ward), a Green Party member, did not return a phone call.

Safe streets

The demand to improve public safety amid tight budgets is emerging as a key issue in the mayor's race.

The question is whether voters believe Rybak and the Council made the right mix of budget cuts to deal with the city's funding woes or whether they believe McLaughlin, who says they cut too many cops - and he can find alternative ways to pay for their return.

During the City Council's Truth in Taxation hearing in December, the overwhelming number of citizen comments focused on the need for more police.

County Commissioner Mark Stenglein, whose district includes North Minneapolis, said public safety was THE key issue. His wife heard daytime gunshots this summer in their Northeast neighborhood. "We need more police on the streets, plain and simple," he said.

(Stenglein ran for mayor against Rybak in 2001. He hasn't endorsed a candidate yet. He even has thought about running again, though he is probably too conservative for the city, he said. He said he would eliminate the city health department in order to pay for more public safety, shifting public health duties to the county.)

During his announcement, McLaughlin said he would provide better leadership and collaborations with schools and neighborhoods. And he hit public safety themes hard.

He criticized the Rybak administration for police cuts, the rising murder rates and increased police response times. The city's foundation is "cracking," he said. "I will not treat public safety as an amenity."

The city Police Department now has 788 uniformed officers, or 150 officers fewer than 1997, a peak year. At a recent Council meeting, Rybak noted the city had lost funding for 80 officers because of federal cuts to the so-called "Clinton cops."

Rybak's supporters say he and Council have had to make tough choices. The city is increasing total property taxes by 8 percent a year, but most of the new money pays for the new voter-approved downtown library, pension debt and other internal borrowing left by previous administrations.

There isn't enough money left to pay for current services.

While the city has cut the Police budget, other departments have taken larger hits, Benson said. Public safety "enjoyed the most protection of any of the General Fund areas - much to the detriment of Transportation and Public Works."

Samuels represents North Side neighborhoods plagued by murders. He said public safety is about more than adding police, and Rybak has done a good job improving police-community relations.

"At the worst times in North Minneapolis, we had as many police as we needed," he said. "There was not an outcry for additional cops."

Lane questioned whether the crime increase had to do with fewer cops or other factors, such as the economy. The city needed a better way to measure the value of its public safety spending other than simply the number of cops on the street, he said.

Goodman and Lane praised Rybak for making - and sticking to - a five-year budget. Goodman said Rybak has made unpopular decisions to keep the city financially strong.

"It probably makes a better thing to run on public safety than good financial hygiene - but it depends on your politics," Lane said.

During a December interview, McLaughlin did not commit to continuing the city's five-year budget. He said he would use "the same fiscal discipline" the county has used.

Ostrow and others said the question for McLaughlin is, "What would he cut to pay for more police?"

McLaughlin said he would find other money sources.

For example, the county has offered to do the city's 911 dispatch, which would save Minneapolis $4 million a year - freeing money to hire cops, he said. Changes in the county's jail booking fees would save Minneapolis $400,000 a year.

Lane said the 911 proposal was "an idea" that hadn't yet solved anything. The city needed to know whether the county would provide the same level of 911 service and what, if any, tradeoffs the deal involved. If the city got the same service without paying, it would be a good deal.

"There isn't $4 million laying around," he said. "There has to be some change associated that is going to make it a good deal or not a good deal. That analysis has not been done."

McLaughlin said it would take time for the county to take over 911 service, and the county could absorb the $4 million into its $1.8 billion budget.

McLaughlin also criticized Rybak for rejecting a police pension fund change that would have freed up funds to hire more police. Rybak and the Council seek a better deal; see story, page 5.