Has ever a Twin Cities mayor had as much fun in public as R.T. Rybak?
In his new autobiography, “Pothole Confidential” (University of Minnesota Press, $24.95), the Minneapolis mayor known for pajama parties and crowd-surfing allows kids to drench him with squirt guns, rolls down Nicollet Avenue in his suit and eliminates the guesswork for readers wondering how much he enjoys parades.
But a darker side to Rybak also emerges as he writes frankly about the emotional toll of being mayor. The 35W bridge collapse, the northeast tornado and the city’s ceaseless, senseless shootings impose a harsh strain on his sunny psyche. After a gunman kills six people at Accent Signage, Rybak is absorbed by a photo in the Star Tribune of himself receiving the news. “My face was ‘a mask of grief,’” he writes. “At that moment I recognized this was just more than I could carry. I knew right then I couldn’t run for mayor again.”
While much of his book is written in the cautious jargon of the standard political memoir, Rybak allows himself multiple humanizing anecdotes about his professional regrets, mistakes and naiveté. And he portrays himself candidly and colorfully as an egoistic, “hyperactive graduate of Toastmasters” who’s “as competitive and self-absorbed as the next politician” – a man “desperately needing to be liked.”
During a phone interview with Capitol Report, Rybak stretched his legs in the Minneapolis skyway system near his office at the education nonprofit Generation Next — pausing once to sign an autograph for a fan named Joni.
Q: As a “very distractible,” “hyperactive, hypersocial personality,” was it difficult to sit down and write a book? What was your writing process and what did you learn?
A: I wanted to tell my story, as I saw it, for better or worse. I am a former politician, but I’m also a former journalist. I tried very hard to write this as a journalist embedded in City Hall, not a washed-up politician telling war stories. I had never written a book before so it took a while, but it came out pretty easy. I had to fit it in with a lot of other things. It’s basically something I ended up doing on nights and weekends.
Q: In the book, you are definitely open about errors and regrets, especially at the beginning of your career. But, between the long lists of names of campaign staff and the political bromides — “I knew we couldn’t have a great city without great schools” — it’s a little hard to believe this book is nothing more than the work of “a journalist embedded in city hall.” Are you running for governor? Do you have other political ambitions?
A: I may do something politically later in my life, but I absolutely would not have written a book like this if I were doing it for political expedience. Maybe you could interpret that as a political bromide, but I happen to feel that. I’m absolutely going to be here and involved in public and civic work, but whether that’s elected or not, I honestly don’t know at this point.
The key to making the book work was to be blunt and honest, including when that made me really uncomfortable. The part that was hard to relive was to go into some of the emotional impacts a job like mayor has on a person. Writing about kids being murdered or mass shootings at Accent Signage was still really raw, and I wouldn’t choose to spend my time bringing that back up except I think it’s important to understand the reality of these situations. Until we do, we won’t be able to fix them.
I thought that was especially important right now because of the polluted way we look at people in public life. I wanted people to understand there are human beings who are deeply flawed and trying to deal with generally good things. Sometimes I just had to turn back from my keyboard and take a walk.
Q: You attribute much of your success in your first campaign for mayor to the strength of your campaign literature: a complimentary quote from Sen. Paul Wellstone and the memorable image of a “fresh air” air freshener. Has the role of campaign literature diminished since 2001 and how would you capture the public’s attention in a campaign today?
A: I like the line my original campaign manager said that your literature should be measured based on somebody getting it at the front door and walking to the garbage can. You have a very limited amount of time to make an impact or else it’s gone forever.
I think that’s deeper than just a piece of literature. It’s about candidates with hopefully extremely complex strategies being able to distill them into something people can digest. You have to figure out a way to explain complex work crisply.
The way I won my first race, more than anything else, was by having thousands of one-on-one conversations when I did the fairly irrational thing of trying to door-knock the whole city — in a style of campaigning people said was impractical for a city this size.
Even with the sophisticated things you have in campaigns now, it’s about somebody looking into someone else’s eyes and trusting them with their tax dollars.
Q: An obligatory election-year question: How do you interpret the rise of Donald Trump?
A: Donald Trump represents a lot of things that I consider to be divisive and overly simplistic. The great thing about Trump is he’s going to call to question what kind of a country we want to have. I don’t think we want to be what Donald Trump is campaigning on.
It’s important to remember that Donald Trump is appealing to 40 percent of the primary voters of one of the two political parties, neither of which have the majority of people in the country. Winning a Republican primary is really different from winning the hearts and minds of the American people.
Rybak will sign copies of “Pothole Confidential” during an April 13 book launch party at First Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. Fans can also catch him promoting the book in the Twin Cities at five other events between April 25 and May 11.