A Mayor's Real Job

Running a city is mostly about building community -- and that's never easy.
June 2016
R.T. Rybak, the former mayor of Minneapolis (AP)
By Mark Funkhouser  |  Publisher
Former mayor of Kansas City, Mo.

R. T. Rybak says he tried to write Pothole Confidential: My Life as Mayor of Minneapolis as a “journalist embedded at city hall.” That’s something he could legitimately pull off, since his first job was as the entire staff of a suburban Minneapolis newspaper, followed by stints as a crime reporter at the Star Tribune and publisher of an alternative weekly. The result is an intimate and, from my own perspective as a former mayor, highly authentic view from inside the maelstrom of urban governance.

From an early age, Rybak was obsessed with politics. He went to Boston College for a double major in political science and communications. But the real object of his interest was architecture and city planning, and he spent nearly all the time he was not in class immersed in those subjects.

But as the great philosopher Mike Tyson once put it, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” When Rybak moved into the mayor’s office in 2002, he found that instead of the grand city-building he had dreamed of doing, he was confronted with the first of a series of stadium controversies. In addition, the city’s finances were in much worse shape than he had known, and dealing with crime and police-community relations would consume a huge amount of time.

Solving problems usually means making tough choices, and, of course, making mistakes. Good journalist that he is, Rybak spells out his mistakes in specific detail. In his first year in office, for example, he tried to fire the police chief. That “inept” attempt, he writes, “got me on pretty much every news show, day and night” and gave key council members cause to worry about working with him. At the end of his first term, he says he was making enemies faster than he was building new partnerships. The key to his eventual success was hiring an exceptional political team.

Rybak writes that while every city has a stage set that it presents to visitors -- a rejuvenated waterfront, pretty residential districts -- underneath lies something “more complex and sometimes far more disturbing.” He’s right, of course, and dealing with that sometimes ugly reality is ultimately, I believe, the most important thing that a mayor should do.

In big cities in America today, what’s most often at the heart of that reality are issues of race and class. And the leader confronting those issues has to be the mayor for all the people -- black, white and brown; women and men; straight and gay; rich and poor; progressive and conservative; racially sensitive and bigoted. In the end, running a city is about building community, and you can’t do that by vilifying people. The job of building community is bigger and so much more complex than most people can imagine, and that shines through in Rybak’s vivid and honest stories.