In their first debate since the primary election, Mayor R.T. Rybak and challenger Peter McLaughlin covered familiar ground, but mostly avoided the contentiousness that marked many of their earlier public encounters.
Appearing before a crowd of about 200 at the Cedars Pavilion public housing project in Cedar-Riverside, the two candidates addressed issues of affordable housing, public safety, transportation, racial justice, and energy costs in a two-hour debate sponsored by the Minneapolis High Rise Representative Council. Through much of the evening, Rybak and McLaughlin found themselves in agreement more often than not, with the mayor pointing to initiatives he has championed during his first term and McLaughlin noting his own accomplishments during his 14-year career as a Hennepin County commissioner.
Responding to a question about the city’s inventory of affordable housing, Rybak heralded the creation of the $10 million Affordable Housing Trust Fund and his role in maintaining that level of funding. “I’m the only one up here who’s done a budget,” he said, in what has become an ongoing effort to distinguish his executive experience from McLaughlin’s legislative background.
The commissioner fired back, noting that he had “balanced 16 budgets” during his tenure on the County Board, and emphasizing his long history of activism in the city by recalling his work on the city’s first affordable housing project in 1978. “My values are clear,” he said. “My commitment is clear.”
When asked what he would do if the state legislature asked him to choose between money for supportive housing or money for the Schubert Theater (recently approved as the city’s number one bonding priority in next year’s legislative session), Rybak dodged the question by arguing that he wouldn’t “allow the state to get away with that. I would never accept that type of deal.”
But, in one of the few sharp exchanges of the night, McLaughlin asserted that the mayor had already demonstrated where his priorities lay. Recalling a conversation during the last session, McLaughlin said Rybak returned from a meeting at the legislature and told him that he was exasperated by legislators who were willing to give the city money for homeless veterans but not for the planetarium.
The mayor leaped to his feet and quickly responded. “You misquoted me, Peter, and you shouldn’t do that.”
Later, McLaughlin left an opening for a Rybak counter-attack, when he was asked how he would pay for 150 more police officers. The commissioner , as he has noted before, took Rybak to task for turning down a $22 million pension relief deal from the legislature. He said he would also use the money for increased local government aid payments, the downtown tax increment finance district (which is to be re-certified in five years), and from the tax revenue generated by a proposed new Twins baseball stadium. “There are a variety of revenue sources,” he said.
The 150 officers would be added “methodically” over the next five years, McLaughlin explained—the first time he has publicly acknowledged that the mass hiring would not occur in a single year. This brought the following reply from Rybak, who McLaughlin has been painting as out of touch with the immediate need for more officers on the street: “I’m proposing 71 more cops; I’m adding more cops than the commissioner,” he said, turning to his opponent. “Commissioner, we need more cops now.”
McLaughlin later scored some points with the crowd when he stressed the need for police to work “respectfully” with communities of color, but the public safety issue, on this occasion, at least, seemed to bring him no great advantage. Indeed, as he has throughout this campaign, the commissioner continued to struggle to define himself as a clear alternative to Rybak. Asked to describe the major differences between himself and the mayor, McLaughlin tossed off a well-used line (“I match my socks and he doesn’t.”) before once again accusing Rybak of not being “in touch” with public safety issues, of ignoring the crisis in the public schools, and of not supporting the Neighborhood Revitalization Program. “I’m a leader who can get things done,” he said.
Replying to the same question, Rybak pointed to the initiatives he said he has helped create since he took office, including an economic development plan for North Minneapolis and a renovated Sears building on Lake Street. This sort of vision and leadership, he claimed, was what set him apart from his opponent. And, he added, “I’m not a career politician.”
The two candidates will meet in their second debate October 12 at Coffman Memorial Union on the University of Minnesota campus.