Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak is running for governor. The development comes as no surprise. Political observers predicted it for months. Rybak hardly hid his interest in seeking the state’s top office. He even garnered a union endorsement for the office that he wasn’t officially seeking. So the announcement Thursday that he had filed papers to form a gubernatorial campaign committee was hardly even newsworthy.
But Rybak’s political gamesmanship – running for re-election as mayor, while coyly hinting at a 2010 bid for the state’s top office – could prove too clever for his own good. Today the state’s Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board issued a ruling that the Democrat wrongly utilized funds from his mayoral committee to pursue his gubernatorial ambitions.
In particular, the board faulted Rybak’s campaign for a poll commissioned in May that quizzed citizens outside of Minneapolis on questions that clearly seemed designed to test the waters for 2010. The watchdog agency ordered Rybak’s gubernatorial campaign committee to reimburse his mayoral committee $26,500 in order to cover the costs of the poll.
The Republican Party of Minnesota, which initially filed the complaint against Rybak’s campaign with the board, reacted gleefully to the ruling.
“Today’s ruling holding R.T. Rybak accountable for his deliberate attempt to circumvent our state’s campaign finance laws is to be commended,” said state GOP chairman Tony Sutton in a statement. “Rybak campaigned for governor across Minnesota for months without lawfully establishing a campaign committee and recording his expenditures. It appears that the sole purpose of his campaign for mayor was to provide a slush fund for gubernatorial ambitions.”
Rybak’s campaign countered with its own statement taking issue with the board’s findings. “Mayor R.T. Rybak has been honest and forthcoming regarding his consideration of a run for governor, and our campaign has been careful to not raise contributions or make expenditures for the purpose of influencing a campaign for governor until a formal decision was made,” it said. “The Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board has found that certain expenses incurred by the mayor’s campaign should be counted as expenses related to a governor’s campaign. Although we disagree with the basis, we will accept the board’s finding and take action to account for these expenses and reimburse the mayor’s campaign for them.”
Rybak’s flirtation with a gubernatorial run failed to have any negative repercussions on Tuesday’s mayoral contest. He romped to a third term with more than 70 percent of the vote. But will the campaign finance board’s ruling have any detrimental impact on his political viability for 2010?
David Schultz, a political science and law professor at Hamline University, doesn’t believe it will prove significant. “Does he have a scarlet A on his forehead? I doubt it,” Schultz says. “Except for some insiders most people aren’t going to care about this issue.”
Indeed, candidates have been rebuked by the campaign finance board in the past for infractions and not suffered electoral consequences. In 2002, for instance, then-state Rep. Tim Pawlenty’s gubernatorial campaign was fined $100,000 for improperly coordinating efforts with the Minnesota GOP. Of course, he’s now serving his second term in the state’s top office and eyeing a national presidential bid.
Schultz does believe, however, that the Rybak snafu highlights the need for changes to the state’s campaign finance laws in order to increase transparency and accountability. In particular, he thinks there should be more frequent disclosure requirements for political contributions and expedited hearings on potential violations of campaign statutes.
“We still have this incredible opaqueness and lack of transparency in terms of our campaigns,” Schultz says. “This is the kind of thing that should have been caught, policed and dealt with months ago.”
He notes that the mayoral contest was already decided by the time the campaign finance board ruling was issued, meaning voters weren’t aware of the violation when they cast their ballots. “Maybe this might have made a difference to some people in the mayor’s race,” Schultz says. “I don’t know if it would have put him under 50 percent, but it might have made a difference.”