Rybak’s ‘Pothole Confidential’ plays it safe

Courtesy of University of Minnesota Press

T. Rybak’s Pothole Confidential: My Life as Mayor of Minneapolis(University of Minnesota Press) isn’t exactly a bill of goods but it does bear taking with several grains of salt.

As concerns a political memoir, Pothole Confidential generally passes muster — innocuous, fairly interesting and often entertaining. The writing style is fluid, personably engaging and without benefit of an editor, since there’s no such credit.

The neatly crafted narrative, from charming remembrance of his youth, conversationally seguing into and through his terms in office, up to the warmly wrapped-up afterword, makes for fine reading. Not to mention lively chatter over wine and cheese at dinner parties among the left-wing or right.

But those who were around for his tenure, particularly Black readers, will have difficulty reconciling a few things here with the reality of that day.

Point in case, the overall tone regarding Minneapolis minorities is: “Communities of color, especially African Americans, complained about inequity in policing, a concern I shared and still believe has a lot of merit… ”

To hear the author tell it in several chapters, he had then, has now, and presumably will always have an abiding concern for the well-being of underdog, inner-city African Americans.

This would fly a lot better save some key considerations. He brought on board his administration Kinshasha Kambui, highly regarded throughout the Black Twin Cities — pointedly North Minneapolis, where City Hall’s and the MPD’s most profound disconnect with this community was a glaring issue — as community liaison.

Kambui’s tireless work with We Win Institute provided unassailable credibility, as did her political pedigree as the daughter of revered career activist Matt Little.

But Kambui apparently was a cosmetic appointment prevailed upon more as window dressing than to help effect any real social progress at the downtown seat of power. This iconic figure possessed of proven commitment to empower her people — particularly the imperiled young who routinely wound up on the wrong end of law enforcement’s attitude — unceremoniously quit at the start of Rybak’s second term.

In chapter after chapter, Rybak readily drops mainstream-popular names like Don Samuels, Keith Ellison and, of course, former President Barack Obama, sharing in detail where, how, and when he rubbed shoulders. But neither Kambui nor Little’s legacies are so much as mentioned.

Minneapolis Police Department Officer Melissa J. Schmidt was murdered by Martha Donald in 2002 in a tragedy that engulfed the media and, for that matter, all of Minneapolis to the extent that it did for one reason: Schmidt was White and Donald was Black. So was City Council Member Natalie Johnson Lee who caught pure public hell for daring to sympathize with the senseless loss suffered by both families.

The Police Officers Federation, blatantly showing its true color, demanded Lee’s resignation and were self-righteously indignant that the memory and service in the line of duty of their slain sister was supposedly dishonored.

Rybak paints an admirably sober picture of himself in mourning for the officer, touching philosophically on the general tension between police and the Black public, ostensibly empathizing with both sides.  He does not say a word about Lee, doesn’t acknowledge in the least the courage and integrity it took for her to take this as a chance at healing by recognizing a common humanity. Just as he did at that time, he plays it safe. And noble.

“As the youth crime wave surged,” he writes, “there tragically were more Tyesha Edwardses and Brian Coles,” teenaged bystanders gunned down by gang violence. “The grief deepened when I came to terms with the fact that [they] died on my watch.”

He never did, though, come to terms with a responsibility to do something concrete about what everyone knew. Community activists had, in fact, warned the MPD and the city decades before that the drug trade, expanding from Chicago, Detroit and Gary, Indiana, fueled gang violence and in the process, increased the rate of Black incarceration, women and girls into dead-end lives of prostitution and otherwise destroying Black lives, law-abiding and criminal alike.

He applauds his administration for enacting do-good social work to reduce juvenile crime in Minneapolis, while blithely glossing over any accountability to get at the root of the problem and keep drugs off the blighted urban streets the same exact way it’s kept off the manicured lanes and corners of suburbia. This, by diligent law enforcement that selectively protects and serves.

At length, Pothole Confidential is pretty much what you’d expect of a politician — R. T. Rybak doesn’t lie about who he is, he just puts a nice politically correct spin on it.


Go to www.upress.umn.edu for more information about Pothole Confidential: My Life as Mayor of Minneapolis.


Dwight Hobbes welcomes readers’ responses to P.O. Box 50357, Minneapolis, MN 55403