Chatting Up Mayors R.T. Rybak and Chris Coleman

Notables at the Nomad with Dessa

by Dessa

Each issue, Dessa will sit down at the Nomad World Pub with guests of her choosing. For this issue, she chatted with the mayors of Minneapolis and Saint Paul.

People who are often interviewed develop particular and recognizable habits. They’ve already told their best stories, hundreds of times to hundreds of people, so they tell them well, fluidly, and maybe a little too rapidly. They’ve got a stable of engaging, telling anecdotes at the ready—about their childhoods, about their hometowns, professional beginnings, personal life, and hardships. To be interrupted mid-anecdote is usually jarring—a bit of turbulence that takes the craft off autopilot. Having answered the same sets of questions so many times, most of them could probably give a good interview alone in a room, without any prompts at all.

When I sat down with each of our Twin Cities’ mayors (whose schedules wouldn’t permit them to meet with me together), I was a bit surprised at how much it felt like sitting down with musicians. Long hours. Zero job security. Public life. Ambitions that would be indelicate to discuss. Regular interviews.I make these observations both as a writer and as a person who is often interviewed.

I asked RT Rybak, Minneapolis’ ebullient mayor, about the celebrity associated with his job. How often is he recognized in public? A lot. Is he ever approached by people who know he’s famous, but aren’t sure why? To his dismay, he’s been mistaken for Pawlenty more than once. On the whole, RT says he doesn’t mind the public aspect of the gig: “Minneapolis wants a mascot as much as a mayor… As much as I’m about policy, I’m in the same business as T.C. the Bear or Goldie the Gopher who turns his head around. My job sometimes is being a giant flashlight and just saying, ‘Hey everybody, look at this.’ ” If he were working in music, I suspect RT would be a frontman for a pop outfit: eager, energetic, charm his instrument of choice. (As many readers may know, Rybak does have a confirmed history of stage-diving at First Avenue, much to the chagrin of this rapper who has yet to work up the nerve.)

Mayor Chris Coleman of St. Paul seems more like a guitar guy. His low voice is paced and he talks while leaning back against the booth at the Nomad. When I ask how often he’s recognized he says it’s hard to tell. Oftentimes, someone in a crowd will eye him, but he can’t be certain of what they’re thinking, which can get awkward.  “If you don’t acknowledge someone who thinks that they should be acknowledged, they’re mad at you, and if you acknowledge someone that has no idea who you are, you just seem like a weird stalker dude.”

For years Coleman served as a public defender. He jokingly describes the position as one most often filled by “sick, twisted individuals with really dark humor.” I ask him how the job shaped his understanding of human nature. “You see all kinds. The good, the bad, and the weird—particularly the weird.” Coleman says he was especially affected by the fact that a single person was often perceived first as a victim, then later transformed into a perpetrator. Kids first entered the system as a dependency neglect case, then through truancy petitions, and then predictably as delinquents themselves.  “You could see the continuum.”

As elected officials, both men woo voters at regular intervals. But as mayor, each one must make decisions that are not universally well received. I ask, to do their jobs well, do politicians have to suppress a natural human inclination to be liked? Yes, according to RT. “I was so desperate to be liked when I got the job. And now I really want to be respected. There’s a massive difference. That has been, along with my grey hair, probably the biggest evolution.” Coleman, who considers himself more introverted than extroverted, replied after a long pause. “I don’t necessarily have that natural inclination. I’m very comfortable with people not liking me.” He references his history as a public defender, explaining that prosecutors have the sexier, more popular role, “but you have a job to do… and what you realize is you can’t please everybody so you have to do what you think is the best.”

I ask Chris if his wife Connie usually agrees with what he thinks is best for St. Paul. Philosophically they agree he says, although they sometimes differ on strategy. The hardest marital strain of his mayorship is that Connie (a “true extrovert” according to her husband) wants to share every detail of his day, whereas he’s inclined to sequester himself after work, “Lock me in the room with a guitar and I don’t want to talk.” Coleman plays a Telecaster (his ‘Telly’), having given up his other instrument because, well “You can’t come home at 11 at night and play the bagpipes.”

RT says that on many, many occasions, his wife Megan has disagreed with his mayoral decisions with enough intensity to make things tense at home. But he’s accustomed to that kind of dynamic: “I grew up in a family that talked public policy. My stepfather and I fought so much about Vietnam over the dinner table that my mother stopped serving fondue.” Is it difficult, then, to disengage from his professional role? Is there a constant mayoral tickertape running through his head, even when he should be focusing on the movie in front of him, on a conversation with his wife, with his kids? Art helps, says RT. Although he’s a regular theater-goer, “I have much more trouble with theater when I have a lot on my mind.” The verbal medium somehow gets tangled with the stuff of his workday, of the constant communication. So he says he likes seeing dance more “because it’s visual, and it’s not words.”

Both Rybak and Coleman are escorted by young men with paper files and wristwatches and camera phones who keep their mayors on track, on time, and photo-documented. After a little nod from his staffer, Coleman takes his leave. He’ll be working a full day and then setting off on an overnight drive to Montana to see his daughter. Tough schedule. I ask if he’s a coffee fiend. His answer, again, sounds like it could’ve been issued by a shredder: “Mountain Dew. You can drive forever on like three Diet Mountain Dews.”

Rybak and I snap a picture before he goes. We discuss the relative merits of Twitter and Instagram before he departs, stopped on his way out by other bar folk hoping to shake hands.

Although generally impressed by the candor of both mayors, it’s hard to believe that either has fully vanquished the desire to be liked. In the abstract? Sure, it’s one thing to set aside poll numbers. It’s another to sit across from someone with a total disregard to the likeability of the impression you’re making. If you had no stake in it all, why cultivate the humor, the charm, the diplomacy that politicians (and most of the rest of us) strive for?

The morning after interviewing Rybak, I tune in to Kerri Miller’s show; incidentally both mayors are on air with her. They’re broadcasting from the Fair, taking questions. Rybak has the opportunity to share the anecdote in which he stage-dives with Duluth’s Mayor Ness, who has a rather rough landing. The story, I know, will end with some variation of the line, “That’s the secret to it: You gotta tell them you’re jumping.” Ah, I think. They’ll like this one.

Dessa is a writer, rapper, and a proud member of the Doomtree crew. In the press she’s been compared to Erykah Badu, Tom Waits, Mos Def and Dorothy Parker. In real life, she lives in Uptown, Minneapolis or in the back seat of a moving tour van. You can find music, images and tour dates at www.doomtree.net/dessa

Photos by Joe Alton

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