Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak got the question from Beltrami County DFL Chairman Steve Nelson:
"As an urban mayor, how can we sell your message to northern Minnesota?"
Rybak, who if elected governor next year would be the first Twin Cities mayor to win the governorship since St. Paul Mayor Alexander Ramsey in 1860, returned, "Have I scared you yet?"
The Minneapolis mayor - and New Prague native -- launched his Democratic bid for governor Sunday. On the road this week, he started Wednesday in Bemidji and took his campaign to Grand Rapids and Duluth.
"Right now, we've finally got to put to bed the whole idea that we are all separate - greater Minnesota, metro; northern Minnesota, southern Minnesota," Rybak said to about 15 Democrats at Cabin Café and Coffeehouse in downtown Bemidji.
"The issues that we're facing are not northern, southern or municipal issues," he said. "What I think we are crying out for is to reconnect this state."
He's running on a jobs agenda, talking about providing small businesses with access to capital loans. "I have a track record of creating jobs," he said in an interview. "It starts with investing in people. ... The pillars of the economy in this area are education and medical. Those are the two best industries we know of to have people begin at entry level and move up the career track - if we invest at each step in their training and their education."
He also hopes to turn the state budget around like he did as mayor of the state's largest city. In taking office after 9/11. Rybak reorganized Minneapolis government and eventually paid off a $110 million debt.
"I'm not generic brand Mayor X of Minneapolis," Rybak says. "I'm a person who walked into the largest city of the state in the middle of a crisis, dramatically lowered crime, created jobs, did great things for our kids and the environment while being a strong, tough fiscal manager."
Even though the election is 11 months away, Rybak is a late entry into a race of a dozen Democrats and nearly as many Republicans to the seat that Gov. Tim Pawlenty is not seeking again.
Democrats haven't held the governor's seat since Gov. Rudy Perpich in the late 1980s. But Rybak notes that most elections since then have featured a strong independent candidate as well as traditional DFLers and Republicans.
"I'm very, very progressive on social issues," Rybak says. "I believe in putting our education first, I believe in universal affordable health care. But I'm also an extremely tough fiscal manager. It's your tax dollars that I'm using. "
Democrats have to get new voters "back into the fold," said Rybak, who was the first major city mayor to endorse Barack Obama for president. "I'm no Barack Obama, but I'm telling you I have the best camp of any in this race."
Jobs is his top issue, followed by schools, affordable access for everybody to health care, fixing the state budget and investing infrastructure.
The state needs a long-range budget plan to provide a more stable financing system, he said, adding that he put Minneapolis on a five-year budget.
"We have a governor that just doesn't get it about basic core services in cities and counties," he said, blasting Pawlenty for push state budget problems onto local governments by cutting state aid to them.
"I do - I do that every day and you will finally have a governor in the governor's office who understands these issues from the ground up," he said.
He doesn't throw around the "taxes" word, but is calling for a "progressive" tax system where the wealthy pay their share. Still, that will only raise $1 billion to $ 2 billion when a budget shortfall of $5.4 billion looms in the next biennium.
"I'm not a magician but I am somebody who can stand up to every citizen in the state of Minnesota and say government's role is critically important right now, and the people who do the work are critically important," he said.
"One of the things we could do would be to broaden the sales tax on some items," Rybak said, without specifying food, clothes or services. "If we did that, we'd have lower property taxes."
Values he would bring are that "those who make the most are going to pay the most - we have to take pressure off the property tax and we have to be honest with people with a budget that is a long-term fix."
That also means better relations with state employee unions, he said, answering a question.
"We've been led by a person, and by a philosophy, who have tried to score political points by bashing the people who provide good services to communities," he said of government workers. "I won't do that."
Rybak, a former Star Tribune reporter, also said he has an understanding of American Indian issues and looks forward to working with Minnesota tribes.
He worked with tribal leaders in Minneapolis to curb youth violence.
"We recognized that if we really were going to move kids in the right direction, we had to ground them in culture," he said. "When you really ground young Indian boys in the culture of the drum, you have much more success in preventing them from moving in the wrong direction with a gang."