Hell on Wheels

From small-town Lois Lane to south Minneapolis waitress to city-hall power broker: Lisa McDonald has come a long way. Now is she ready to go full throttle?

Lois Lane, Empress of Uptown, and Lex Luthor, Terror of the Wedge, are pacing and sniffing the floor in that manic dog-just-let-into-the-house sort of way. The huskies trace circles around city council member Lisa McDonald as she sets food bowls down on the hardwood floors.

"You should have seen this place when I bought it," she says of the three-story stucco on the 2600 block of Bryant Avenue South. "The kitchen was a total pigsty." Today the space looks more like something out of one of the magazines McDonald has sitting on a round wooden coffee table. Martha Stewart Living. Cooking Light. A copy of the Sunday New York Times. The ceiling is painted salmon with white beams; the walls are olive. A needlepoint embroidered by McDonald's grandmother ("You can never be too rich, too thin or...have too many dishes") adorns a wall in the kitchen, opposite the vintage stove. A couple of books on the table, Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs and Rebuilding the Indian: A Memoir, reveal the owner's love of dogs and motorcycles.

As the sun sets outside, McDonald plants herself in a wicker chair by the fireplace, her sunglasses still propped atop her head. ("It's kind of a Jackie O. thing," she says about the glasses. "My husband gives me shit about it.") Outside, firewood is stacked on the porch, brick walkways skirt the house, and decorative vines line the eaves. Gardening is one of McDonald's passions: "It's one of the things I do to get my head out of my body," she says. "Plants don't talk back."

Few would say the same about McDonald. Now in her seventh year on the Minneapolis City Council, the 44-year-old has carved out a role as city hall's most vocal maverick, especially following the departure last year of her friend and frequent ally Steve Minn. The Star Tribune once attested her "reputation for abrasiveness and overkill"; others have lambasted her for not being a consensus-builder, and for taking politics too personally. A former colleague says, only half-jokingly, that he wouldn't have wanted to challenge her to an arm-wrestling match.

McDonald is familiar with her reputation, and she offers no apologies. "The thing that I just do not buy into is that we're one big happy family," she says of the council. "This is not my family. My family is at home. People think that we all need to go along and get along, and I vehemently disagree with that."

It's a philosophy that has frequently put her at odds with the local tradition of play-nice political decorum. In 1997 she lost the DFL endorsement for her reelection bid, and many of her colleagues actively supported her opponent. The following year she fended off an attempt by the council leadership to remove her as chair of the powerful Zoning and Planning Committee. Most recently she found herself at odds with the mayor and council leadership when she spearheaded a highly publicized move to thwart the proposed Block E redevelopment.

McDonald lost that battle when eight of her twelve colleagues voted in favor of the project and its nearly $40 million public price tag. Still, she says, she has no regrets. "I got a tremendous amount of e-mail from the public who appreciated me going to bat for them," she points out.

That support could come in handy should McDonald make good on the buzz, both around city hall and in her Tenth Ward, that she's seriously entertaining a run for mayor against incumbent Sharon Sayles Belton in 2001. McDonald will only say, "I'll make a decision by the end of the year."

But why, in a municipal government routinely described as a strong council/weak mayor system, would McDonald aspire to a job that may hold less power than she has now? "That's bullshit," she says. "Strong leadership will come to the fore wherever it is. Leadership creates power."

 

Only a decade ago, little in Lisa McDonald's biography suggested that she was destined for life as a power broker. "In my 20s," she hoots, "I said, 'I'll never be in politics. This is the dumbest thing in the world.'" Born in Cleveland in 1955 as the daughter of an electrical engineer and a nurse, she recalls a middle-class upbringing among six siblings. "I'm the oldest," she cracks. "What did you think?"

After graduating from a Catholic girls' school, McDonald took journalism and art-history courses at the local community college, then lit out for the eastern edge of North Dakota before her 20th birthday. She spent a few years working for the Ransom County Gazette and the Wahpeton Daily News--writing feature stories, taking pictures, pasting up the paper. One result, she says, is that "I'm not afraid of journalists." Local reporters know her as perhaps the council's most media-savvy member, a regular source of punchy quotes critiquing the city's current leadership.

McDonald also has strong opinions about how she wants to be seen in the media. Sitting in her council office, whose dominant feature is a peach Italjet Velocifero scooter, she suggests that a City Pages profile might be best illustrated with an image of her on a motorcycle. (An avowed "Euro-baby," McDonald rides a BMW R65.)

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