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?

"I don't want one of those pictures that makes you look like a geek," she scoffs. Might she be thinking of emulating former Texas governor Ann Richards, who in 1992 was pictured on the cover of Texas Monthly straddling a bike? "Kind of," she answers without hesitation. "But I'm better-looking than she is."

McDonald moved to Minneapolis in the late Seventies--in part, she says, to carve out an identity separate from her family. "Here I can be whoever I want to be," she says. "Eventually it became patently obvious I wasn't moving back to Cleveland." By the mid-Eighties she was living in the Wedge with her first husband, Mark Forgy; the seven-year marriage ended in what she terms a "slightly acrimonious" divorce in 1988. The court decree describes him as a security guard for Honeywell and her as "employed by 510 Groveland as a waitress with approximate gross earnings of $5,000." (McDonald's current salary as a city council member is just under $63,000 a year.)

"I've been on the lows and I've been on the highs," McDonald shrugs, reasoning that her range of experience has made her a better public servant. For more than five years, she says, she didn't have a car; she went ten years without a TV. Her résumé includes stints cooking in a shelter for the homeless, running her own dessert company as a pastry chef, doing public-relations work for the University of Minnesota School of Music, and serving as executive director of the Greater Lake Street Area Council. "I guess I had my midlife crisis early," she grins.

Throughout that time she served on the board of the neighborhood association for Lowry Hill East (the formal name for the Wedge). She also edited the community newspaper The Wedge and wrote many of the news stories herself, often taking on the bread-and-butter topics of neighborhood politics. In June 1990 she penned a piece headlined "Proposed check-cashing facility raises concerns among residents." The following month she reported, with a hint of relief, that after a "very heated meeting" the proposal had been beaten back.

"I loved it," she says of editing the paper. "That really kind of got me in tune with the neighborhood." She became fascinated by urban design, zoning, planning, and land use, a passion that remains with her to this day. And she was an unabashed booster of the neighborhood's trendy features: "If money were no object and I wanted unusual gifts for my slightly skewed friends and family," read one of her holiday buyer's guides, "then I'd shop in the stores around the Lyn-Lake area." The lead story in July 1990 issue reported that "The new Lowry Hill East garden club, affectionately called the Urban Jungle Terrorists by its members, took over Mueller Park last week and planted three new flower beds." An accompanying photo of the group's principals showed McDonald, second from the left.

 

In April 1993 a different picture of McDonald took up a good chunk of the paper's front page: Her smiling mug accompanied a story about the DFL endorsing convention for the Tenth Ward city council seat the previous month. The author of the article, Brian Nelson, admitted to having attended the convention as a delegate and observed that "McDonald was as gracious in victory as [her opponent] was in defeat." (McDonald resigned from the editor's job that June.)

McDonald says she had decided to run for the council even before the incumbent, Joan Niemiec, announced her retirement. Among other things, she says, she was upset by Niemiec's role in the city purchase of a Lake Street property for use as a police garage. McDonald believed the city had overpaid, and that there were better uses for the site. "What compelled me to get into it was, I'm sure, what compels anybody to get into it," she reflects. "Thinking I could do a better job."

Prior to the convention, McDonald's candidacy barely registered on the DFL radar. Most insiders favored Bert Black, a party veteran who then chaired the Fifth District Central Committee. "In the typical DFL jargon, I hadn't paid my dues," McDonald recalls. "But I don't think office skills necessarily make for good politicians." And, she notes, she had built up a degree of notoriety : "I wasn't afraid to go after something or somebody. I had a reputation for being a bulldog in my neighborhood." In a field of six candidates, McDonald overtook Black and finally clinched the endorsement on the fifth ballot.

But the race wasn't over. Though the party endorsement is often seen as tantamount to victory in DFL-dominated Minneapolis, McDonald found herself facing a spirited challenge from a local contractor and neighborhood activist, independent David Paquette. "I didn't think she was uniquely qualified to be on the council," recalls Paquette, who has since moved to Minnetonka. "But when you look at the rest of the council, it's clear she's as qualified as anyone."

Paquette says it was his impression that during much of the campaign, McDonald was counting on the endorsement to carry her into office. "She spent her evenings at the wine-and-cheese festivals, and I went out door-knocking," he notes. McDonald concedes: "I was such a novice back then. He was a much more aggressive door-knocker than I was."

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