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?

Paquette's strategy seemed to be paying off. About three weeks before the election, he got wind of a DFL poll that showed McDonald trailing him. "The race got close in the end, and then it got dirty," he recalls. "After that, [it] got bloody ugly." There were rumors of his literature disappearing from people's doorsteps, and the candidates' stances on abortion--McDonald is ardently pro-choice--became an issue.

For many, however, the choice seemed to come down to personality. Paquette enjoyed the support of Niemiec, who told the Star Tribune that city staff who had dealt with McDonald found her "abrasive." (Niemiec didn't return calls requesting comment for this story.) He was also endorsed by the Star Tribune, whose editorial noted that "with her reputation for abrasiveness and overkill, McDonald seems a riskier choice." Still, on Election Day McDonald took 52 percent of the vote--just 324 more votes than Paquette.

McDonald didn't take long to make a splash at city hall. She brought in the motorcycle: Bikes are "like art" to her, she explains. "I just think they're beautiful more than anything." And she struck up an alliance with Steve Minn, the 13th Ward independent who had surprised the DFL power structure by defeating incumbent council member Carol Johnson.

Diana Watters

"Lisa and I were sort of like a tag team," recalls Minn, "the Frick and Frack of the city council." Each introduced the other to new constituencies: Minn put McDonald in touch with people in the business community, while she hooked him up with neighborhood and community-development types. In their first year on the council, McDonald and Minn helped orchestrate the selection of Rebecca Yanisch to head the Minneapolis Community Development Agency (MCDA), in an end run around the council leadership.

McDonald was also among the members of the Minn-led "fiscal moderates" caucus, which sought to hold the line on city spending. In 1995 the caucus launched a high-profile campaign seeking to trim city funding for several social-service agencies, including the Minnesota AIDS Project, the Harriet Tubman Center women's shelter, and the Legal Aid Society. In committee McDonald voted in favor of the cuts but later supported a compromise that included funding for the groups. "I believed that we needed to make some cuts," she notes now. "But I also think if you look at my aggregate voting record, I have voted across the board as a social liberal."

As McDonald was finding her legs in city hall, she was clearly making an impression. "She was feisty," recalls former First Ward city council member Walt Dziedzic. "She stood up for what she believed in and she didn't cave in to the leadership.

"Council member [Joan] Campbell used to say, 'I bet you can't beat Lisa in arm-wrestling,'" Dziedzic continues, adding that he never took up the challenge. "She works out," he notes. "And she's strong."

Campbell didn't choose to test her colleague's arm-wrestling prowess either, but the two later went to battle in another arena: In 1998 Campbell and City Council President Jackie Cherryhomes led a campaign to remove McDonald from her chairmanship of the Zoning and Planning committee. At issue, according to a memo Cherryhomes wrote at the time, was McDonald's handling of meetings, including her habit of rolling her eyes when she didn't agree with someone. The matter was dropped when there weren't enough votes for the coup. Both Cherryhomes and Campbell declined to comment for this story, saying they have a policy of not talking about colleagues.

"There were personality things," says McDonald about the episode. "But they were valid things that I need to work on. I don't have to be mean and nasty to people, and I don't think I am." She shakes her head, adding, "Jesus, compared to Minn I'm a piece of cake."

In fact, Minn offers, at times McDonald served as a calming influence in some of his skirmishes with the leadership. "At the risk of sounding like I needed the help, she softened me up quite a bit," he jokes. "There'd be many a time where I'd want to go for the jugular on something, and Lisa would counsel me on a more appropriate way to act."

McDonald, Minn adds, has grown since she was first elected. "She was very rough-edged in terms of her desire to win," he recalls. "She took everything very personally. I think she's a little bit more philosophic now. She's much more subtle and much more eloquent and much more elegant about how she loses--if she does lose--these days." Besides, he adds, "I just don't think there's anybody down there that works as hard as she does."

McDonald's assimilation at city hall wasn't always greeted with enthusiasm back in the neighborhood. As an incumbent she came to be viewed by some as part of the problem rather than the solution, and her '95 budget stance rankled many of the ward's dyed-in-the-wool liberals. Niel Ritchie, an East Harriet neighborhood activist and national organizer for the nonprofit Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, was among the members of a loosely knit group that began contemplating a challenge to McDonald in the 1997 election.

"We felt like council member McDonald was not reflecting the values of the people in her ward," Ritchie recalls. "It's not an uncommon malady with elected officials: Once they get elected, they're slightly less interested in getting input from citizens." He and others also objected to McDonald's way of dealing with people. "Her professional style was not one of building consensus," Ritchie says, "and clearly that was something I felt was needed in the council."

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