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?

McDonald disagrees with charges that she practices slash-and-burn politics. "I think a lot of politicians just tell you what you want to hear," she says. "When you do that more, you put yourself at more risk. You don't offend anybody, but you sure don't get anything done. No one is going to agree with me 100 percent."

By all accounts, the Tenth Ward endorsing convention in March 1997 was one of the bloodier intraparty fights in local DFL history: After six ballots yielded no endorsement, McDonald and her delegates walked out in what observers considered a strategic attempt to leave Ritchie without a quorum. But there were enough party faithful left to endorse Ritchie on the seventh ballot. McDonald had pledged to honor the endorsement. But a month later, in April 1997, she announced she would be running after all.

"I feel that convention was very rigged," she says by way of explaining why she reversed her position. "People will say that they will honor the endorsement because it's the thing to say. [But] I thought a bigger group of people should make the decision."

The DFL Party, however, has never taken kindly to candidates who flout the endorsement. In the campaign, all of McDonald's DFL council colleagues actively supported Ritchie, and U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone hosted a fundraiser for him. It was a hard-fought, often acrimonious race: In September, a lawn sign in front of McDonald's home on Bryant Avenue South was set on fire. No one was ever charged.

Minn recalls 1997 as a year when both he and McDonald were under siege: He likens their two offices to "a little armed camp at the end of the hallway. We knew they wanted to get rid of us, and there was nothing more motivating for us than to shove it in their ear."

Ultimately, McDonald won with a comfortable 58 percent of the vote. This time around the Star Tribune had endorsed her, citing her "commitment to neighborhood betterment" and concluding that Ritchie wasn't "ready for prime time."

McDonald's finance chair in the 1997 race was an attorney named George Soule, a self-described "Republican-leaning independent" whom she'd met through Minn. Soule and McDonald married in 1998; they profess to having a "commuter marriage," with him often spending weeknights at the Bryant house and her heading for his place near Lake Harriet--one block outside the Tenth Ward--for weekends.

"It's an inconvenience, but it's not that big of a deal," Soule says of the arrangement. "It's mostly hauling clothes and dogs." In response to whispered speculation that she no longer lives in the Wedge, McDonald scoffs: "Seems to me if I wanted to get around that, I'd sell the house and rent a place."

 

Like many of those who have had run-ins with McDonald, Ritchie now speaks of his opponent with a tone of grudging appreciation. "Lisa works like crazy," he volunteers. "She works hard. She worked really hard to win that election. She connected with people." As a council member, he adds, "she has learned a lot about how the game is played. She's pretty much figured out how to get the system to respond." The two have even worked together on a pet issue of McDonald's: off-leash dog parks.

Musing about a McDonald mayoral run, Ritchie says, "I think the real challenge is for Lisa to figure out who she's going to be when she runs."

"I live in an ideological world," he continues. "Lisa is not an ideological person. She ran as a Democrat the first time. She in her day-to-day work aligned herself with what was arguably the moderate Republican wing of the city council, became a budget hawk and now is sort of repositioning herself as someone who's more or less a liberal, while still being a budget hawk. There's not a consistent sort of ideological box that you could put her in."

To which McDonald says: So what? "Niel needs to understand I don't have an identity crisis," she opines. "I know exactly who I am." She says she still considers herself a socially liberal, fiscally moderate DFLer and has no interest in affiliating with the "schismatic" Reform Party. "It's about the people I serve, not the party."

Still, speculation persists about which party McDonald really belongs in. She worked the governor's booth at the State Fair last year (though she says she did not support him in the 1998 election), and in January she and Soule attended a Ventura fundraiser that featured Donald Trump. Soule chairs Ventura's Commission on Judicial Selection. McDonald has also been supporting the governor's proposal for a unicameral Legislature, serving on a task force and holding a town meeting on the matter in her ward.

John Wodele, now Ventura's spokesman, got to know McDonald during his failed Minneapolis mayoral run in 1993. "She was an insurgent and had an approach to politics that was very pragmatic and not all that politically partisan-based," he recalls. "At the time I thought she was the new style of leader of the Democratic Party in Minneapolis. I think she was way ahead of her time."

Wodele suggests that, like his boss, McDonald could be one of the harbingers of a new political era. "If you look at Lisa McDonald, she is a good barometer of what's happening in Minneapolis in terms of politics," Wodele adds. "You can look at various polls that will indicate that about 60 percent of the people do not align strongly with a political party. There is some indication that the Minneapolis DFL is losing its grip."

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