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?


Not everyone, however, is convinced that McDonald has what it takes to move up. Critics continue to question what they see as the council member's damn-the-torpedoes approach--though, in good Minneapolis style, they won't do so publicly. Calls to several business and neighborhood representatives who have clashed with her yielded don't-quote-me-please comments along the lines of "Are you crazy? I still have to work with her."

Joe Barisonzi, former executive coordinator of the Lyndale Neighborhood Association (he now serves as CEO of CommunityLeader.com, an Internet startup that aims to provide resources for activists), says that in his days as an organizer he accumulated "almost a full drawer of complaints against Lisa." The gripes, which he says came from both businesspeople and residents, had a common theme: "It was unwillingness to consider different points of view. She made her mind up very quickly, drew a line in the sand, and anyone who didn't agree with her became an enemy on the other side of the line."

Diana Watters

Still, Barisonzi says there is much he respects about McDonald. "I think she has a vision for the city," he offers, "which I don't think most of our current leadership has. I think people get that, and respect that."

Tom Borrup, executive director of Intermedia Arts, is less charitable. Back in 1994 McDonald helped the nonprofit locate in her ward, in a former brake shop on Lyndale Avenue. But the relationship soured, Borrup says, because McDonald disliked Intermedia's focus on "what we call hip-hop art, what she calls graffiti." The structure's cement-block exterior is covered with elaborate multicolored murals.

Borrup cites an incident three years ago when McDonald and a city inspector called upon Intermedia to discuss a Day of the Dead mural that adorned the building at the time. "She and the city inspector were saying, 'We really think you should remove this,'" he recalls. "They were intimating that 'We could give you a citation saying this is classified as graffiti.'" Borrup says he asked whether there was a law against outdoor paintings. Of course not, came the reply. But, says Borrup, McDonald wondered, "Why can't you have a regular mural?"

McDonald, Borrup argues, has come to regard his organization's mission as antithetical to her desire to "metaphorically 'clean up' the neighborhood." He adds that "the large number of people from communities of color that have been attracted here to Intermedia Arts are not in keeping with her vision of the neighborhood."

McDonald acknowledges that she has questioned Intermedia's choice of murals, but dismisses Borrup's suggestion about her motives: "Where does he get that from?" she asks. "One of the reasons I live in the Wedge is because it's so diverse."

The battle moved to city hall in January, when Borrup's name showed up on a list of the mayor's nominees for the Minneapolis Arts Commission. Confirming such a minor appointment is typically a noncontroversial piece of municipal business. But, Borrup says, McDonald began actively lobbying her colleagues to get the nomination yanked. "She met with a number of other council members," he recalls. "I don't know how many, but apparently enough to make the mayor feel that she may not have enough votes for confirmation." Apprised of the political lay of the land, Borrup dropped out of the running.

McDonald staunchly defends her role in tanking Borrup's nomination, saying she took her concerns to fellow council members after the mayor's office "basically blew me off." Borrup, she contends, has resisted working with police to help catch taggers (he disputes the allegation). She produces a large, black three-ring binder containing a private investigator's report that purports to show links between the tags of artists at Intermedia and those who target area businesses.

"I do believe they have some good programs," she explains. "The problem is you can't tell, because the outside of their building is all graffiti. Graffiti says that you're an area in decline."

As usual, there was no mystery as to where McDonald stood on the issue. "Minnesotans, I think, tell you what you want to hear and go do something else," she avers. "In Cleveland, they just put it all out there."


The Spartan chambers of the Minneapolis City Council don't get much more packed than they were on March 3, the day of the latest vote on a redevelopment package for downtown's Block E. Benches that normally afford plenty of room to stretch were crammed with representatives of unions, developers, and downtown booster groups--all come to find out whether the council would greenlight the long-delayed project. But before the final roll call could be taken, every council member had to make a speech.

When McDonald's turn came, she turned toward the TV cameras and the audience, rather than her council colleagues. For weeks she had been the loudest voice of dissent on the deal; a column by the Star Tribune's Doug Grow referred to her "dancing in the halls" the previous week when it appeared the deal was about to fall apart. She had been a frequent poster on the Mpls-Issues e-mail forum, exhorting members of the public to lobby undecided council members.

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