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?

In her closing statement that day, McDonald once more summarized the arguments she'd made. The proposal--whose featured tenants include an ESPN Zone sports bar--was boring in concept and design, she argued; the nearly $40 million public price tag put too much of a burden on taxpayers. "We should be listening to our Chief Finance Officer, not the head of the development agency," she declared sharply. "It's unreal to me that we are going to subsidize an out-of-town sports bar." Holding aloft a thick stack of paper--printouts of e-mails she'd received on the issue--she concluded: "I have to ask once again: If this is such a great project, why is it that the city is taking the greatest risk?"

When the vote was taken just a few minutes after high noon, the package passed 8-5 to thunderous applause from the crowd. The mayor's office issued a press release trumpeting the deal. Still battling, the vocal minority released its own statement, lambasting the project as "too expensive, too risky, and too unoriginal." The listed press contact was McDonald.

Dan McCaffery, president of lead Block E developer McCaffery Interests, says he concluded early on that he couldn't win with McDonald. "I like her," he points out. "I like anybody that's feisty and gets out there and beats their drum. [But] in my dealings with the council member in this case, it didn't really matter what we presented. She was predisposed to say that it was terrible. It was more critical than it was constructive. That's when opposition concerns me rather than inspires me." McCaffery says he ended up wondering whether McDonald had an agenda beyond the Block E project itself; he acknowledges that he has no idea what it might have been.

Others have wondered whether McDonald was using the Block E fight to position herself for a mayoral bid. But she insists ambition had nothing to do with it. "Regardless of what my future plans might be, I'd be out there railing against the moon on this one," she contends. "This is $50 million worth of public money; you're damn straight I'm going to ask tough questions. I don't apologize for that."

By the same token, she notes that "as you get more mature, you learn how to let go of things." When she first came to city hall, she recalls, every debate seemed like a crisis; now, she says, she has learned that many problems will work themselves out. "I've been beat up a lot," she muses. "I think all the adversarial things I have to go through in this job have been good for me. I've learned to temper it down a little. I've learned there's more than one way to skin a cat."

Barisonzi believes she still has more to learn. "Lisa has a vision for the city, but no ability to pull people together for that vision," he observes. "Sharon [Sayles Belton] has the ability to pull people together but no vision as to where to go."

Of course, McDonald has pulled together enough people to win election twice, in contested races. But the stakes weren't nearly as high then as they could be in 2001. McDonald would have to give up her council seat to mount a daunting bid against a two-term incumbent. She claims to have no illusions about the consequences. "If you run for mayor and you lose," she figures, "you go get a job."

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