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?

Lois Lane, Empress of Uptown, and Lex Luthor, Terror of the Wedge, are pacing and sniffing the floor in that manic dog-just-let-into-the-house sort of way. The huskies trace circles around city council member Lisa McDonald as she sets food bowls down on the hardwood floors.

"You should have seen this place when I bought it," she says of the three-story stucco on the 2600 block of Bryant Avenue South. "The kitchen was a total pigsty." Today the space looks more like something out of one of the magazines McDonald has sitting on a round wooden coffee table. Martha Stewart Living. Cooking Light. A copy of the Sunday New York Times. The ceiling is painted salmon with white beams; the walls are olive. A needlepoint embroidered by McDonald's grandmother ("You can never be too rich, too thin or...have too many dishes") adorns a wall in the kitchen, opposite the vintage stove. A couple of books on the table, Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs and Rebuilding the Indian: A Memoir, reveal the owner's love of dogs and motorcycles.

As the sun sets outside, McDonald plants herself in a wicker chair by the fireplace, her sunglasses still propped atop her head. ("It's kind of a Jackie O. thing," she says about the glasses. "My husband gives me shit about it.") Outside, firewood is stacked on the porch, brick walkways skirt the house, and decorative vines line the eaves. Gardening is one of McDonald's passions: "It's one of the things I do to get my head out of my body," she says. "Plants don't talk back."

Diana Watters

Few would say the same about McDonald. Now in her seventh year on the Minneapolis City Council, the 44-year-old has carved out a role as city hall's most vocal maverick, especially following the departure last year of her friend and frequent ally Steve Minn. The Star Tribune once attested her "reputation for abrasiveness and overkill"; others have lambasted her for not being a consensus-builder, and for taking politics too personally. A former colleague says, only half-jokingly, that he wouldn't have wanted to challenge her to an arm-wrestling match.

McDonald is familiar with her reputation, and she offers no apologies. "The thing that I just do not buy into is that we're one big happy family," she says of the council. "This is not my family. My family is at home. People think that we all need to go along and get along, and I vehemently disagree with that."

It's a philosophy that has frequently put her at odds with the local tradition of play-nice political decorum. In 1997 she lost the DFL endorsement for her reelection bid, and many of her colleagues actively supported her opponent. The following year she fended off an attempt by the council leadership to remove her as chair of the powerful Zoning and Planning Committee. Most recently she found herself at odds with the mayor and council leadership when she spearheaded a highly publicized move to thwart the proposed Block E redevelopment.

McDonald lost that battle when eight of her twelve colleagues voted in favor of the project and its nearly $40 million public price tag. Still, she says, she has no regrets. "I got a tremendous amount of e-mail from the public who appreciated me going to bat for them," she points out.

That support could come in handy should McDonald make good on the buzz, both around city hall and in her Tenth Ward, that she's seriously entertaining a run for mayor against incumbent Sharon Sayles Belton in 2001. McDonald will only say, "I'll make a decision by the end of the year."

But why, in a municipal government routinely described as a strong council/weak mayor system, would McDonald aspire to a job that may hold less power than she has now? "That's bullshit," she says. "Strong leadership will come to the fore wherever it is. Leadership creates power."

 

Only a decade ago, little in Lisa McDonald's biography suggested that she was destined for life as a power broker. "In my 20s," she hoots, "I said, 'I'll never be in politics. This is the dumbest thing in the world.'" Born in Cleveland in 1955 as the daughter of an electrical engineer and a nurse, she recalls a middle-class upbringing among six siblings. "I'm the oldest," she cracks. "What did you think?"

After graduating from a Catholic girls' school, McDonald took journalism and art-history courses at the local community college, then lit out for the eastern edge of North Dakota before her 20th birthday. She spent a few years working for the Ransom County Gazette and the Wahpeton Daily News--writing feature stories, taking pictures, pasting up the paper. One result, she says, is that "I'm not afraid of journalists." Local reporters know her as perhaps the council's most media-savvy member, a regular source of punchy quotes critiquing the city's current leadership.

McDonald also has strong opinions about how she wants to be seen in the media. Sitting in her council office, whose dominant feature is a peach Italjet Velocifero scooter, she suggests that a City Pages profile might be best illustrated with an image of her on a motorcycle. (An avowed "Euro-baby," McDonald rides a BMW R65.)

"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."

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.

"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."

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."

 

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."

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.

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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