Unbowed

Lisa McDonald talks about going from a contender to an also-ran, and hints at a future return

For most of her two terms representing the Tenth Ward on the Minneapolis City Council, Lisa McDonald has been the most forceful and persistent critic of incumbent Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton. In her recent bid to unseat Sayles Belton, McDonald raised the most money of any mayoral candidate, was endorsed by both the Star Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and ran what was generally considered to be a shrewd and diligent campaign.

Yet McDonald finished a distant third in the September 11 primary, just ahead of Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Stenglein and well behind both Sayles belton and the top vote getter, community activist R.T. Rybak, who again proved himself to be the most popular alternative for those who desire a change in leadership at city hall. With polls showing Rybak and Sayles Belton in an extremely tight race just a month before the general election in November, McDonald, who garnered nearly 19 percent of the primary vote, is in an ideal position to play power broker and help determine the outcome.

In her first extensive interview since the primary, it is obvious that McDonald's favorite mayoral candidate is...Lisa McDonald. While proclaiming herself proud of her recent campaign, staunchly defending her blunt, tenacious style, and dropping numerous, not-so-subtle hints that she intends to run for mayor again in 2005, McDonald still declines to endorse either Sayles belton or Rybak.

It's obvious that Lisa McDonald's favorite candidate is...McDonald
Craig Lassig
It's obvious that Lisa McDonald's favorite candidate is...McDonald

Nevertheless, it is also eminently clear from her comments which of the two remaining candidates she favors.

 

CP: You've obviously done some thinking about why you lost. What do you think happened?

McDonald: Well, certainly the expectation was that I would come through the primary. And I think the reason for that is that we had the most substantive campaign, the most issues-based campaign. So the great thing is that I am walking out of this gig with a lot of integrity and a lot of admiration for the way I ran it.

But there were some factors that caused me to not get through. It is hard when you have four people in a primary, first of all. The second thing is that the Greens did the analysis that we did a year ago, which is that [Ralph] Nader cut a swath across the middle of the city [during the 2000 presidential campaign]. And so they ran candidates where that swath was, in Whittier, Phillips, and the Second Ward, and did well. It shows that if they continue that kind of approach, they will be a force to be reckoned with. I had some support in that group, but generally they were going to be looking for the most left-oriented mayoral candidate, and for them that was Rybak. Even though he wasn't on that sample ballot, I would say that he got the benefit of their work.

Another thing is that had Stenglein decided not to run, I would have come in first, because as a moderate who worked hard on the north side, I clearly would have had that base of support. I know that I ran a better campaign than he did; I kind of got the sense it was a lark for him. So that impacted it.

Two other elements would be hard to quantify. As an incumbent, did I get tarred with the Brian Herron brush? If I did, that's problematic. The other thing we'll never know is what people came out and voted and what people stayed home because of what happened on September 11. And there is no way we'll ever know that.

It is a little disturbing to me is that it's not enough to run a substantive, issues-based campaign. There is an element of people wanting someone who is Kennedy-esque, per se, regardless of whether there is any background or any there there. So if I were to do it again--and I certainly haven't ruled that out--I'd still be substantive, because that's just the way I am, but I'd probably hire a marketing person out of the gate.

What is more interesting to me than the outcome of the primary is what has happened since the primary. If you queried anybody on primary night, they would have said that Rybak is clearly a shoo-in. But that's not the case. Given the events of the past few weeks, I think people are going, 'Now wait a minute. We could be in a war. The state could have a deficit. The economy could go to hell. We will have a majority of the council that is going to be new. And then to have a mayor with no experience? Maybe the devil we know is better than the devil we don't know.'"

CP: How would a marketer have helped your campaign?

McDonald: Where I think Rybak did a better job was in creating this image that people bought into. The issue is, what do people want in politics, the image or the substance? The problem is, you can vote for the image but then you have to live with that person for four years. But I think I still probably should have paid more attention to how you create that image.

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