Lisa McDonald vs. Mayor McCheese

A onetime mayoral opponent plots a return to City Hall

Two years ago, Lisa McDonald was feeling adrift. She had given up a shot to keep her Minneapolis City Council seat in order to run for mayor, an unsuccessful endeavor that left McDonald embittered. And she had renounced her political party, the DFL, for a flirtation with the Independence Party. She felt anxious to have a constituency again, but didn't know what office to seek. Meeting with a reporter one summer afternoon in 2003, she talked about running for the park board, or running again for City Council, or trying to oust R.T. Rybak.

Her political comeuppance had turned personal with regard to Mayor Rybak. During the campaign, which ended for McDonald at the primary, she believed that Rybak had openly ridiculed her, especially during one debate when she misheard a question and he pounced on her seemingly contradictory response.

It turned out she was grappling with a serious health issue, though she rarely acknowledged it in her eight years at City Hall or on the campaign trail. McDonald had Menière's disease, an idiopathic affliction of the inner ear, and by last spring she had lost most of her hearing.

Ward 13 candidates Betsy Hodges, Mike Hohmann, and Lisa McDonald
David Fick
Ward 13 candidates Betsy Hodges, Mike Hohmann, and Lisa McDonald

After that, it seemed she lost her desire to be a public figure, as her medical complications made it impossible for her to imagine campaigning. In the interim, she had raised money for Tim Penny's gubernatorial campaign, and managed a cooking store in Northeast. According to some friends and supporters, it appeared that McDonald wasn't running for anything.

Now, thanks to a cochlear implant that has largely restored her hearing, the 49-year-old McDonald is running again, this time for the city's 13th Ward council seat. (Current rep Barret Lane isn't seeking reelection for the southwest Minneapolis office.) But, with at least two other candidates involved, the contest could prove just as cutthroat as the mayor's race was in 2001, albeit on a smaller scale.

Her main--though not her only--rival is political upstart Betsy Hodges, who secured the DFL endorsement on April 2. Hodges might be an unknown quantity citywide, but she has at least one person in her corner: Mayor Rybak, McDonald's nemesis four years ago. Rybak has gone out of his way to throw his weight behind Hodges to a degree he hasn't in other City Council races, making an official endorsement and talking up her campaign. It's not hard to see the contest as a sequel of sorts.

Chatting at City Hall, Rybak praises Hodges's "deep principles and her ability to work" before turning to McDonald. "Lisa's a smart person and a hard worker," he says. "But she didn't get much done on the council because she spent a lot of time arguing with people down here." He explains that his support of Hodges has to do with the fact that he lives in the 13th Ward. "This will be my council member," the Mayor continues, "and I'm not going to pay taxes for a representative who just picks fights at City Hall."

When asked if his support of Hodges has an element of political payback, Rybak does a little two-step: "Absolutely not. This is about the future, not the past."

Even so, Rybak was likely gleeful that the DFL is backing his preferred candidate, a 35-year-old political organizer who has lived in Linden Hills since 1998. For starters, it may indicate an edge in his own desire for the party's endorsement (something he did not get in 2001). And it makes Hodges likelier to block McDonald's path back to City Hall.

Former council member Steve Minn, who used to represent the ward, notes that "there are some grudges going on." "The posturing and spin is to say she's acrimonious," says Minn of McDonald, whom he supports. "The mayor is a pleasant guy, but he's got his own race to run."


McDonald, for her part, is fully aware of her reputation--one that was well earned at times. She was notorious for standing up to the old guard at City Hall, most notably former Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton and former council president Jackie Cherryhomes. She was a vocal critic of big subsidized development projects like Block E. At the same time, some small-business owners viewed her as a micromanaging bully in her old 10th Ward, pushing for redevelopment projects in Uptown and Lyn-Lake. (McDonald moved to East Harriet, where her husband has lived for 15 years, right after the mayoral loss, placing her in a new district.)

Hodges alludes to McDonald's reputed temperament, saying that one of the things Hodges brings to the race is an ability to work with city, regional, and state leaders. "I'll be able to go to our allies in the Legislature," she says.

But Minn notes that McDonald has been "humbled" by her citywide defeat and her illness, a sentiment McDonald echoes. "What you do the first few years at City Hall is how everyone sees you," McDonald notes, offering that her abruptness sometimes resulted from her hearing problem. "I'm much more relaxed, much more sanguine." (Attempting to channel a new inner Zen, McDonald tries not to swing back at Rybak and Hodges, but does let it be known that "I'm not going to be anyone's lapdog.")

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