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.")

McDonald probably won't want to be too relaxed, given that Hodges has the machinations of the DFL at her disposal. Hodges has made a name for herself in the nonprofit world, most notably as a development director for Progressive Minnesota. And she's been co-chair of the Linden Hills neighborhood council. Hodges has also been involved in some insider politics, working as a staff member for Hennepin County Commissioner (and Rybak ally) Gail Dorfman, and as an appointee on a Twins stadium taskforce. "My history has been on local issues where people get involved," she says.

Hodges is embracing the support of the DFL and the mayor, while McDonald is calling herself a "moderate, independent DFLer." It's a tag of ambivalence that is somewhat undercut by the fact she was endorsed by AFSCME and the police and fire unions, which normally march lockstep with the DFL establishment. Hodges is enjoying the phone banks already set up for her by the DFL and Democracy for Minnesota, a Howard Dean-centric organization, while McDonald, a formidable fundraiser, already has $25,000 in the kitty. (Most observers believe the race will cost nearly $100,000 to win, a target Hodges and McDonald think they can reach.)

As much as the 13th Ward looks like a two-horse town, there is a variable: Mike Hohmann, who has lived in Linden Hills for 26 years, is also running. Hohmann claims to be the only true independent in the race, refusing donations or endorsements from political organizations. He's relying instead on individual contributions (a financial sum he won't currently disclose). Hohmann, age 58, is self-employed in the private sector as a marketing consultant to small businesses, but he was appointed to the city's planning commission by Rybak in 2002, and has volunteered for his neighborhood's NRP board. A litany of small public-service stints dot his résumé.

"When you seek endorsements, it's only human nature to be beholden to those special interests," Hohmann says. "I want to avoid any conflict of interest. I'm trying to align myself with the taxpayers and voters." Hommann does have one advantage: Barret Lane endorsed his candidacy over the weekend.

There are a few defining differences between the candidates. Hohmann wants to review how much the city is pouring into affordable housing. Hodges hopes to develop more transit around town. And McDonald emphasizes her environmental leanings.

Yet the three campaigns largely agree on what issues are crucial for the city. All of them list fiscal responsibility as their first priority, given the city's ongoing budget shortfall. They give the obligatory nod to public safety, noting that the reduced size of the MPD is cause for concern citywide, and not just in beleaguered neighborhoods. And they all pledge to maintain a level of basic services that are highly valued in the area: snow plowing, street repair, and the like.

The 13th Ward, which encompasses the western shores of Lake Calhoun and a good chunk of prime real estate around Lake Harriet, has one of the wealthier bases in the city. Because of this, the area can often seem disconnected from some of the urban problems other neighborhoods face.

"The 13th Ward doesn't want to be like the rest of them," says Minn. "People who live there live there by choice. They could live in any of the affluent suburbs nearby, like Hopkins, St. Louis Park, or Edina, but they live there because they are committed urbanists."

So, the question becomes, which candidate can best reach out to the independent-minded voters who see City Hall politics as an annoyance? As Minn notes, there hasn't been a Democrat representing the area for 25 years. (He and the outgoing Lane are both independents.) If the feel-good liberalism of Minneapolis ever had any ring of truth, it doesn't necessarily play well in the southwest enclaves.

"What it's going to take to win is to convince voters that a candidate is someone who will shake up City Hall," Minn concludes.

The current occupant of City Hall, it appears, has taken notice.

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