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.
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.
CP: A lot has been said about your personality. People, even friends, have conceded that you sometimes can be abrasive and hard to work with.
McDonald: And how do I feel about that? Kurt Vonnegut always said that life is high school all over. I think that is a wonderful quote to explain what happens. I am very passionate about what I do and I will go to the mat on some things. And the irony is that people love that when you are going to the mat for them. But if it is on the opposite side of the issue, then they don't like it very much. So once that die is cast or something happens and people perceive you in that light, it is very hard to change that. But if you look at the kind of things I brought through here in city hall, like the zoning code, which every downtown business and the mayor was against and I managed to get a 13-0 vote, the reality doesn't queue up with perception. Because clearly I have managed to get a lot of things through here and a lot of things done.
The kicker is, if I were a guy and I was this way, I'd be considered a take-charge person and people would just love it. But because I'm a woman, I'm not allowed to be that way. I think Sharon is an example of this too. It is a kind of underlying but prevalent sexist attitude.
CP: You knew this might be something you'd have to contend with in the campaign?
McDonald: Oh yes.
CP: Did you do anything to try and mitigate it?
McDonald: I think I did. If you look at the debates, I think I handled myself very well. I mean in that one debate on Channel 2, with Rybak, the mayor, and Stenglein, but particularly between Rybak and the mayor, those two made me look like a piker. I was appalled at their behavior. But you don't hear anybody saying that Rybak was too aggressive.
What did come out in the race that was good for me was that I was more up-front about being hearing impaired, which a lot of people didn't know before. People didn't realize that somebody could be saying something behind me and I couldn't pick it up. I can see how that could make some people think I am more abrupt. I have to say, the few times during the campaign when I didn't catch a question, both Mark and Sharon were really great--they're professionals. They'd tell me what it was or write it down to let me know. I can't say that I got that same kind of tolerance from Rybak, who made fun of me at the Minnesota Public Radio debate when I missed that question about the stadium.
CP: Judging from the things you've said, it seems that it would be hard for you to support Rybak.
McDonald: I think at this point I'm yesterday's news. People have the wherewithal to make their own decision. I don't think it is appropriate for me to support anyone, because I'm not ruling out the notion of running again myself.
CP: But as the third-place finisher, I imagine if you did endorse someone it would be very helpful. You went against the mayor's policies pretty consistently for a long time. And yet in a two-person race, you don't want to support or endorse the only person with a legitimate chance of beating her right now. Does that say more about a warming trend toward Sayles Belton or an antipathy toward Rybak?
McDonald: I think it says that the world is a different place than it was two weeks ago. Like a lot of people, I am thinking what is the best scenario for guiding this city through what is going to be a rocky couple of years. This is a billion-dollar corporation. It is not like running the [Twin Cities] Reader or a small business.
My focus right now is to do the best job I can do for the last four months. It has been a great job; I've had a ball. Now I'd like to find a job that keeps me in the mix. I am very interested in housing and transit. One thing I said all along is that I will never become a lobbyist, and I will adhere to that.
CP: The rumor mill has you going with Ted Mondale at the Met Council.
McDonald: Well, I've talked to a lot of different people and gotten offers. I'm not ruling out politics again, although as I said, my first love is always at the city level. Yeah, I think the Met Council is doing some fab things. I have a lot of friends over there and if I did that I think it would be fun.
CP: How has your perspective changed? This is the first race you've ever lost, isn't it?
McDonald: I don't think of it as having lost, really. How many times did it take Dayton to get to be a senator? Most people, after they lose, they say, "I'm taking my blankie and going home." I'm not thinking that way at all.
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