Two for the Road, part 1

Mike Wohnoutka

In the 10th Ward, incumbent Lisa McDonald calls herself "a social progressive and a fiscal moderate." Her chances of defeating the DFL-endorsed challenger Niel Ritchie next Tuesday hinge on whether voters consider that a compelling synthesis or a contradiction in terms.

McDonald has forged an independent path during her four years on the Council while at the same time strengthening communication with neighborhood groups in her ward. Together with the 13th Ward's Steve Minn, she spearheaded a sense of austerity at City Hall and rightly takes credit for the lack of tax increases during her tenure. Her credentials as a fiscal moderate are solid.

McDonald's record as a social progressive, however, has been markedly ambivalent. In discussions over the 1996 city budget, the Council's new Fiscal Moderate Caucus (in which McDonald was a key player) proposed cutting money for a variety of programs including the Minnesota AIDS Project, Legal Aid, and the Harriet Tubman Center. The document describes the work of these organizations as "pet programs of various elected officials... no more worthy than any other charity." Thomas Streitz, a housing and community-development advocate for the Legal Aid Society, says McDonald told him "that these were lean and mean times and some groups need to make it on their own and not feed off the public trough."

The proposed cuts bitterly divided the Council and produced a torrent of protests from McDonald's constituents and some DFLers. Sixth Ward City Council member Jim Niland called his colleague "anti-child, anti-woman, and anti-neighborhood," a remark for which he apologized a few weeks later.

What followed was a classic example of governance as future campaign fodder. In committee discussions, McDonald recommended funding for a number of programs initially targeted by the fiscal moderates; then she voted against the budget as a whole (a procedural move, she says; a "double-cross," according to Niland). Finally the Council voted unanimously for the budget. Predictably, the whole imbroglio has been the source of a lengthy "Did Not! Did Too!" exchange, with both sides accusing each other of lying, when, in fact, the story lends itself to two diametrically opposite interpretations.

The fate and effectiveness of the Police Civilian Review Board is another example where McDonald has credibly positioned herself on both sides of an issue. After campaigning for stronger civilian review in 1993, she voted to terminate the contract of the board's executive director this summer. Had the move been successful , it "would have brought our agency to a screeching halt," says board member Brian Gorecki. "It was [McDonald's] way of killing the board. But to give her cover, Minn proposed abolishing the entire agency, and she was able to go on record voting against that. It was all political maneuvering."

When the Ritchie campaign has pointed out what seem to be either philosophical discrepancies or political butt-covering on the part of McDonald, she replies that her opponent is either overblowing the issue or lacks the political sophistication to appreciate the subtleties of her position(s)--a view echoed by the Star Tribune in their recent endorsement. But McDonald herself says she believes "most of my constituents want me to question programs whether they are public works or social services, to make sure they are delivering the bang for the buck. [They] are more libertarian than you might think when it comes to government."

While McDonald exhibits a Clintonesque agility to accommodate issues from a number of theoretically heartfelt positions, Ritchie is plainspoken about what he does and doesn't know and believe, a virtue that counts for less in the political process than anyone wants to acknowledge. Where McDonald has quickly become a master of process, Ritchie has an abiding faith in the grassroots approach, regardless of how inefficient it might be. With his background in neighborhood and agricultural issues, he is in many respects an old-fashioned Democrat, which again isn't all good: Two weeks before the election, Ritchie still has trouble articulating a clear, concise message for his campaign beyond the slogan, "Leadership that listens." His compassion is more palpable than his passion, landing him somewhere in the middle of the great gulf between the galvanizing moralism of Paul Wellstone and the vague goodwill of Sharon Sayles Belton.

And he's very different from the Lisa McDonald brand of Democrat. If you think the Council needs a corrective to the blanket support for social programs that it has exhibited over the years, then vote for McDonald. But if you're looking for a kinder, gentler status, then Ritchie, a longtime neig borhood activist, should get the nod.

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