The Diva of Downtown

With her gaudy campaign chest and indelicate manners, Lisa Goodman acts like she runs City Hall. Maybe she does.

IT WASN'T A PRACTICAL JOKE WHEN TERRELL BROWN filed to run for Minneapolis City Council this summer. But it wasn't exactly a real campaign, either. Whatever electoral whim this 51-year-old political activist and accountant from the Loring Park area was indulging, he's still clearly amused by it. The rub was that Brown's filing meant that he would be a challenger to Lisa Goodman, the council powerhouse who has served the Seventh Ward since 1997.

Brown and Goodman had been on what he describes as "friendly" terms for years. And his infant candidacy was viewed by many as a personal rebuke. One of the people who held this view, apparently, was Goodman herself--or so Brown was told, he recalls, by mutual acquaintances in city politics.

"I was just trying to tweak her," Brown offers, chuckling. "I think I did a good job with that."

Eventually three other people filed to run for Goodman's seat, and Brown--satisfied that Goodman had nominal competition, at least--withdrew his candidacy. Still, he says, his point was made: "It seems like Lisa's just trying to build an empire. I wanted to let it be known that nobody can just hold office uncontested."

Even so, it's unlikely that Goodman will have a hard time this election season in her race to represent the redrawn Seventh Ward, which includes parts of Kenwood, Lowry Hill, Loring Park, Nicollet Mall, downtown, and the Mississippi riverfront. For starters, the council member has accrued $119,000 in campaign funds during her years in office, more than 10 times what it normally takes to make a serious run at a City Council seat. Her opponent in the November 8 election, Christopher Clark, has $100 in his election treasury.

More than that, Goodman has accumulated a substantial amount of political capital over the years: She chairs the city's Community Development Committee and sits on the council's Zoning and Planning Committee. Which is to say that Goodman has a hand in just about any development that happens in Minneapolis.

In turn, her campaign finance report for this year's election, as it looked in September, is heavy with the names of downtown developers and real estate agents. Donors include Bill Chop of Hines Development, which owns 40 percent of the prime office space downtown; Jim Ryan of Ryan Companies, arguably the most influential developer in the city; prominent real estate agent Jimmy Fogel; James Stanton of Shamrock development, which has built several new loft projects downtown; restaurateurs Richard and Larry D'Amico; and employees from Faegre and Benson, a prominent downtown law firm.

Goodman is, by her own estimation, a fundraiser at heart. The 39-year-old grew up in suburban Chicago, then attended the University of Wisconsin, where she worked on campaigns for the mayor of Madison. She came to Minneapolis in 1989 to join Paul Wellstone's initial Senate campaign, and became the local executive director of NARAL, the abortion-rights advocacy group. Today, Goodman, who lives alone in a condo on Hennepin Avenue near Loring Park, touts things like historical preservation and affordable housing as two issues she's tackled since taking office.

Despite that fine liberal pedigree, Goodman is "one of those people who loves raking in money," according to Terrell Brown.

"She's good at it," notes Steve Minn, a former council member-turned developer who counts himself as a Goodman admirer. "She has one fundraiser a year at some fabulous mansion in her ward, and the food's terrific, and it's a who's who of downtown players, and it's a show. It's a hoot."

To go with her war chest, Goodman has a well-earned reputation for being a tough-talking powerbroker. She regularly runs roughshod over city department heads and her fellow council members in meetings, verbally lashing out in a manner that could charitably be called blunt. In one council session last year, for instance, she laid into an accounting trick intended to prop up the MPD's budget. It was "a onetime fix that is dishonest," she said, before taking a swipe at her council colleagues, "maybe some of you can go look at your constituents with that kind of dishonesty."

When the council was struggling with the question of whether Clear Channel should take over operation of the city-owned State, Orpheum, and Pantages theaters, Goodman admonished her peers who complained they'd lacked the time to read a very detailed proposal. "I can't speak to those who haven't done the work," she said, casting piercing glances. "I can't understand why you haven't had time to read this. I've had time to read this. I'm not going to sit here and do your homework for you."

More recently, she called a council member's dissenting view over an issue "ridiculous." She often insinuates that some of her cohorts simply don't know what they're talking about.

"She is prone to brief fits of histrionics," says Minn. "Browbeating and rude," is how one City Hall insider describes Goodman's style.

"On a bad day," Goodman admits, "I can get riled up."

Paul Zerby, the Second Ward council member who is frequently a target of Goodman's verbal barrages, diplomatically says he has a "long and complex relationship with Lisa," adding that she helped his campaign for the City Council in 2001. "I think she's very smart and effective for her ward," continues Zerby, sounding a familiar refrain. "Stylistically, she can be charming, but other times it doesn't seem to be the best way to treat people. It's pretty counterproductive. She can be a downright brat."

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