The Diva of Downtown

Craig Lassig

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."

In fact, Goodman often contributes--at least financially--to other races around the city, most notably this year, Jeff Hayden's failed run for council in the Eighth Ward and a couple of Library Board races. Some who have been the beneficiaries of Goodman's political mentoring, like Hayden, speak of a genuine gratitude. But it's also thought that Goodman chooses candidates less on the basis of a shared ideology than on the likelihood of their unwavering loyalty to her camp. Several sources contacted for this story argued that Goodman is supporting Mayor R.T. Rybak in his reelection campaign because she can sway him more easily than she could his opponent, Hennepin County commissioner Peter McLaughlin.

Goodman pooh-poohs that notion, saying, "I love the mayor, and I think he's been great for the city."

Lisa McDonald, a former City Council member who is running again in the city's 13th Ward, used to count Goodman as an ally. Goodman is now supporting McDonald's opponent, Betsy Hodges. "I assume she doesn't want me down there [at City Hall] for whatever reason," McDonald notes. "She has told me face to face what she thinks is wrong with me. And you don't have enough newsprint for that."

"'Control' is a tough word," Minn says of what many will refer to--off the record--as Goodman's calculating political strategy. "She does look for situations where she can be more collaborative than combative."

Even so, Goodman arguably carries as much clout as anyone in City Hall--perhaps more than Rybak, who is constrained by the city's weak-mayor system. She educates and lobbies the council for votes with a cunning skill. The Clear Channel/Hennepin theaters deal, for example, was a controversial and complicated proposal. Not content with simply counting votes in favor of the proposed "partnership," Goodman, by many accounts, took it upon herself to explain the difficult financing issues to ward leaders and department heads--effectively selling the thorny deal.

Yet Brown, for his part, doesn't see collaboration as part of Goodman's modus operandi. "She's changed a lot in the last eight years,"' he says, "and to a certain degree it's gone to her head."


AFTER THE SEPTEMBER PRIMARY, CHRISTOPHER Clark emerged as Goodman's challenger. (Goodman received nearly 80 percent of the vote; Clark notched just more than 9 percent.) Clark is a 32-year-old political neophyte with a progressive streak who came to Minneapolis from his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, six years ago. Seven months ago, he moved into an older rental high-rise near the main post office.

Since then, Clark has become increasingly concerned with what he views as a crime problem in downtown Minneapolis. "It bugs me that safety for downtown residents is something that doesn't come into play," Clark says. "It's a puzzle for the whole city."

Clark also expresses concern for downtown's homeless. It's an issue Goodman says she's "passionate" about--and any conversation with her on the issue bears that out. She was a proponent of Lydia House, an affordable-housing complex in her ward in Stevens Square. And she also speaks in favor of "decriminalizing" homelessness.

The main problem, as Clark sees it, is a lack of affordable housing. "The big thing for me became this whole ordeal about a 50-floor condo development here and another one there," Clark says, referring to a controversial project in Loring Park that involved haggling over rezoning. "There are new condos going up all over the city with no connection to any kind of neighborhood or any kind of affordability."

In decrying the condo boom, Clark is effectively criticizing the main story in Goodman's ward since she took office. Downtown has seen a wild transformation in the last few years thanks to a housing boom that has changed Goodman's constituency. In his campaign, Clark seems to be promising future battles with some of Goodman's staunch supporters. "She has too many attachments to developers," Clark maintains.

Goodman herself acknowledges that much of her campaign largesse comes from people who regularly have projects that may need her approval. Still, she says, "Honey, if I can be beholden to someone for $300"--the maximum donation allowed in city elections--"then I shouldn't be in office."  

Indeed, Goodman has at times opposed projects around the city that have been conceived by some of her donors. Stuart Ackerberg, a Goodman campaign contributor, proposed a housing development in Uptown that was to be 13 stories high. Goodman, along with the mayor and others on the council, vehemently opposed the idea, and eventually Ackerberg won approval for a smaller edifice.

"Lisa's not afraid to share her opinion," Ackerberg says. "Bottom line was Lisa's opinion and view was different than ours. At the end of the day, it's just business, and I still have a good working relationship with her."

Goodman doesn't always swoon before big development--she opposed both Block E and the Target offices on Nicollet Mall--but it continues to be the biggest issue in her part of town. Still, there are other issues in the Seventh Ward, especially now that redistricting has added the burgeoning neighborhoods just off the river, north of the Warehouse District. The new ward is seen as increasingly conservative, with a more affluent class moving in. No matter what Clark and Goodman espouse, issues of homelessness and affordable housing aren't likely to be the primary concern for many new downtown dwellers.

Given Goodman's fiscally conservative streak, it's likely that the post will be hers for as long as she wants it. But it's unclear how long Goodman wants to stay in her job. She professes no desire to be mayor--it would be a step down in power--but she hints that she might not remain in office much longer.

"These have been the best years of my life," Goodman says. "But I could make three times what I'm making in the private sector. I gave a shot at public service. But people like me could get a job doing 20 other things."

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