After 25 years council member Lisa Goodman leaves ‘indelible imprint’ on Minneapolis

A woman smiles while sitting at a desk
Council member Lisa Goodman poses for a portrait in her Minneapolis City Hall office on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Reminders of Minneapolis City Council Member Lisa Goodman’s quarter century in office line the walls and bookshelves of her office on the third floor of Minneapolis City Hall.

There are construction hats from more than a dozen groundbreakings, antique bottles unearthed during a convention center expansion and a hand-drawn map of the United States by Al Franken. She even has the tam that originally adorned the Mary Tyler Moore statue on Nicollet Mall.   

During Goodman’s tenure, the influential lawmaker has had a hand in everything from restructuring the city’s departments to navigating some of the biggest economic development projects in the city’s downtown — ultimately changing the face of the city. 

Goodman said she’s had some part in pretty much every building that’s gone up in downtown or broader Uptown in the last few decades. 

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“It’s been an incredible honor,” Goodman said. “I feel like I’ve left an indelible imprint on the city as a result of all the people who have supported and advised me and … worked towards making the city better.” 

‘Too liberal,’ ‘Out of touch’ 

The Minneapolis City Council has drifted to the left since Goodman took office in 1998. When she first announced her candidacy, fresh from Paul Wellstone’s campaign and service as executive director of abortion rights group Minnesota NARAL, she was considered too far left. Even though she won the DFL endorsement, she squeaked out the closest city council victory in Minneapolis history. 

“One of the reasons the race was so close is because the other side pegged me as too liberal, I was out of touch, I was a Wellstone Democrat,” Goodman said. “I find it ironic because now most people would tell you that I’m the most moderate person on the city council. I’ll tell you nothing has changed, the world has changed around me.” 

On the day in 1998 that she was sworn in, Goodman had never before been to Minneapolis City Hall. She was shown her office and introduced to her secretary. 

“I sat behind my desk and had no idea what to do. I looked out at the federal courthouse thinking ‘Oh my God, what did I step into?’” Goodman said. “Then the phone rang, and someone had a problem, and it was my job to fix the problem, and then we were off and running from there.” 

Stadium vote
Minneapolis City Council President Barb Johnson, left, and councilwoman Lisa Goodman chat during before the Vikings stadium vote at City Hall in Minneapolis in 2012.
MPR News file photo

Constituent services are at the foundation of Goodman’s governing philosophy. Her office is known as one of the most responsive at city hall. Cam Winton, a longtime constituent who now works in renewable energy, said he appreciates Goodman’s focus on providing the basic city services that keep a city moving, including reducing a backlog around streetlight repairs. 

“Oh my gosh, are streetlights the most boring thing around? Probably. But you take it for granted until they’re not there,” Winton said. “There wasn’t enough funding and there wasn’t proper management by the city’s public works department. Lisa worked to fix that situation and the backlog dramatically reduced to the benefit of all city residents.”  

Goodman said that sort of constituent service has declined as the city took on more areas, like public housing, abandoned by the federal government. It’s the part of her career at city hall that she’s most proud of, that she instilled in people the faith that someone in local government will pick up the phone and listen if you call.   

“Local government is about being close to people, so unfortunately I know about the argument you had with your neighbor because their music is too loud,” Goodman said. “That kind of work is appreciated by the public and it should be expected, and unfortunately the whole city enterprise has moved away from that.” 

When she first was elected to office, Goodman was just 31. She says that’s why she has a good understanding of her younger colleagues on the council in recent years. 

“I was that person; I was way too liberal and I was in the minority on the council my first four years and I really challenged the status quo,” Goodman said. “I think it would be fair to say they were a bit annoyed with me.”

Recently retired Minneapolis Downtown Council President and CEO Steve Cramer said Goodman started out at the council with “an anti-business, anti-investment” perspective, but shifted as she realized the importance of development and the business community. 

“She is a woman of very strong opinions, often backed by a good set of facts and a strong point of view that was well formulated, but if you had a conflicting view and were willing to work with her to try to persuade her, she was open to other arguments,” Cramer said. “I think that’s what we’re looking for these days and we don’t see it as much as we probably should.” 

‘Pro-development, anti-bad deal’

When RT Rybak was elected Mayor in 2001, Goodman teamed up with Rybak to take on the city’s budget crisis and to scrutinize what they saw as excessive incentives for developers.  

“I would say she was pro-development but anti-bad deal,” Rybak said. “She would often drive a very, very hard bargain with a developer, in a way that I think constituents would be proud to have somebody representing the public pocketbook.”  

Rybak calls Goodman the “smartest person in the region” in understanding how local government, the private sector and nonprofits can focus together to build affordable housing. Goodman was the original author of the city’s affordable housing trust fund. 

Cramer and Rybak both attribute much of the population explosion in downtown Minneapolis in recent decades to Goodman’s work. They said Goodman’s work, especially supporting downtown residents, has set the city up well to transition to an area where there’s less emphasis on bringing in office workers every weekday. 

But Rybak and Goodman weren’t always in agreement. For instance, she voted against the city’s funding for the new Vikings stadium. Rybak said he’s been on both sides of Goodman, and he prefers the good side, although he notes that Goodman has the rare political skill of being able to mend relationships after a disagreement. 

“I would say Lisa and I had many many discussions kind of like you do with a sibling you care about at the Thanksgiving dinner table, you basically throw some mashed potatoes at each other and then kindly try to wipe it off the other’s face,” Rybak said. “I take the lumps that I took over the context of one of the most extraordinary partners that I’ve ever had in any job.”

‘Disagree without being disagreeable’ 

During Goodman’s tenure, the city experienced a devastating tornado in north Minneapolis, the collapse of the I-35W bridge and a foreclosure crisis that devastated the city’s housing stock. Then, in 2020, George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer. 

She was one of just four council members not to speak on a stage at Powderhorn Park following days of unrest, after she said organizers told her not to come if she couldn’t agree to a four-point pledge. 

Although the council has never had control of the Minneapolis Police Department, Goodman said she received 25,153 emails from around the world of people blaming her for Floyd’s murder, calling her a racist or threatening her. 

Goodman says she thinks the city’s on the right path with public safety, thanks to the state court-enforced agreement and expected federal consent decree on Minneapolis police. But she said those weeks left their mark on everyone involved. 

“It was a stain on the city to have a public employee murder someone, but the aftermath was a gigantic stain on the city as well — civil unrest and war is never good,” Goodman said. “All that happened unfortunately was a lot of people were hurt, physically and emotionally and financially by the civil unrest that ensued.” 

Since then, the tone of discussions about city policy seems to have become more vitriolic, Goodman said. Some of the mockery on social media is hurtful, and she’s tried to avoid it for her mental health. 

Winton said Goodman’s critics on social media have missed the mark. 

“Lisa can be a warm and kind person, she can also, as I noted, go to bat vigorously for her point of view and throw punches in the arena of politics,” Winton said. “But she has a big heart, she cares deeply about this city, and too often I think her critics miss that.”

A hand points to items on a shelf
Lisa Goodman points to a shelf of memorabilia she collected during her 25-year tenure on Minneapolis City Council representing Ward 7 in her City Hall office on Oct. 27.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

But at times in recent years, Goodman, who described herself as someone who just loves her dog and believes in representative government, said the vitriol has even seemed to intrude on the decorum of the council chambers. Some council members, in her view, denigrate city staff “who come to work in person every day to fill potholes, pick up garbage, keep us safe and fight fires.” 

Goodman admits she also can be pointed with her words.

During an October discussion on a community safety center in the 3rd precinct, Goodman peppered council member Jason Chavez with a series of questions on his proposal and seemed to dismiss it as a delay tactic. 

Chavez shot back, “It is frustrating the way you treat me in public. It is disgusting. It is despicable and you don’t get to treat me like that.”

But she said generally the political atmosphere at city hall has become increasingly hostile, including personal attacks. That’s one reason she’s leaving. 

“I don’t really want to be involved in a politics that’s about tearing people down, I want to be about a politics that makes people think that government is good, and they can influence government to do good things,” Goodman said. “We can disagree without being disagreeable.” 

At last week’s press conference following the council’s passage of the 2024 city budget, Goodman said she’s heartened by the cooperation she experienced at the budget markup sessions, where less senior council members listened to her recommendation that they not raid money set aside for snow storage during the winter for other programs. 

“I just feel really good as I’m leaving that we have this strong group of leaders, along with Mayor Frey, as well as a whole bunch of new diverse young women and men, who understand that to get to unanimity, we need to understand how to work together,” Goodman said at the press conference. 

At the heart of Goodman’s ideals and approach to government is the Hebrew phrase “tikkun olam,” which means “repairing the world.” Her work in politics isn’t done yet. Goodman still has money in her campaign fund and plans to play a role in local politics. But she’s most passionate about federal policy, including abortion rights, where she said young women have renewed her faith in the movement. 

“I am the same person I was when I was elected, everything has changed around me, and I think the most important thing is I’ve kept my eyes on the prize,” Goodman said. “I leave with a great amount of pride at the work I’ve done, and hope for what will happen in the city, and what I might be able to do to contribute to the community going forward.”