In a lifeless beige room, Mayor Ed Murray is on a tear bragging about his first year in office. "One of the things that I wanted to do when I became mayor of Seattle," he says, "was to show that progressives, people who are liberals, people who are Democrats, can work together and show the rest of the country and the rest of the state how progressives can get things done."
It's at this point—as a projector paints a far wall with photos of 83-year-old city council member Jean Godden—that Murray tells the small crowd why his own success was possible.
"Because of Jean's style—her toughness, her willingness to take risks, her willingness to compromise, her willingness to collaborate," Murray says, "I think last year we showed that this is a progressive city that can show how progressives work together and get things done."
He credits Godden for last year's voter-approved parks district measure, universal pre-K, expanded bus service, and the big one: Seattle's new minimum-wage increase.
"We decided we were going to be the first city in America to address income inequality and raise the minimum wage," Murray tells the people in the room, all of them gathered for the kickoff to Godden's campaign for a fourth term. "And we did that because of Jean's leadership."
Godden wasn't one of the three council members on the mayor's minimum-wage committee, which hashed out the deal. And while David Rolf, SEIU 775 president and cochair of that committee, says Godden's "vote for $15 was never in doubt," he also says she "had the most conservative voting profile of any council member," supporting a tip credit, opposing efforts to get rid of the lower training wage, and opposing the idea of moving the new wage implementation up from April to January. She is rarely—if ever—mentioned in the many reflections on how Seattle made history with $15.
But this is how Jean Godden wins. Stay cordial, toe the middle line, only disagree when you're not alone, and let everyone assume you're further to the left than you actually are. Oh, and nod and smile when the mayor—currently your best political bud—claims you led the minimum-wage fight.
It's true that on her signature issue—gender pay equity—Godden has received praise for helping usher in a four-week paid parental-leave policy for city employees. "She fights for all of us and she wins," Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, the fervent founder and director of the advocacy group MomsRising, tells the kickoff crowd.
Yet Godden has no clear next step or new proposal in the ongoing fight for equity—or at least not one she's articulating in her campaign for another term on the council. At a recent candidate forum, she appeared distracted, stumbling over some of her answers. And on a March morning in the Starbucks high up in the Columbia Center, she sounded defensive when I asked why she's running.
"I'm running for reelection for the same reason that I ran in the first place," Godden said. "To get some things done for the public. There are many things that are still remaining, and I'm not a quitter."
Nice phrases, but not very specific.
Why, exactly, Godden is running, and why, exactly, she deserves another four years are questions worth asking. That's less because of her age—she'll be 84 on Election Day and 88 at the end of another term—than because of her record, a mixed bag of calling for change and serving the status quo. Plus, on an increasingly divided council, and in a new district elections system inviting wholesale change, Godden's race could be a bellwether for how incumbents are faring this election year.
Godden is a well-known and likable presence on the city council—familiar to many Seattle voters from her two decades as a newspaper columnist documenting gossip and city oddities. But during her time on the council, she's also been criticized as a more conservative member who's too beholden to moneyed interests.
No current council members, nor recently departed Sally Clark, would speak with The Stranger on the record about Godden. But sources inside and close to city hall who agreed to talk anonymously paint a portrait of a council member who's well-intentioned but aloof, unpredictable, easily persuaded, and rarely willing to take a controversial stand if she's in the minority. They have trouble thinking of policies—other than the recently passed parental-leave law—that Godden has truly championed or led on in her 11 years on the dais.
Godden won't concede her relevance quite so dramatically, but she characterizes her political style this way: "Sometimes you can lead more progressively by not being quite as loud."
Raised in a family that she says lived in more than 100 towns because of her dad's job making maps for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Godden landed in Seattle in 1949. She got her journalism degree from the University of Washington in 1974 and began her career editing and writing columns at both daily newspapers—the Seattle Times and the now-online-only Seattle Post-Intelligencer. At the time she started in journalism, Seattle was climbing out of a Boeing bust and watching the birth of Microsoft, and was still three years out from having a professional baseball team.
Godden was first elected to the council in 2003, defeating Judy Nicastro, whom she told The Stranger at the time had "wasted good time" during her four years in office.
A lifelong member of the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild, she's dogged and heartfelt in her feminism, often recounting how she was paid less than her male colleagues at the PI or how a college adviser once told her "to forget my career in journalism because women would never be allowed in the newsroom."
Back in 2005, as she voted against stiffer rules for strip clubs, including one requiring dancers to stay at least four feet from customers, Godden told her fellow council members that the proposal had "an element of paternalism."
"For far too long," she said then, "men have tried to tell women what work they can do."
During her time on council, Godden has done some important work, overseeing City Light as it reduced massive debt and chairing the budget committee during some of the worst years of the recession—from 2008 through 2011. She cosponsored sick and safe leave legislation and introduced a bill to keep the city from shutting off the water for nonpayment in homes with children.
But these days, her conservative streak is becoming more obvious as some of the council's most outspoken members, like Mike O'Brien and Kshama Sawant, pull the council further left. So has her political partnership with Mayor Murray. In her campaign for reelection, Godden mentions the mayor's plans for transportation and affordable housing as often as she mentions her own. Meanwhile, she's equivocating on some of the most controversial issues set to come before the council.
"Jean has done a really good job for the city on a lot of issues, but the things I care about, the things the people of the Northeast care about, are not things she has spent a lot of time focusing on," says Godden's best-funded opponent in District 4, Rob Johnson, the 36-year-old executive director of the Transportation Choices Coalition. (What kinds of things? Expanding transit, designing bus and light-rail connections, and addressing the city's carbon footprint.)
Godden's other main challenger, 33-year-old paralegal and parks activist Michael Maddux, is less diplomatic.
"We're going on 11 and a quarter years she's been on council, and what have we seen out of that?... She doesn't do anything," Maddux says. "The big difference I really see right now is some of us come to the table with ideas, and other people come to the table saying whatever the mayor says."
Cathy Allen, Godden's longtime friend and campaign consultant, bristles at the characterization that the council member is relying too heavily on Murray.
"Why is it that if a woman tends to agree with someone in a position like Ed's, that all of a sudden she's leaning on him, following him, and not showing leadership?" Allen says. "There's a little bit of sexism there. Just because she thinks [his positions are] good doesn't mean she's not showing leadership."
But there's no denying where Godden falls on the council's current political spectrum.
In 2010, she supported a six-lane replacement of the 520 bridge, despite concerns that the design wouldn't adequately accommodate light rail. In 2011, she supported a lower car-tab fee than some of her colleagues, with more of that money going to roads and less to transit. She supported the downtown tunnel project and voted for a controversial anti-panhandling bill in 2010 that would have added a new civil penalty for "intimidating conduct" while soliciting (at a time when panhandling was already a criminal offense). Then mayor Mike McGinn later vetoed that bill.
"In my experience as mayor," says McGinn, who had a famously tenuous relationship with the city council during his time in office, "she was always a very reliable supporter of what the downtown interests wanted."
In 2013, Godden opposed a proposal from Council Member Nick Licata to allow more regulated homeless encampments, only to come around on the issue this year, once Murray was proposing it and the council makeup had shifted to a majority in favor of encampments.
In the process of supporting that piece of legislation, she was an obstacle to a stronger bill. The proposal, drafted by the mayor's office, didn't allow encampments in residential zones, so Sawant introduced an amendment to study the possibility of someday allowing them in those areas. (It's worth reiterating: This was just a study. The council would have had to vote again down the road to actually allow encampments in residential areas.)
Murray opposed that change, so he contacted council members and—despite having not engaged on this issue at previous meetings—Godden showed up and cast a vote to kill the amendment (it was later revived). Ahead of the vote, when O'Brien asked Godden if she had any comments, she replied, "Nothing in particular, just wanted to be part of the decision making."
Godden told The Stranger afterward that she opposes encampments in residential areas because they're already allowed on church land, which is often in residential neighborhoods. She said she wasn't in her office when the mayor called about the vote, but "it was relayed to me it was an important issue and one should go and check it out."
Even if Godden is ready to fall in line behind Murray on things like encampments, that shouldn't stop her from making progress on her signature issue—gender pay equity—which the mayor has said he sees as a priority. (Whether he's demonstrated that is for another time.)
Yet there her effect has been limited, too. After a 2013 report from the National Partnership for Women & Families found that Seattle had the worst pay gap among the 50 largest metro areas in the country, and a follow-up city study showed that women employed by the city were paid 9.5 percent less than men, Godden loudened her call for equity. During last year's budgeting process, she introduced an amendment to add partial funding for paid parental leave, anticipating that policy would come along this year. And, indeed, she introduced that policy with the mayor in February and ushered it through her committee last month.
But even Godden admits four weeks of paid parental leave—far less than other countries and some other cities offer—is not enough. She and other supporters framed this as the best the city could do right now. What comes next? Godden praises efforts in Olympia and Washington, DC, to protect from retaliation employees who ask about or share salary information, but she's vague on what she will or can do from the city council.
Meanwhile, Morgan Beach, a member of the Seattle Women's Commission and first-time candidate for a different city council district than Godden, is lapping the veteran council member with specifics. Beach is campaigning on expanding the new parental leave policy to 12 weeks and pitching three other ideas: a city fund to help small businesses offer parental leave, allowing child-care centers in residential areas, and creating a program similar to one in Boston, where some private companies anonymously provide data about how much their employees are paid broken down by gender and other factors.
"You'll never hear me say she's not doing anything," Beach says of Godden, "because she's bringing it up and focusing on these things and that keeps it top of mind for people. That said, I want to be more bold and go further."
At that forum in which Godden stumbled, held on an April evening at Roosevelt High School, she refused to definitively answer yes or no questions about three issues before the city right now: rent control, a newly proposed public campaign-financing measure, and whether dilapidated slumlord properties near Roosevelt High School should be turned into a park.
Godden attended a city press conference in March—with the mayor, naturally—at which the city unveiled its plan for a park on the slumlord property. Then she backed off when controversy arose about whether it should have been used for affordable housing instead (and when the mayor said he would reconsider the park proposal). Now, she says "affordable housing is certainly a good suggestion, and I also like the idea of having open space."
She also now says that she's met with organizers of that newly proposed public campaign-financing measure since the Roosevelt forum and does, indeed, support it. But her overall record on public campaign financing is mixed, supporting one effort in 2013 and blocking another last year.
Rent control is currently banned under state law, but Sawant and Licata are proposing a resolution asking the state to lift the ban. Here's how Godden characterizes her position on that: "What I am in favor of is doing those things we can do now... I will have to look and see what [the resolution] says. Last time I looked at it, it seemed to be awfully broad. I want to make sure it's a little less broad, so what we can say is we want local control."
"She tries to be all things to all people," says political consultant John Wyble, who's working on Maddux's campaign. "You always get these comments from people that she's been there too long or she's too old. I think that stuff's ridiculous. It's really: Is she the kind of council member you want? Is she consistently progressive? And I don't think she is."
So where does all of this leave Godden?
In the city's new districting system, she's pitching herself to a subset of voters who know her name well and have elected her to office in the past. District 4 covers an area from Lake Union up to Sand Point, including the University District and most of Wallingford, a swath of the city that Ben Anderstone calls "a swing district, and a very polarized one."
Anderstone, a political consultant at Progressive Strategies Northwest who isn't working on any current Seattle council races, frames the "two-step" Godden will have to do in her district in order to strike a balance between very progressive renters or homeowners in areas like Wallingford and the wealthy, conservative homeowners elsewhere in the district—for whom voting against tent encampments in residential areas, for example, is the perfect move. It's the latter who will likely decide the August primary, but the more diverse set that will vote in November.
"That's why Godden is wise to raise issues like gender pay equity," Anderstone says in an e-mail. "It appeals to progressives without alienating those more moderate voters." It may also be why she is being so fuzzy on certain issues—like rent control—that stand to split hardcore progressives from more moderate progressives.
Whether that's working—well, it's still too soon to tell. Last month, in a straw poll conducted by the 43rd District Democrats, it didn't look good. Godden came in dead last.
Maddux, who has strong ties to the party, took first, followed by Johnson, and then a third challenger, neighborhood activist Tony Provine.
Of course, Godden is still ahead in the money race with $71,000—that's $25,400 more than Johnson and five times as much as Maddux. And straw polls are imprecise. (As the PI's Joel Connelly confusingly wrote afterward, "Straw polls can be straws in the wind, and they can blow away." What the fuck, Joel?) Still, at this early stage in the campaign, it appears Godden's relevance could be waning and that her vagueness on so many issues—whether strategic or dispositional—isn't serving her well.
Instead, it's raising new questions: What has Godden actually accomplished in her three terms on the council? And if voters hand her another term, what is she pledging to do with it? Godden herself doesn't seem to know.