Jean Jumps In

Gossip columnist Godden has name recognition. But as a candidate, she needs an agenda.

Jean Godden is already a beloved Seattle icon. Now the 71-year-old Seattle Times gossip columnist wants respect. Last week, she abruptly resigned from the Times and filed to run for Seattle City Council, joining five other challengers who hope to oust incumbent Judy Nicastro. Despite her late entry, many political observers think Godden's name familiarity and favorable image mean she is likely to survive the Sept. 16 primary election. Some argue that Godden is now the front-runner and that Nicastro herself might not advance to the general election. Other challengers for the nonpartisan Position 1 council seat include environmentalist Kollin Min, Realtor Darryl Smith, historic preservationist Art Skolnik, broker Robert Rosencrantz, and socialist David Ferguson.

Godden wastes no time in disputing the notion that she has spent the past 20 yearseight of them at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and 12 at the Timesmerely writing about wacky license plates and celebrity sightings. "I've always been a serious person," she says. "I've taken some fairly gutsy stands." She cites her opposition to the reopening of Pine Street to cars and her questions about plans for replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct. "Over the years, I've broken quite a bit of hard news," she asserts. "The sum total of it seems to be pretty hard-hitting."

Godden acknowledges being a "wise-ass" but sees her journalistic mission as slipping "some vitamins into [the readers'] Frosted Flakes." Godden also talks at length about her experience as a reporter and editor before becoming a gossip columnist. Before college, she worked for a community newspaper. Upon graduating from the University of Washington, she spent eight years working for the P-I's editorial page. She also spent two years as a business editor at the P-I before becoming a columnist. In addition, Godden stresses her bona fides as an activist before she became a journalist. She says she volunteered for City Council candidates and vigorously fought a variety of road-expansion projects that she believes would have ruined the city, including the never-realized R.H. Thomson Expressway, the widening of Aurora Avenue, and a 12-lane version of the Interstate 90 floating bridge across Lake Washington. It hasn't been easy suppressing that side of her. "There are big frustrations to being a journalist," she says.

IN A FINAL COLUMN written for but not published in the Times, Godden said, "Over time, I've longed to do more than scribbling in a notebook and transcribing notes. All around me, I see mistakes being made, problems going unsolved. Seattle has been a livable city, perhaps the best of the best. And yet will it be the best tomorrow?

"I've decided that I have been outside, watching others for too long. I've decided to run for City Council."

Godden reached her decision after seeing the results of polling done by her friend and political consultant, Cathy Allen, who is running Godden's campaign. Allen says she has been trying to persuade Godden to run for at least four years. Allen thinks journalists make good candidates and elected officials. "There is an instinctive thing about reporters from the get-go" in political life, Allen says. She successfully encouraged former TV newsperson and now City Council member Jim Compton to run. (Allen also has encouraged me to run for elected office, even using my name, without my knowledge, in polling. She reports that I polled pretty well, but not nearly as well as Godden or Compton, and some respondents seemed to confuse me with former Seattle City Council member George Benson.) While Allen will not release Godden's numbers, she says a high percentage of Seattle residents recognize the candidate's name and feel favorably toward her.

YOU SIMPLY CANNOT buy the kind of publicity that 20 years of a column in a daily newspaper provides. That's what makes Godden such a formidable candidate, say political insiders from all sides of Seattle's political spectrum. It is particularly true among the people who actually bother to vote in so-called off-year elections, those contests for City Council when a mayor's race is not on the ballot. In November 1999, only around 50 percent of Seattle's registered voters showed up. According to Labels and Lists, a Bellevue-based political research firm, 66 percent of the voters were over 45. Middle-aged and older people are much more likely to be newspaper readers than younger folks.

Linda Mitchell, campaign director for Nicastro, downplays the significance of Godden's entry into the race. "How much does she follow the issues?" asks Mitchell pointedly. She adds, "She's getting in late."

Moxie Media's John Wyble, who is working for Min, another of Nicastro's opponents, believes, however, that Godden's entry changes the dynamics of the race. He thinks that Godden will sew up older voters, Republicans, and undecided independents. Wyble feels Godden is so strong that his strategy is not to focus on her voters, but to go after the younger, more Democratic voters he thinks are more likely to support Nicastro. Min's campaign, Wyble says, is going "to keep trying to stick it to Nicastro and knock her out in the primary." If his candidate can survive the seven-person primary, the dynamics of the race will change again when it's one-on-one against Godden. "She is a charming, urbane, witty person," Wyble admits. He adds, however, "You can really go after her as a gossip columnist. She doesn't have gravitas. She never wrote more than three lines on anybody."

GODDEN IS PRICKLY about her image. In 1999, she hired an attorney when Seattle Weekly published a one-line joke about her in an article about the Times. Yet she claims that she can bring "maturity" to the City Council, which she sees as "fractious." She wants to focus on transportation and quality of life but is vague on details. The only newsworthy subject she gets more specific about is plans for the Northgate neighborhood. Mayor Greg Nickels has proposed loosening the restrictions for Simon Properties, owner of the Northgate Mall, unleashing a firestorm of neighborhood opposition. Godden says, "The mayor is right, we have to get moving." She adds, "Northgate is getting a bit run-down and slummy. The neighborhood plans were so restrictive that the developers felt strangled." At the same time, she says, she hopes the mayor "involves the neighbors" in whatever changes are made.

It's this kind of approach that Godden thinks will allow her to "make a difference" on the Seattle City Council.

Philip Dawdy contributed to this report.

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