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The Happiest Mayor in America

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman is flamboyant, outspoken and an unabashed lover of fine cigars.
Paul Chutkow
From the Print Edition:
Daniel Craig, November/December 2008

Oscar Goodman has one of the most unusual pedigrees in American politics. For 30 years he was the lawyer of choice for some of the most notorious mobsters in Las Vegas and beyond. His list of clients was almost a who's who of organized crime: Meyer Lansky, Nicky Scarfo, Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal and Anthony "Tony The Ant" Spilotro. As their lawyer, Goodman earned himself a reputation as a smart, tough, relentless combatant, a master of the law who would seize upon any loophole, any flaw in the search warrants or indictments, any missteps by the cops or prosecutors to keep his clients out of jail.

Then in 1998, Goodman made a stunning turn: he decided to run for mayor of Las Vegas. He was about to turn 60, he didn't have a drop of political experience and, given his baggage, no one—not even his family—thought he could win. But win he did, big, and right away he became a sensation. To the staid affairs of city government, he brought irreverence and panache. The mayor doesn't wear a signature carnation in his lapel; he keeps a signature Martini in his hand and a well-stocked humidor in his office. His unbridled tongue is legendary. Goodman regularly upbraids the homeless and he's suggested that graffiti artists who deface public property ought to have their thumbs removed. The local press lambastes him, but the voters of Las Vegas brush that aside. In 2003 and again in 2007, they reelected their mayor with slam-dunk majorities of 86 and 84 percent of the vote.

So what's his secret? How did a notorious mob lawyer transform himself into a revered community leader and a tireless rabble-rouser for the public good? Down at his core, who is Oscar B. Goodman and what makes him tick?

If you fly into Las Vegas and taxi straight to the action, you miss a central fact about this sprawling desert city of 600,000 people: it's not one city but two. There is, of course, the Las Vegas of world renown, the Strip, with its glittering casinos, palatial hotels, fine restaurants, fabulous shows and luxury boutiques. City Hall is located in the other Las Vegas, in what the locals refer to as "downtown." By taxi, it's a short ride away, but in terms of wealth, culture, investment and energy, it's the other side of the moon. Change is visible on the skyline, but much of downtown remains a pockmarked landscape of dusty shop fronts, decayed housing projects and a few decrepit casinos. Two cities, boom and blight, wrapped together as one.

City Hall is drab on the outside, but Goodman's personal office is anything but. Leading into it, there is a hallway lined with blown-up cartoons lampooning the mayor, many of them in the most unflattering terms. Goodman displays them proudly, as if to say, "Damn those gnats in the press; who needs them anyway!" The office itself is filled with oddball mementos and kitsch.

There's a menorah in one corner and two crowns that his royal highness is never too bashful to don. On the walls are several salutes to his fabled love of Martinis—preferably made with Bombay Sapphire gin, a clutch of garlic-stuffed olives, and don't even bother with the vermouth. His desk is covered with souvenirs: the mayor's smiling face on a campaign stick, official Oscar Goodman poker chips and a flashy scroll with one of his signature lines: "The happiest mayor in the universe."

Behind the desk stands a stately, high-backed wooden throne, and it is from here that His Honor conducts city business—and greets me this morning in typical Goodman style: "I'm pissed off!" he barks in lieu of hello. "We just finished a great meeting about our mob museum. You should have been there! I've taken that entire controversy and turned it right on its head!"

Ka-bang! This is pure Goodman: passionate, impatient, combative. Yes, the reports are true: whatever this man wants to say, he says straight out, all consequences be damned. With his carnival office and unbridled tongue, at first you might be tempted to write the man off as a gifted showman with a winning pitch: all flash, no substance. But that notion quickly disappears. At 69, Goodman is a tall, bulky man with a high forehead, a closely cropped beard and eyes that lock straight into yours. Whatever he lacks in polish and good manners he more than makes up for in authenticity and raw charisma.

And then there's his intelligence. It's downright ferocious. At Haverford College, he studied Latin and Greek, perfect disciplines for his later mastery of constitutional law. He is also a talented painter and cartoonist. When these facets of the man come into view, you don't have to be a genius to see the truth: behind his mantle of guff and glitz, Goodman is one brilliant, serious, very dedicated man.

Soon, too, you can see that his brash talk and damn-the-torpedoes style are part of a deliberate campaign to turn traditional politics upside down. When he first took office, Goodman may have been a neophyte, but he understood that many people distrust government and feel estranged from their leaders. He also knew that many people in Las Vegas and beyond don't believe a single word that comes out of a politician's mouth. So Goodman threw open the doors of City Hall and urged people to come see him directly. He instituted regular "Coffees With the Mayor" where anyone can meet the mayor face-to-face.


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