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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

(continued from page 1)

Every other Tuesday, Goodman hosts a call-in TV show where he fields questions and complaints—and he forbids his staff from prescreening calls or cutting anyone short. On occasion, a local radio station hosts "Martinis With the Mayor," further burnishing Goodman's image as the fun-loving official face of Las Vegas but also keeping him personally close to his constituents—and directly accountable to them.

"You know what people want?" Goodman asks. "They want to be listened to. They want to feel that their mayor really cares about their problems. They also want to be told the truth. If I tell people the truth, they may not like it and they may say, 'Oh, that's the truth according to Oscar.' But they will accept it—if they believe I am telling them what I believe to be the honest-to-goodness truth. If that's what makes me successful, I don't know. But people always say, 'He tells it the way it is.'"

In his nine years in office, Goodman has evolved a simple formula for effective leadership: Be authentic. Be accessible. Tell the truth. Make it fun. Work tirelessly for what you want to achieve. And NEVER listen to the so-called "experts." The mayor employs no political advisers and no pollsters. He doesn't believe in them. "I do my polling at Costco," the mayor explains. "If people come up to me and say, 'Mr. Mayor, you're doing a great job!' then I know I'm OK."

The formula works. "We love our mayor," says Julie Murray, the chief executive director of Three Square, a local food bank. "He's a phenomenal leader and a real inspiration to nonprofits like ours." Kendall Tenney, a local TV anchor, agrees. "He's a rock star," Tenney says. "His approval rating is through the roof. The general voting public sees him as someone who is a champion of Las Vegas and constantly out there promoting our city. His detractors are few in number but often vocal. They feel he is all hat and no cattle."

Goodman has had his frustrations. He has promised to bring Las Vegas a professional baseball, football or basketball team, but so far he has come up short; league chiefs fear any association with the gambling capital of America. So with only three years left in office—the job is limited to three terms—Goodman is now a man with a single defining mission. "I never read a book on how to be mayor," Goodman says. "When I came up to City Hall, though, I did know one thing: the inner city of Las Vegas had become a disaster. It was lethargic, it was in a state of malaise. I didn't know what blight was, but I learned the first signs of blight were there when you had boarded-up storefronts. I said to myself, 'I can't let this die on my watch.'" How do you transform a decayed downtown? How do you convince investors, developers and nonprofit groups to pour time and money into what, on its face, looks like a losing proposition? When he first took office, Goodman had no clue. And when his initial efforts were met with resistance and failure, Goodman came to a stunning realization: before he could change his city, he first had to change himself.

"I've always been a loner," Goodman says. "As a lawyer, I was a loner. I did my own research. I interviewed my own witnesses. I sat in court by myself against massive teams of prosecutors, FBI agents and drug enforcement agents." Now, though, he had to reach out to other people, forge coalitions and build broad-based support for his vision. The loner had to transform himself into a leader and team player: "I learned I have to listen to the private sector because without their buy-in I can't get anything done." He also had to learn patience. Rome wasn't built in a day; neither would his new downtown: "In the law, you either win big or lose big. There's no in-between. I had to learn to take success one small step at a time."

What slowly came together was an ambitious urban redevelopment project called Union Park. Larry Brown, a member of the City Council, saw Goodman grow as the project took shape. "The mayor has a passion for the city of Las Vegas," Brown says. "That has translated into a new energy downtown. For years, big developers and even some of our local developers would bypass the downtown and go to the beautiful outlying communities to build their projects. Once Mayor Goodman came in, they started to listen and they heard a different song—because he was so committed, so passionate and so consistent about what he wanted to achieve."

The pillars of a new downtown are now reaching to the sky, real change that the people of Las Vegas can see and touch. On 61 acres of what had been fallow brownfield, crews are building the Lou Ruvo Brain Institute, a center for Alzheimer's research designed by Frank Gehry. On an adjacent parcel stand the first three sections of the World Market Center, a 12-million-square-foot furniture design center. An international jewelry mart is in the works, and chef Charlie Palmer is building a luxury resort.

There is also a puckish, pure Goodman touch: the planned museum about the mob. The current economic downturn, which has hit Las Vegas hard, has slowed some parts of the project. In 2009, though, construction will start on the planned centerpiece of the new downtown: a $360 million performing arts center designed to attract the finest musicians and artists in the world. Union Park is Goodman's passion and dream, what he hopes will be his shining legacy for Las Vegas. If he has his way, Goodman tells me, Union Park will give birth to a new downtown, erasing the blight and creating a vibrant intellectual and artistic gathering place akin in spirit to the agora of ancient Athens, the home of Socrates and Plato.

Wait a minute. Socrates? Plato? This noble, uplifting vision comes from a man who a decade before had no pronounced civic calling; he was a lawyer for the mob. What happened? What triggered the amazing transformation of Oscar Goodman? Soon the mayor tells me the story. And, with his usual wit, he also tells me of his lifelong love for fine cigars. "What kind of cigars do you like to smoke, Mr. Mayor?" "Nothing legal," was his instant reply.

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