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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)

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.

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.

Goodman is a Democrat, but he has no taste for big government programs or too much regulation, especially when it impinges on individual freedoms. Antismoking laws are a troubling case in point. "I don't like regulation, I really don't," the mayor says. "The less government the better as far as I'm concerned. And most regulation happens as a result of knee-jerk reaction. If you have a child who is subject to some molestation by an ice cream vendor, suddenly some people want to put all sorts of laws together to monitor ice cream vendors. I was vocally opposed to legislation which prohibited smoking in certain areas of the clubs and eating establishments and bars, but it passed anyway. I was right in my prognosis about what it would do. These places have really suffered financially as a result of their customers not being able to enjoy what they like to do. It's a shame."

Goodman's father gave him his first puff on a cigar, when he was still a youngster back in Philadelphia. "I never wanted to get near it again!" Goodman says with a laugh. "When I was in college, every once in a while we had beer and a nickel cigar to go with it. When I was in law school, the price of the cigar went up and I enjoyed it with a little bit of Cognac after dinner—back when America was the kind of place where you had your freedoms and you could smoke wherever you wanted to. If people didn't like it, they didn't have to go there. While I was practicing law, it was typical for lawyers to get together in the evening, after having a nice dinner, and we'd smoke a cigar."

His taste in cigars is very specific: "Anything illegal," Goodman reiterates, laughing again. "My favorite, of course, is Cohibas. I love the real thing; I don't like the Miami Cohiba or the Mexican Riviera Cohiba. I'm talking about the real McCoy. Every once in a while somebody drops a little packet off in my office. I don't ask who left it there, and I don't want to know." The owners of several cigar shops around Las Vegas also take good care of him, the mayor says. "And I've become friends with Luis Tiant, remember him? The great pitcher from Boston? He's manufacturing cigars now and he calls them El Tiantes. He brought them by my office. They're very robust."

The mayor keeps a humidor in his office and his daughter-in-law gave him one that he has at home. "That one has a glass top so you can actually see the cigars in there," Goodman says. "I water them as I should, to keep them very moist. I like my cigars moist. I don't like them hard. And I've got all of the paraphernalia to prepare them for a good smoke." Oftentimes, though, he has no place to smoke them. Most public places are out, and when he wants to smoke at home, his wife banishes him to the pool. "You have to meet Carolyn," Goodman tells me, with great affection in his voice. "She's smarter than I'll ever be." Goodman says that three people played key roles in shaping his life and values. His father, A. Allan Goodman, was a respected lawyer in Philadelphia and a man impossible to corrupt: "At one stage, he was up for a judgeship. They said he could have it—if he paid $25,000. He wouldn't pay." The second major influence was U.S. Senator Arlen Specter, back when he was an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia. Specter hired young Goodman as his clerk and taught him the value of doing exhaustive research and having a work ethic second to none. But Goodman says that no one has had a more profound impact on his life and values than his wife, Carolyn.

They met in college when the former Carolyn Goldmark was at Bryn Mawr, outside Philadelphia. They married in 1962, moved to Las Vegas in 1964 and now have four children and six grandchildren. When Oscar began doing legal work for members of the mob, he knew that to protect his integrity he had to walk a very strict line. It was Carolyn who showed him the way: "She said, 'Be their lawyer but never be their friend. You'll lose both their respect and your strength as their advocate.' She was absolutely right."

Over the next 30 years, Goodman won a lot of cases, earned a lot of money and kept a lot of clients out of prison. By 1998, though, he was burned out. And he wasn't very proud of the man he had become. "I was beginning not to like myself," Goodman confesses. "When I went down to my office, all I was doing was trying to see how much I could charge a client."

He needed to make a radical change, but he didn't know which way to turn. Carolyn was his rock. "He was struggling with what he ought to do," she tells me. "It was sort of like this bag of cement on my back. While Oscar's not a depressive type, he was getting more and more depressed."

Carolyn was also an accomplished creator, with her own noble vision. When the couple first moved west, they wanted their kids to have a first-rate education. But Carolyn was not impressed by the local schools. "OK," she said, "I'll create my own school!" Today, 25 years later, she is still the president and guiding spirit of The Meadows School, a preschool through 12th grade private school in a quiet corner of Las Vegas. The Meadows is a shining example of what a top-quality school should be: it has a beautiful campus and devoted teachers, and it emphasizes not just academic excellence but also art, music, creativity, foreign languages, and tolerance and community service. Carolyn says 72 cents of every dollar is spent right where it belongs: in the classroom. In creating and running The Meadows, she has found happiness and deep fulfillment—an inspiring example for anyone to follow. Including Oscar.

And so it was late in 1998, while on a family cruise, that Goodman called his wife and children together and happily announced his plan: "I think I'm going to run for mayor!" His children were shocked—and they vehemently opposed the idea. Goodman was taken aback: "When I asked them why, they said, 'Dad, there's no way you can win. You have more baggage than the skycaps at the airport!'"

This was, Goodman says, "a defining moment" in his life. Yes, running for mayor was risky, a total leap into the unknown. But he desperately needed to make a change. He needed renewal. And maybe a measure of redemption too. He couldn't let fear—or even his family—stand in his way. "I said to them, 'You don't know your dad! The people know me, you don't know me! They know that I've spent every waking moment of my adult life defending constitutional rights and making sure the government didn't take advantage of people. And I'm going to win this thing, you just wait and see!'"

The rest, as they say, is history.

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