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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 2)

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!'"

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