Oscar B. Goodman, the current mayor of Las Vegas, has been caught in a lie by the woman who, pending the results of today’s nonpartisan primary election, is the frontrunner to replace him.
As they sat side by side in the lounge of a Claim Jumper restaurant greeting constituents last Wednesday, the incumbent mayor, a stocky, bespectacled, and constantly smiling figure, was asked to clarify just how much gin he consumes every day. A few months earlier, he had said he drinks “a bottle a day.” At the time, the journalist who inquired hadn’t thought to ask whether that was a standard bar bottle or, perhaps, one of those little airplane bottles, and so the question is being revisited. “A bottle a day, just like I said,” Mayor Goodman replied with a ruddy Cheshire grin.
The candidate quickly objected.
“In your dreams,” cackled Carolyn Goodman, with a fluffy bowl of blond hair and a persistent New York drawl, the 72-year-old front runner in the race to replace her 71-year-old husband now that his maximum three terms are almost up. “He never has a drink before he gets home, which is usually 5:30 or 6. And if he has two drinks, that’s a big deal.”
In any other city, only the very rare politician would wish to exaggerate his alcohol consumption. But it’s hard to imagine anyplace other than Las Vegas quite so hospitable to a politician who proudly refers to himself as a degenerate gambler, a publicity hound whose appearances usually feature scantily clad showgirls in sky-high feather headdresses. He has made outlandish remark after outlandish remark—graffiti artists ought to be dethumbed, homeless people should be bused out of town, a New York Times columnist should be beaten with a baseball bat—and earned re-election twice with more than 80 percent of the vote. His wife insists that almost all of his controversial utterances had the ulterior motive of bringing attention to serious problems, although sometimes he’s gone too far even for her. In 2005, he was asked by a student in a fourth-grade class what he’d take with him if he were stranded on a desert island. His answer: a bottle of gin.
“I thought he’d say he’d take me or the Bible, for God’s sake,” Carolyn Goodman said. “There was no purpose in that. But he’s sort of like a dog that chases his tail. He sort of gets the feeling, ‘Ooh, that was cute, that got a good reaction, let me try that one.’ He’s not drunk or anything.”
In fact, the former defense attorney for several infamous mobsters so perfectly personifies the city he has helmed since 1999 that his wife is now atop the polls for Tuesday’s primary in large part because voters are looking for any way they can to prolong the Goodman fix. “Her polling numbers are directly related to the fact that Goodman is the most popular politician in Las Vegas history,” said John L. Smith, a Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist who wrote the Oscar Goodman biography Of Rats And Men. “Carolyn is being pulled along with the current.”
Even the mayor’s detractors find it hard to deny that beneath the antics is a record of achievement for the city’s decayed downtown core, including a $475 million performing arts center due to open next year, a new $150 million city hall rising, a recently opened Cleveland Clinic outpost focusing on brain disease designed by Frank Gehry, and a $40 million Mob Museum expected to open by year’s end. Hip new bars, restaurants, and art galleries are populating a formerly blighted neighborhood, the online shoe retailer Zappos expects to relocate its headquarters to Vegas by 2012, bringing more than 1,000 jobs downtown, and Goodman’s pet cause of building an arena capable of housing the city’s first major professional sports team now appears likely to happen.
All of which helps to explain both why he’s ducked political blame for presiding over the nation’s worst unemployment and home foreclosure rates and why he’s so hell bent on his wife replacing him. “She believes in the next several years she’ll be able to get done what I started,” said Goodman at the Claim Jumper event, one of his monthly Martinis With the Mayor gatherings. “God bless her for it.”
And to think he was almost a rabbi.
Goodman grew up in a Conservative Jewish household in a rough west Philadelphia neighborhood, where his nose was repeatedly broken by anti-Semitic street toughs as he walked to school in the 1950s. Rather than turn him into an introvert, the abuse somehow emboldened him to rely on his irrepressible personality as a line of defense from attack. At Haverford College in the early 1960s, he fell hard and fast for the former Carolyn Goldmark—a Swarthmore student from the Upper East Side of Manhattan—and quickly asked her father, a wealthy Manhattan doctor, for her hand. Carl Goldmark wasn’t impressed by his future son-in-law, viewing the young man as loud, uncultured, and lower-class, but Carolyn was smitten.
“I knew that Oscar was not only the bravado and phoniness and flamboyant craziness,” she said. “He was a solid human being, and I knew that because of his parents and strong belief in the Jewish faith.”
Carolyn Goodman came from an assimilated family that only attended shul for weddings and funerals, but she did embrace Judaism on her own as a teen after feeling ostracized at a summer camp for being one of the only Jewish kids there. She later learned her paternal great-uncle had been a cantor at Temple Emanu-El in New York. “At one point in time, I was even thinking to myself that I might become a rabbi, but when I met my wife, she said that was the end of that thought,” Oscar Goodman said. “My wife did not want to be married to a rabbi. She made that very clear.”
Goodman instead followed in his father’s footsteps and got a law degree. He was working for future Sen. Arlen Specter in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office in early 1964 when he was assigned to assist some Las Vegas cops who were in town investigating a murder. They enticed him with tall tales of a nascent desert gambling town ripe with big opportunities for big personalities. If he left the D.A.’s office, he could join a somnolent white-shoe firm in Philadelphia or strike out on his own in a place of less than 100,000 people that was desperate for young energy and talent.
“Oscar woke me up and said, ‘How would you like to go to the land of milk and honey?’ and I thought he’d lost his mind he wanted me to go to Israel,” his wife recalled. “That seemed far-fetched.”
They took a B’nai Brith junket plane to Vegas to scope it out in May 1964 and arrived for good on a 120-degree day three months later. Oscar toiled as a prosecutor briefly, then formed a law firm with, among others, future Sen. Richard Bryan. Goodman was the group’s criminal defense attorney, and by the end of the decade his clients were some of the era’s most notorious figures of organized crime. Among his most notorious were Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal and Tony “The Ant” Spilotro, whose exploits were the basis for the Nick Pileggi book Casino that became the film with Robert De Niro and Sharon Stone. (Goodman had a cameo in the movie.)
From there, the legend grew.
On what passes for a chilly winter’s day in these desert climes, heads twirled and smiles spread across faces as the boisterous mayor barreled down the least-glamorous part of Las Vegas Boulevard. Early on in his mayoralty, he dubbed himself the “Happiest Mayor in America,” and on days like that one it’s believable. He paraded down the sidewalk pointing at the empty high-rise he hopes will buzz once the Zappos employees relocate and asked the shopkeeper of a new hookah lounge how his liquor license application was coming along. He grumbled about the developer who had improbably built a massive, vacant shopping complex without air-conditioning and suggested, in a silly moment, he’d like to build and operate a Ferris Wheel on an empty parcel after he leaves office. Even his introduction by Rabbi Shea Harlig of Chabad of Southern Nevada is refracted through the persona that Goodman has constructed for himself.
“I can tell you one thing,” the rabbi quips to the crowd. “This is the only public event he goes to without his showgirls.”
The Jewish community here embraces Goodman and all his antics at least as much as anyone else. He belongs to Temple Beth Shalom, the Conservative synagogue that was the town’s only shul when the Goodmans arrived, but on the morning of his first election in 1999 he worshipped with Harlig.
“The mayor is 100 percent Jewish. He’s very proud of it,” the rabbi said. “As a matter of fact, the day of his election, he started his day coming to Shabbat services, putting on his tallis. People magazine had a picture of him with his tallis on. He’s very proud of his Judaism. Not always the most observant, but, you know.”
It might also be noted that Goodman’s daughter’s bat mitzvah in the 1980s was monitored by the FBI because several attendees were listed in the Nevada Black Book, meaning they’d been banned from being involved in the casino business because of organized-crime ties.
When Goodman ran for mayor for the first time, he won easily. The showgirls made one of their first of countless appearances by his side at a National Conference of Mayors meeting, and the guy who proudly has a runner lay sports bets for him every night became a media sensation. Bombay Sapphire, the gin maker, gave him a sponsorship deal, his fee going to charities including the prestigious nonprofit college prep school his wife founded, The Meadows.
In addition to getting him elected, Goodman’s flamboyant personality also disguises the fact that the mayor of Las Vegas actually has very little control over the part of the destination that most tourists visit, the Strip. The famous casinos that most people associate with Vegas are outside the city’s boundaries and governed by the Clark County Commission, but out-of-town journalists nonetheless seek comment from the mayor of Las Vegas—and he almost always obliges.
“Everybody thinks I’m the mayor of everything, and I don’t do anything to dissuade them, OK?” he said. “Well, unless somebody’s complaining about the sexually explicit pamphlets being passed out on the Strip. Then I say I have no jurisdiction over that.”
Prior to the late 1990s, Goodman refused to even acknowledge there was such a thing as the Mafia and routinely denounced both law enforcement and prosecutor witnesses as corrupt and dishonest. Yet Goodman is now working arm-in-arm with former law enforcement nemeses in one of his most prized accomplishments, the expected opening by year’s end of the $40 million Mob Museum. The attraction, which will occupy an old federal post office that once hosted famous U.S. Senate hearings in 1950 into organized crime overseen by Sen. Estes Kefauver, was initially dismissed in a hail of criticism when Goodman first suggested it. But then the mayor forged a friendship with FBI Special Agent-in-Charge Ellen Knowlton after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and when she retired he persuaded her to help him bring credibility to the idea of a mob museum.
“I do think of Oscar Goodman as an honorable man, and I believe in his intentions in making this a balanced, accurate portrait of organized crime in this country,” said Knowlton, chair of the project’s board, who has used her FBI leverage to obtain important Mob-related artifacts. “I was not interested in any project that would glorify any criminal activity.”
Goodman toyed with running for higher office but declined. Smith believes he could have been elected governor, but other pundits think his Vegas-fitting antics would repel voters in other, more conservative parts of the state. He said he’s now working with Hollywood producers on a potential TV series about a fictional, corrupt 1980s-era Vegas mayor, and he’s in talks with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority about a role as a traveling tourism booster. A law firm has offered him $1 million to be their rainmaker, which he’s considering: “I may just take the million, put it in my pocket and hang out a couple hours a day. Sure.”
For now, he’s trying to get through the election season without any big gaffes that could reflect badly on his wife. At the Chabad event, he was greeted by 10-year-old twin girls who wanted their photo taken with him. On the dais, he jested that he thought he was seeing double and “I said to myself, ‘Have I started drinking already?’ ”
Later, he admitted a randier quip involving those kids and their future showgirl potential sprang to mind, but he restrained himself.
“No, I wasn’t about to do that,” he said. “It wasn’t the right crowd.”
Steve Friess is a Las Vegas-based writer who blogs at VegasHappensHere.com and contributes regularly to the Daily Beast and AOL News.
Steve Friess is a former senior writer for Politico who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Steve Friess is a former senior writer for Politico who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.