Las Vegas Mayor Goodman reluctantly says goodbye

AP News
Posted: May 29, 2011 10:15 PM
Las Vegas Mayor Goodman reluctantly says goodbye

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman surveyed the piles of memorabilia spilling from his City Hall office: the bowling ball disguised as an olive, the diamond-studded bottle of gin, the Red Bull mini-refrigerator. It all must go, but he can't bring himself to start packing.

The self-proclaimed happiest mayor in the universe is unhappily being pushed out of office.

After three terms and countless Bombay Sapphire martinis, Goodman must relinquish City Hall in six weeks. Early voting to replace the term-limited mayor started May 21 and the general election will be held June 7. Facing off on the ballot to succeed him are his wife of five decades and a county commissioner unlucky enough to have a last name other than Goodman.

No matter the election outcome, the changing of the guard will be the end of an era for Las Vegas and Goodman, who quickly became one of the most flamboyant elected officials in the land. With a sequin-drenched showgirl on each arm and a bottomless cocktail in one fist, he turned an inconsequential title into one of the most notable posts in Nevada. In the process, he began to transform downtown Las Vegas from a wasteland of decayed buildings and drunken roughnecks into an urban playground of hipster bars and luxury shops.

It wasn't all olive martinis and sexy women. His administration also oversaw Las Vegas' fall from tourism glory in the economic collapse of 2008. Nevada tops the nation in foreclosures, unemployment and bankruptcies, and Las Vegas, the largest city in the state, has suffered greatly.

Through it all, Goodman enjoyed the popularity of the anointed leader he professed to be. He was easily re-elected twice.

"Everything in my life," the 71-year-old said, "has turned out just perfectly."

Goodman gave Las Vegas a leader as colorful and controversial as its own illicit roots. He was a former mob lawyer monitored by the FBI when he was sworn in, and as mayor he continued to wear the dark, pinstripe suits associated with the alleged killers he once defended. Goodman boasted that he drank a bottle of gin a day and insisted on being photographed with a martini glass as often as possible. He threatened to cut off the thumbs of graffiti vandals and touted the economic benefits of legalized prostitution.

At the opening of a photo gallery last month featuring highlights from his administration, Goodman stopped in front of a photograph that showed him red faced at a party celebrating a new Las Vegas airline.

"I have no idea how inebriated I was there," he told reporters. "I hope I didn't embarrass myself or the city."

His outlandish comments and habits would have made him unelectable anywhere else, but in Las Vegas he reigned.

Constituents ask for his autograph and tourists snap his picture when he strolls bustling Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas. At a Miss America event on the Las Vegas Strip earlier this year, Goodman was running late and a valet supervisor was asked if he could spot the mayor in the crowd to announce his arrival. "Everyone," came the icy reply, "knows Oscar Goodman."

Goodman describes his showmanship as an act of rebellion after years of protecting the secrets of reputed mobsters.

"I had to live a very cloistered life," he said of his years as a mob defender. "When I became the mayor, it was as if I was freed."

That notoriety, combined with the verbal wrangling skills that once kept his former clients out of the slammer, have been central to Goodman's successes. Las Vegas' city manager-government technically affords the mayor about as much authority as a restaurant hostess. But presiding over meetings wasn't enough for Goodman, who brokered backroom deals and bullied city council members into backing his votes.

"He sees himself as a benevolent dictator and a king," City Manager Betsy Fretwell jested during the annual state of the city address.

With Goodman's cheerleading, Las Vegas opened in 2004 the sprawling World Market Center, a retail showcase then heralded as a formidable rival to North Carolina's venerable furniture industry. Goodman also took credit for a newly opened medical research facility housed in a Frank Gehry-designed structure built on what was once a contaminated brownfield. Most recently, he lured online retailer Zappos to Las Vegas from suburban Henderson.

"He has been the driving force behind the renaissance of downtown," said Michael Cornthwaite, who opened the Downtown Cocktail Room after Goodman called for relaxed liquor license requirements. "Probably without Mayor Goodman a lot of this wouldn't have happened."

Goodman never approached the job with the censored language and safe gestures employed by other politicians. He instead invited voters to regular "Martinis with the Mayor" events.

"I feel like he is a friend of mine and there are literally thousands of people who feel the same way," said Jeff Victor, who runs the Fremont Street Experience downtown.

Not every project thrived. World Market Center owners defaulted on a $345 million mortgage and its operations were recently taken over by a receiver. His years-long efforts to bring a professional sports team to Las Vegas are no closer to being realized.

"I don't feel sorry for myself," Goodman said. "This is the only place where there are cranes. We've created these projects while the rest of the community has gone into a slumber."

Goodman has devoted his final months in office to ensuring his wife's election. Carolyn Goodman has touted her own resume as much as her husband's on the campaign trail. He said he hopes to help promote Las Vegas tourism once he leaves office and help run a mob museum.

Las Vegas' first lady dominated in the April mayoral primary and is expected to win June 7.

Her rival is Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, a longtime politician counting on a small, but active group of Hispanic and gay voters to carry her to victory.

But at City Hall, it's still all about Oscar Goodman. Pictures of the mayor posing with presidents, dignitaries and celebrities _ his favorite is Baywatch siren Pamela Anderson _ line the hallway approaching his office.

His secretary recently gifted him a pack of color-coded moving labels and urged him to separate the collections of martini glasses, Oscar Goodman bobbleheads and premium alcohol bottles into three piles: take, trash, auction.

Goodman, however, was putting off the inevitable on a recent afternoon. He sat behind his desk on a Bavarian throne presented to him years ago. He pondered the close of his reign.

"It's going to be very tough," he said.