Tuesday, July 5, 2011 | 2:01 a.m.
Since taking office 12 years ago, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman has marketed himself as the “happiest mayor in the universe.” He saunters around town with a showgirl on each arm and a martini in hand, talking up his love of gambling and gin. He cracks jokes and obliges doting fans. There are legions of them.
Goodman is Southern Nevada’s most popular politician, an adored figurehead who would continue running City Hall if term limits weren’t forcing him out Wednesday.
But ask Goodman the wrong question, double-cross or even criticize him, and a different mayor emerges. His face reddens. His voice deepens to a growl. If you’re lucky, he’ll flash a dead-to-me glance and storm off. More likely, he’ll bark orders, insults or threats at the offender.
It turns out, the world’s happiest mayor isn’t so happy when he’s not getting his way. Maybe that’s why he usually does get his way.
“Oscar Goodman has loyalty to Oscar Goodman. Everyone else is pretty much expendable,” said an associate who asked not to be identified.
Even as Goodman leaves office, insiders are loath to speak publicly about his flaws for fear of angering him.
The strategy works well for Goodman. It has won him successes, both personal and professional. And it has ensured his continuing influence at City Hall.
Depending on who describes it, Goodman is smart enough or manipulative enough to turn his off-the-cuff, call-it-like-I-see-it persona into a beloved shtick. Few in Las Vegas seem to bat an eye when their mayor threatens to have someone whacked. In fact, it’s one of his go-to lines when he’s annoyed.
At Carolyn Goodman’s election night party, Oscar yelled at her “If you don’t be quiet, I’ll have you whacked!” when she failed to stop talking for an announcement he wanted to make. She fell silent and all eyes settled on her husband, not because of his threat but because they wanted to hear him talk.
In any other city, Goodman’s antics would cause others to cringe. Think about it: How many mayors can get away with photographing a Playboy bunny and bragging about it? Or telling fourth-graders that he’d bring a bottle of gin to a desert island?
Bob Herbert, a New York Times columnist, wrote that there is “probably no city in America where women are treated worse than in Las Vegas” and “the tone of systematic, institutionalized degradation is set by the mayor, Oscar Goodman.”
Yet he is lauded. The town wants to see Goodman down his gin or be escorted by his showgirls.
At worst, most Las Vegans dismiss Goodman’s behavior with an “Oscar will be Oscar” shrug.
He was a counterintuitive pick to become the Las Vegas mayor. He was the defense lawyer of choice for mobsters and others, earning acquittals for an oral surgeon accused of molesting anesthetized patients, a man charged with murdering a federal judge and famed mob boss Meyer Lansky, to name a few. Goodman boasts that he kept Anthony “Tony the Ant” Spilotro out of prison for 14 years, with the exception of one week when Goodman was out of town and Spilotro chose to wallow in a cell rather than call a different lawyer.
That mob hero Oscar Goodman wanted to be mayor, much less hold onto the job after term limits force his ouster, seems at once strange and oddly appropriate. The job provided the spotlight he craves. Some speculate it’s his way of giving back to the community after decades of defending criminals. And indeed, he has come a long way from his days going head to head with the government and comparing FBI agents to Nazis.
But he hasn’t completely transformed. As Sun columnist Jon Ralston once noted, “You can take the mob out of the thug, but you can’t take the thug out of the thug.”
Goodman today speaks to critics much like he did to the prosecutors he faced in the courtroom. “I’ll bury you,” he roars. “I’ll have your job,” he threatens. He has promised to ban from City Hall reporters who write unflattering pieces about him and once threatened to break the legs of a journalist who dared ask a difficult question.
“I’ll take a baseball bat and break his head if he ever comes here,” Goodman said of Herbert.
A reporter for The New Yorker wrote that Goodman kept a list of people who opposed his campaign so he could later “get them.” Goodman denied the statement, but he has been known to flip-flop on comments that portray him in a negative light. (He said he had proposed a “mop” museum after some bristled at his suggestion of a mob museum.) Even his wife concedes that Goodman is thin-skinned and testy about criticism.
As the cheerleader, Goodman fulfilled his promise of redeveloping downtown. His legacy includes the Smith Center for the Performing Arts, the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, the Las Vegas Premium Outlets, the Mob Museum, the new City Hall and the emerging Fremont East District. Even critics are hard pressed to argue Goodman didn’t improve the city.
Using those two aspects of his personality, Goodman succeeded by squashing his critics and wooing those he needs — in the old days, juries; these days, voters and City Council colleagues. His relationship with Councilman Steve Ross is a good example.
Ross for years was one of Goodman’s most loyal allies, but he turned into his loudest critics after Carolyn Goodman entered the mayoral race that Ross already had entered. The Goodmans for more than a year had promised Ross and other candidates that she wouldn’t seek the post. Days before the filing period ended, the couple went back on their word.
Ross campaigned hard. He accused Oscar Goodman of causing 50,000 residents to lose their jobs. He said the mayor’s policies hurt the Clark County School District. The effort was futile. Ross lost badly in the primary.
Weeks later, he stood with the Goodmans and couldn’t find enough flattering words for them. “I’ve seen what a great mayor can do, and I see another great mayor standing next to me,” he said, referring to Carolyn.
Ross offered little explanation for his change of rhetoric. He said simply: “That was the primary.”
Others elaborated on what Ross wouldn’t. Oscar Goodman got to him, they said. Ross learned the danger of crossing a Goodman and was smart enough to fall back in line rather than face Goodman’s wrath. Goodman needed Ross to ensure a friendly City Council for his wife. Ross needed the Goodmans to maintain his influence and political clout.
Like most power players in Las Vegas, Ross knows it’s never a good thing to be on Goodman’s bad side.
Insiders say the mayor’s voice booms across the 10th floor of City Hall when he’s angry and berating someone. Many describe him as a bully. And indeed, during council meetings, he has called speakers names and ordered them out of chambers. He called a bidder who he thought wasn’t generous enough at a charity auction a “short and fat Bette Midler.”
Others say he’s just an effective lawmaker using the bully pulpit and his perceived power to get things done. (In reality, the mayor has little control of the city; the main duties are running council meetings and declaring emergencies.)
No one and nothing will render him impotent. So he rages on with his bravado and audacity. He threatens to cut off the thumbs of graffiti artists. He proposes shipping homeless people to a closed desert prison. He calls President Barack Obama “a real slow learner” and vows to “give him the boot back to Washington.”
Goodman wants to make sure people are paying attention, and they are. In fact, rarely if ever has the world taken such interest in a municipal mayor.
Critics wonder if the city has paid a price for its mayor’s flamboyance. Do people have the wrong impression of Las Vegas? Has economic diversification been hampered?
Both Goodmans shrug off such questions, even if Carolyn occasionally cringes at what comes out of her husband’s mouth.
“Sometimes I’m like, ‘Oh my God, did he say that?’” she said. “But it’s satire. He’s cunning. When he does and says something, he knows what reaction it will get.”