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June 24, 2021

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The many colors of Mayor Oscar Goodman

Oscar Goodman

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He touted the benefits of drinking gin to a fourth-grade class, recommended that graffiti taggers have their thumbs cut off and suggested that brothels would be one solution to revitalizing a run-down Fremont Street.

That’s our quirky Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman.

But there also is the wise, lawyerly hizzonor, who played a major role in securing 61 acres of railroad property for Union Park, a high-rise downtown residential and business project, and supported downtown cultural projects such as an arts district.

A stickler for parliamentary procedure, Goodman has run a tight ship at televised City Council meetings, moving them along at a brisk pace by limiting to just a few minutes the once-voluminous commentaries by gadflies and others.

During his three terms as mayor, Goodman has left an indelible mark on the city, which has begun what he called the “Manhattanization” of downtown with the erection of tall buildings that better use limited prime real estate.

And his tough policies against the urban blight of chronic homelessness drew criticism from social groups, but praise from area homeowners.

Oscar B. Goodman was born June 26, 1939, in Philadelphia. He graduated from Haverford College in 1961 and earned a degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School three years later.

Goodman came to Las Vegas in 1964, was admitted to the Nevada State Bar in 1965 and served as Clark County’s chief deputy public defender in 1966 and 1967.

During his career as a high-profile defense attorney he represented mobsters including organized crime kingpin Meyer Lansky, former Stardust hotel boss Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal and Chicago Mafia enforcer Tony “The Ant” Spilotro.

Spilotro, who ran street crime rackets in Las Vegas during the 1970s and ’80s, was the inspiration for the mob character portrayed by Joe Pesci in the 1995 Martin Scorsese film “Casino,” which was based on the fall of the mob at the Stardust in the early 1980s. In that film, in which Robert De Niro portrayed the Rosenthal character, Goodman appeared as himself.

Goodman, once named one of the 15 best trial lawyers in America by the National Law Journal, is a senior partner in the law firm of Goodman, Chesnoff & Keach. However, he put aside his duties at the firm during the years he has served as mayor.

Every time Goodman ran for the mayoral post he won big. In 1999 Goodman defeated then-City Councilman Arnie Adamsen, garnering 64 percent of the vote. In 2003 he was reelected to a second four-year term, defeating five opponents in the primary and collecting 86 percent of the vote. In 2007 he was reelected to a third and final term with 84 percent of the vote, again defeating five people in the primary. A public office limitation law prohibits him from serving additional terms.

Almost from the start, Goodman has been controversial.

In 2002 he signed a contract to serve as a spokesman for Bombay Sapphire Gin. He received $100,000 from the liquor company and donated it to charity. However, Goodman came under scrutiny for his generosity because half of that money went to the Meadows School, a private institution founded by his wife, Carolyn.

Goodman also has faced scrutiny for allegedly using his influence as mayor to help the career of his lawyer son, Ross. In 2004 the Nevada Commission on Ethics looked into an allegation that Goodman, during the U.S. Conference of Mayors, gave fellow mayors and other influential people invitations to a cocktail party he was hosting. Critics called it an example of Goodman abusing his power to help promote a business co-owned by Ross Goodman. At a hearing, ethics commissioners were deadlocked and took no action.

During much of his time in office, Goodman, an avid sports fan, tried to bring a professional sports franchise to town.

In 2004 he attempted to lure Major League Baseball’s Montreal Expos to Las Vegas, but they chose the nation’s capital instead and became the Washington Nationals. Goodman later met with officials of the Florida Marlins and eyed the Chicago White Sox, but they eventually decided not to move.

In 2007 Goodman, a season-ticket holder to San Diego Chargers home games, contacted that National Football League franchise, but was rejected.

Goodman and other tourism officials, however, were successful in bringing the 2007 National Basketball Association All-Star Game to Las Vegas, hoping it would lay the groundwork for a future Las Vegas NBA team.

But it is perhaps the more quirky things that Goodman has done that has gained national attention:

  • In October 2003 Goodman said that although he was not advocating legalized prostitution, he believed there were possible advantages to creating a bordello-lined “Little Amsterdam” in downtown Las Vegas. Asked how that would enhance downtown redevelopment, Goodman said it would “turn old hotels into beautiful brothels.”
  • In March 2005, speaking to fourth-graders at Jo Mackey Elementary School, Goodman told the students that the one thing he would want if he were marooned on a desert island was a bottle of gin. Asked what his hobbies were, the mayor said drinking alcohol.
  • In November of the same year Goodman suggested that those who deface freeways with graffiti should have their thumbs cut off. “These punks come along and deface (property),” Goodman said. “I’m saying maybe you put them on TV and cut off a thumb … That may be the right thing to do.”
  • Goodman also suggested that whippings or canings should be brought back for incorrigible children — after, of course, they get a fair trial, he said.
  • Working as a celebrity photographer in May 2005, Goodman got himself into hot water again by shooting a topless pictorial of Playboy magazine’s Miss January 2001 Irina Voronina for the Playboy Cyber Club Web site. On that occasion, he told his critics, “Get a life.”
  • Goodman also has suggested turning a historic downtown post office on Stewart Avenue adjacent to City Hall into a museum honoring the mobsters who made Las Vegas famous, including Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, who opened the Flamingo in 1946. Ironically, the three-story brick building once housed the city’s federal courthouse.

But there also is the more serious side to Goodman that one day may be responsible for changing the skyline of downtown Las Vegas.

In 2000 Goodman helped seal the deal to obtain 61 acres of Union Pacific Railroad property in the western downtown area in exchange for 97 acres of an underused northwest Las Vegas technology park.

Goodman’s vision for the 61 acres — he has called the Union Park development the legacy of his tenure — is a downtown urban village with businesses, shops, restaurants and high-rise residences.

Being built on the once-contaminated former railroad yard is the Lou Ruvo Brain Institute, a study and treatment center of brain disorders, which was designed by world-class architect Frank Gehry.

Also planned for Union Park are the 350,000-square-foot Smith Center for the Performing Arts, a hotel built by Chef Charlie Palmer and the World Jewelry Center, among other businesses.

The project, bounded by Bonneville Avenue, Grand Central Parkway and the Union Pacific Railroad tracks, is expected to cost $6 billion. Plans include almost 1 million square feet of office/medical space, more than 5 million square feet of residential housing, 475,000 square feet of retail, two nongaming hotels, a hotel with a casino and a park.

Adjacent to or near that proposed development is the World Market Center home furnishings trade-show facility, the Las Vegas Premium Outlets mall and the Clark County Government Center.

Also, Goodman has been an advocate to improve Las Vegas’ status as a major world tourism destination. He has furthered that cause while serving as chairman of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

Goodman has taken a tough stand against what he calls the chronically homeless — those who, no matter how many services or shelters are offered, choose to live on the streets and make nuisances of themselves.

He has advocated that all of the homeless should use the available shelters and avail themselves of social services funded by city, county, state or federal grants to help get back into society as productive citizens and seek proper housing.

Goodman’s efforts, such as passage of an ordinance that made it a misdemeanor to feed the homeless on city streets and in parks, and clearing out tent cities have been criticized by civil liberties groups. (An appeals court later ruled the no-feeding ordinance unconstitutional.)

However, Goodman’s methods of discouraging the homeless from using city sidewalks as toilets and foundations for their lean-tos has drawn praise from some residents — and voters — who fear that if nothing is done the next step will be a mass migration of vagrants into urban neighborhoods.

Although Goodman’s name has come up as a potential candidate for governor and other major offices, he has steadfastly maintained that he is content being “the happiest mayor in the universe.”

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