Wednesday, May 15, 2013 | 9:25 p.m.
As former Mayor Oscar Goodman prepares for next Tuesday’s launch of his biography “Being Oscar,” we wrap our three-part series today. In Part 1, Oscar provided an intimate look at his 51-year romance and marriage to wife Carolyn, who now serves as mayor of Las Vegas. In Part 2, he reflected on his days as a Mob lawyer.
Next week on publication day, I’ll share some of my favorite anecdotes and juicy gossip gems from the book that’s set to be a bestseller and eventually a movie. Today in Part 3, Oscar reflects on the wins and losses of his 12-year leadership at City Hall.
Oscar is open and honest about all things, especially being candid as a drinker and a gambler: “I'm a gambler; I have been all my life. I’ll bet on anything: two cockroaches racing across the floor or the Super Bowl. It doesn’t matter to me. I just like the action. I’m also a drinker. I have a martini every day. Most days more than one. When I was mayor, I told everyone, don’t call me after working hours.”
But when I met with him over a long lunch at Las Vegas Country Club for our exclusive, many hours interview, he stuck with coffee, and we didn’t bet on anything — other than he thinks it’s a sure thing “Being Oscar” will become a movie, and meetings have already been held about it.
You’re obviously proud that you revitalized Downtown, but what do you wish you could have accomplished if you could have run for another four-year term?
“Well the only thing I failed at doing was the arena. I really wanted to bring the NBA and NHL to Las Vegas while I was mayor. For a lot of reasons, it didn’t happen, but I am hoping that it happens under Carolyn’s watch — that would be wonderful. That’s primarily the reason she ran, because she wanted to see that part concluded.
“I wanted to accomplish three things, Robin. One, I wanted to bring great culture to Las Vegas. When I was elected, Downtown was really in a sorry state. The lawyers had moved out to the suburbs, and the banks moved out to the suburbs. There was no energy at all, so I made up my mind I was going to concentrate on creating a renaissance for revitalizing Downtown.
“When we built a new City Hall, everybody was screaming, ‘Don’t do that!’ We would have been left with this very monolithic, old City Hall, empty, which would have been a blight, but because I’m a lucky fella, we were able to sell it to Zappos and keep on going, and everything turned out just the way we wanted it. I wanted culture, and we started off very slowly.
“We took that old Fifth Street Elementary School and turned it into an electrical marketplace. Not very ambitious, but it made a statement. It had a little poet’s bridge, it had literary events there. It is a lovely building. It taught the youngsters how to play the violin and became a very nice center, and has a historical significance, basically the first building that should’ve been torn down because it was in that state of disrepair, but we made our minds up that we weren’t going to implode anymore — we were going to preserve.
“So that was first. Then we got real lucky, people talking about a performing arts center. The Smith family comes up with $250 million, and the city then says we’ll partner with you and we’ll build this wonderful addition to Las Vegas. That’s the first step toward real culture.
“Second, I wanted academic medicine because my oldest boy, he’s a doctor, and he was practicing in New York before he was recruited out here. He loves research, as well as the clinical, and he told me he didn’t want to come here because there wasn’t any research taking place. I wanted to have academic medicine. Larry Ruvo’s dad passes away, and he was going to build Keep Memory Alive right across the street from Southern Wine; he owned property there.
“I went to him, and I said, ‘Larry I need you to do me a favor here, I need Keep Memory Alive as a cornerstone, a keystone for our Downtown redevelopment. We gave the land and Frank Gehry designed the building, and then the Cleveland Clinic became a great institutional partner. It’s a phenomenal success. Local doctors were happy to see them here because nobody else was doing that kind of practice. That was the beginning of academic medicine, and now we’ve started talking about medical tourism. I think we will become the center of expertise in these areas.
“The third thing that I wanted to do was in order for this town to be a major league city, we have to have a major league sports team. I am absolutely convinced of that, but I failed in that respect. I wanted a live concept around the arena like they have down at Staples with stores and shops and restaurants. I believe the exclusive on that runs out later this year, but what I was hoping hasn’t happened. We are waiting for the time to pass, then I believe that on the north end of the 60-acre parcel, that’s where an arena can be. It will be in a neutral site so Strip hotels aren’t fighting one another.”
I’d like to ask you now, not as the former mayor but as a citizen, Oscar Goodman: Would the city of Las Vegas and Clark County be a lot better off if they were one instead of two administrations?
“Yes, consolidated. I agree with you 100 percent that it should be the city and county of Las Vegas. We should change our form of government here; we should have a strong mayoral form of government because the way the system works is there is no one person where the buck stops. There a lot of different people, and it’s very difficult to assess responsibility as a result of that. I think a strong mayoral form of government, with a mayor being responsible, is the best way to resolve that. If they don’t like what the mayor’s doing, vote him or her out, but to have county commissioners fight with one another, it’s always a 3-to-2 vote.”
I must remind you that we are on the record and recording this conversation.
“That’s fine! They fight with each other. They are dysfunctional as far as I’m concerned. They run the UMC, which is a mess. It’s in the city, right in the heart of the city. People think the city is responsible instead of the county. There’s no sure way to pinpoint a finger at anything and I really believe there should be consolidation, but it won’t happen ,and it’s very simple why people who are in place just don’t want to see their power taken away.”
So are you saying that it will never happen?
“I don’t see it happening because everyone is very territorial. They don’t look at the whole, they look at the part, and they protect their part. That’s their fiefdom, and they’re not going to give it up, and it would be so easy to do. All you do is you chop it up, you keep the same people in office until they’re termed out. Then let everybody have an election and instead of having a seven-member board, you have a 12-member board. What’s the big deal?”
It’s so hard, isn’t it? Visitors from outside Las Vegas and even some locals don’t realize it’s two systems of control for the Strip and Downtown.
“They always thought I was the mayor of the Strip, and I didn’t do anything to dissuade them because I was chairman of the LVCVA. I had the forum to attend Strip-type events because they’re members of the board and part of the LVCVA. So I didn’t tell anybody that the jurisdiction of the mayor of Las Vegas goes from Sahara to Owens and from mountainside to mountainside. That’s 600,000 people in the city of Las Vegas, 2 million are in the Valley here, and I can’t tell you how many people would tell me I went to vote for you, but you’re not on the ballot.”
Has there ever been solid discussion about it?
“Yeah, but it never got that far. I tried many, many times. I thought I had a shot when the city councilmen became county commissioners. That they would take it up, but nobody wants to give it up.”
Is it a fight worth taking on for the betterment of the Valley?
“Well, you have two different views on that; bigger is not necessarily better, that’s one position, and there may be a little truth to that. That competition is good between the various entities, I don’t believe that. There was a study done before I was the mayor by a blue ribbon committee, prominent citizens who recommended that there be consolidation, but it takes two to tango. There’s always a reason people can give why it shouldn’t take place, but I’m a believer in a responsible leader, and a consolidated base has the best result.”
As someone who doesn’t understand the politics of it, I look in from the outside, and I see the county has the richest assets in it, with the hotels on the Strip and the airport.
“That is correct they have the richest assets. The annexation happened as a result of hooking up to the sewer thanks to the geniuses who were running the city at the time. It was the ’30s, maybe early ’40s. They had the opportunity to extend the sewer from Sahara all the way down to Tropicana. I think it would have cost them about $200k in those days, and they voted against it. Even now we have parts of the city that are called county islands, that people are on wells and they never hooked up to the sewer and they are not part of the city. They are in the middle of the city, but they are not part of the city. They’re part of the county.
“They pay county taxes, not city taxes. It is stupid. Carolyn recognizes the same thing I did, that being the mayor of Las Vegas, you are the spokesperson for the Valley. The first thing that happens if there’s an event that takes place, they call the mayor of Las Vegas. They don’t care if it happens on Tropicana or Blue Diamond, it’s the mayor of Las Vegas that gets the phone call.
“I don’t think it’s a lost cause. It’s a cause that would be a full-time cause. You would really have to get the power people, basically the only way it would take place is if you got the Strip casinos behind it, and they put pressure. … They have to become a true believer, and if they’re not a true believer, they’ll never get behind you. Nevada’s a funny state; you have two, it’s like three separate states. You have the South, you got the North, and you got the middle. And there’s very little similarity among those three places.”
And our Las Vegas Valley is a state, city and country unto itself.
“Absolutely, and I hate to hear it, but it’s the truth. How our economy goes, so goes the state. If we dry up here, so goes the state’s economy.”
Which makes you wonder why the seat was put in Carson City, not in Las Vegas.
“Well a lot of people wanted me to run for governor on the promise I’d move the state capital down to Las Vegas, but that would put like 30,000 people in the poor house. We didn’t want that, and I didn’t want to leave Las Vegas anyway. Not that I could have won, but I didn’t even give it a second thought.”
Back to the book: It has to have been quite an experience for you?
“It is a learning experience, too, because you normally don't take the time to think about things. We are always so busy grabbing, climbing, and the job that I now have at the Convention Authority. I thought it was perfect because I would go out and greet a group early in the morning, then I’ve got 4-5 hours, then I would greet another group in the afternoon, then I’ve got 4-5 hours, so I was writing the whole time. There is no secret about it. I am computer illiterate, so everything is written out long hand on yellow pads.”
So many controversies when you’ve spoken so openly. You threatened to cut off the thumb of a graffiti artist. You suggested every man in Las Vegas get a lap dance to give a “rise” to the economy. You enacted city policies requiring you had a cameo in every movie and TV show filmed in town. You snubbed President Obama in retaliation for a speech in which he trashed gambling in Las Vegas.
“I don’t hide from anything or anybody. Remember when I was in the school where I was reading books to the kids. I enjoyed reading to them, and all the little kids are clapping. One kid raises his hand, fourth grade, and says, ‘Mr. Mayor, what is one thing that you would want if you were on a desert island in the middle of the ocean?’ I guess they wanted me to say the Bible, I guess that is probably the best politically correct answer. I said a bottle of gin. That was it; somebody couldn't wait to call the press.”
But candor is a quality. You know where everybody stands.
“You only go around once, my friend. If you are a busy person, it is very difficult to keep your lies straight, so you better tell the truth. I’ll be the first to say this is the truth according to Oscar. I don’t know whether I am right all the time. I am sure I am not, but when I say something, it really is in my mind a truthful statement.”
So let’s close with some truthful thoughts?
“We’re getting closer to many good things happening here. People come here because they can make a living; they can make money. But in some places, we’re unraveling and going backward. Education: I think we are in a sorry state of affairs here. It’s a county problem. You need a strong leader, and the mayor has no control of the schools. What kind of city is that? You have a school board, you can’t name one member of the school board, they are always bickering with themselves, you’ve got a superintendent of the schools who quit, you’ve got a state superintendent who quit in a matter of two weeks of each other.
“We have kids who can’t read or write, they can’t pass a proficiency test, and it is a very blue-collar town because gaming is our engine that drives us. Like it or not, you don’t need a doctorate degree to be a dealer or a floor man. It has to change, but it doesn’t happen overnight. I guess tenacity is probably the word. You have to be tenacious. You can’t let up for one second. If you stop for one second, that rock will hit you right on your own head.”
It is a long time before it happens, but what is the epitaph going to read?
“He loved every day.”
He loved every day. Beautiful.
“Being Oscar” will be released by Weinstein Books next Tuesday and available at bookstores and online. Oscar celebrates its launch May 23 with a party at his Plaza steakhouse Oscar’s, followed by a reception at nearby The Mob Museum.
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.
Follow Vegas DeLuxe on Twitter at Twitter.com/vegasdeluxe.
Follow VDLX Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.