Wednesday, June 9, 1999 | 9:36 a.m.
Political campaign guru Sig Rogich of Las Vegas saw a clear difference between mayoral contestants Oscar Goodman and Arnie Adamsen.
"Oscar has a lot of fire in the belly for the job," Rogich said. "That's in sharp contrast with what you saw on the other side. I just didn't think Arnie did a good enough job defining himself."
Attorney Goodman overwhelmed veteran City Councilman Adamsen in Tuesday's general election to become the next mayor of Las Vegas. It was a race that attracted national media attention because outsiders wondered why Las Vegans would vote for a man who defended such clients as mobsters Tony Spilotro, Nicky Scarfo and Meyer Lansky.
The answers to that question varied somewhat. But local campaign consultants, UNLV professors and a former mayor all had theories that boiled down to this:
As a political novice, Goodman represented change vs. Adamsen's persona as the establishment candidate. Adamsen brought 12 years of council experience to the fight but he walked into a trap. By making growth an issue, Goodman ably reminded voters about the city's traffic and zoning woes. The question then became, what had Adamsen done in 12 years to correct those problems?
The mayor-elect revealed a folksy charisma with a tinge of "bad boy" image, thanks to his background as a "mob" attorney. That image played well in a city that is more accepting than other cities of hell raisers as evidenced by Las Vegas' colorful history. Adamsen came across as awkward and comparatively drab in the personality department.
Better managedGoodman also clearly benefited from a better-managed campaign. His handlers defined him early as a defender of the U.S. Constitution and dedicated family man, making it impossible for opponents' jabs to stick.
Adamsen had hoped that voters would be turned off by Goodman's representation of underworld figures. Instead, Goodman's campaign reminded voters that individuals have a constitutional right to competent legal representation in court. That image was bolstered by a parade of local attorneys, including prosecutors, who spoke highly of Goodman as an able and above-board attorney.
Goodman also deftly stayed out of the way as Adamsen and fellow mayoral candidate Mark Fine bashed one another leading up to the May primary. Adamsen showed he was unable to wage war on two fronts at once, allowing Goodman to come within 277 votes of the majority he needed to win the seat outright in the primary.
His 20-point cushion over Adamsen in the primary naturally enriched his general election warchest, as the gaming industry realized the attorney couldn't be derailed. The Culinary Union also suddenly declared itself neutral, leaving Adamsen with little grassroots support. In the end it was Goodman, not Adamsen, who had the cash to continue running TV ads.
Bill Briare, the city's mayor from 1975 to 1987, had a relatively simple explanation for Goodman's success.
'Likeable,' 'gutsy guy'"He's a real likeable guy," Briare said. "He's kind of a roughneck. He's one of the guys. He'd be in the bar drinking beer with the guys who just got off the construction site.
"Oscar Goodman is a gutsy guy, just like (Mayor) Jan (Laverty) Jones is a gutsy gal. But as far as solving problems, I'm not sure he's going to solve more problems than Arnie did. There wasn't anything that Arnie or Oscar brought up that wasn't brought up in other mayors' races. We're always addressing the same problems."
Why, then, was it Adamsen who failed to win?
"People would ask Mr. Adamsen, if you want to do all these things for the city, why didn't you do them in the last four years and in the four years before that?" Briare said. "He didn't give a good answer to that."
UNLV political science Professor Steven Parker likened Goodman's victory to the type of protest vote that enabled former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura of Ross Perot's Reform Party to become Minnesota's governor last year. Parker said Goodman is charismatic and ran a campaign with populist roots, but the professor added that the mayor's position is largely symbolic.
That's because the mayor only has one vote on the five-member City Council. The city manager takes directives from the entire council, not just the mayor. The mayor can use that position as a bully pulpit, however, and Parker believes that is part of Goodman's appeal.
"Because of his personality he may be able to persuade better than other mayors have," Parker said. "The populist issue he has latched onto is growth. The idea of impact fees, as he sees it, is a Robin Hood idea. We're going to take from the rich and reallocate the money to the downtown core."
In Adamsen's case, Parker said it was an example of how political experience "can work against you."
"Arnie was part of the establishment," Parker said. "In any other walk of life experience would be a plus, but not here. This election represented protest politics. That's one of the reasons the national media paid attention to it."
Ethics Professor Craig Walton of UNLV agreed, adding that Adamsen was viewed as the candidate who "brought us all the troubles we've got." Walton cited as an example Adamsen's approval of many zoning variances that came before the council.
"If you have a master plan, you're supposed to believe in it," Walton said.
Goodman represented the "new guy," and his appeal cut across different racial and income groups, Walton said.
"He took the positive campaigning pledge the day he filed," Walton said. "He was the only one who did. He stuck to it and I think that was beneficial.
"In criminal defense you've got to be quick on your feet and plan ahead. In the debates, when people asked Goodman a question he could see 29 answers. He could see the potholes in a question."
Goodman also has qualities shared by Jones, his two-term predecessor who will leave office later this month. Both have high energy. And both were well-known to the community long before launching their respective campaigns. Jones was a television pitchwoman for grocery stores and automobile dealerships operated by her family. She brought that pizazz to the mayor's seat.
Rogich, who was a campaign media adviser to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, said charisma is an attribute many big-city mayors have. There's Willie Brown in San Francisco, Rudolph Giuliani in New York City and Richard Daley in Chicago to name three, Rogich said.
"Oscar is articulate and extraordinarily intelligent," Rogich said. "Arnie is bright but he doesn't have a lot of charisma. When you put them side by side the differences are apparent."
Several political consultants, including Rogich, agreed that Goodman did a better job than Adamsen spending campaign money. Veteran consultant Don Williams also said the mayor-elect was an underestimated candidate who brought plenty of enthusiasm to his campaign.
"Oscar believes in what he's doing and he loves what he's doing," Williams said. "Oscar is a hell of a good administrator of his law practice because he's totally focused. He's not a terribly telegenic guy but when he came on television he had an anti-heroic charisma.
"The idea being he's not a matinee idol. He doesn't have the big shock of white hair. But he is terribly charismatic and that charisma comes from personal beliefs that he can do something. It's infectious, and people love an underdog. In Oscar, people are looking for something different."
One Goodman consultant, Kent Oram, said an example of the mayor-elect's pull with voters occurred the day of the May primary. The candidate was standing outside Costco at 222 S. Martin Luther King Blvd. distributing campaign brochures. Oram said people normally would walk past a candidate. But with Goodman, people did U-turns with their shopping carts and even asked for his autograph.
"The guy has celebrity status that transcends issues," Oram said. "For the person who is a spokesman for Las Vegas you want someone who is charismatic and sharp. If you had two dull people running, charisma is not a factor, but if you have one charismatic person, who are you going to vote for?"
Touching voters' feelingsCharisma played the most important role in Goodman's campaign because the candidate was able to touch voters' feelings, Williams said.
"I don't think that the mob image had any role in the campaign," Williams said. "Had Arnie Adamsen's people known how to spin it, it could have played a much bigger part. He had poor polling or poor tracking because he should have seen Oscar coming.
"Arnie was the establishment candidate, right from the factory. He came from the absolute perfect mold. It was Arnie the political zombie who does what he's told to do."
Williams, however, believes Goodman's candidacy had more in common with first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's potential U.S. Senate race in New York than Ventura's victory in Minnesota.
"Jesse Ventura is a clown and Oscar is anything but a clown," Williams said. "He's a very serious guy."