Las Vegas Sun

September 1, 2014

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Over the years, the mayor has been a man of many faces, but just one name: Oscar.

He walks down Las Vegas Boulevard toward Fremont Street and people scream his name from open car windows or honk their horns and wave as if they are greeting an old friend - or a rock star.

Influential visitors from across the country and around the world do not consider their trip to Las Vegas complete until they have seen him in person. His act has played to mostly rave reviews for the past eight years and he just got an extension to continue the gig for another four.

It's not Wayne or Elton or one of the other Strip headliners, but it is someone who also has achieved first-name fame in Vegas.

It's Oscar. As in Goodman, the self-proclaimed and self-promoted "happiest mayor in the universe."

He just won reelection to his third and, due to term limits, final term with 84 percent of the vote, a total surpassed in recent memory only by the 86 percent he received four years ago.

While it's no secret Goodman wanted 90 percent, he does not let his disappointment show.

"I never run against anyone else," he said. "I run against myself."

How has a 67-year-old ex-mob lawyer from Philadelphia achieved such status?

"First and foremost, he absolutely loves Las Vegas," said Councilman Larry Brown, who has worked with Goodman since the mayor was elected eight years ago. "There is no hiding his passion for this town."

Las Vegas is where Goodman established the law practice that first brought him to the public's attention.

The tale of how he and his wife, Carolyn, moved to Las Vegas in 1964 and turned $87 into a small fortune has been told and retold, but people never tire of hearing it. It is a story to which many Las Vegans, who also came from somewhere else hoping to hit life's jackpot, can relate.

It's that ability to relate, to connect with the masses, that many say keeps Goodman on top.

"When he's out, he says and does what he feels and believes," Brown said. "It's refreshing to hear a politician tell it like it is, even if it sounds outrageous at times."

Such as suggesting that graffiti taggers' thumbs be lopped off, an idea few politicians would offer publicly.

Douglas Palmer, mayor of Trenton, N.J., and president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, admits he could never get away with it - and he once won reelection with 87 percent of the vote.

"It works for Oscar because he is sincere," Palmer said. "Only Oscar could do what Oscar does."

What Oscar does, Palmer says, is promote his city whenever and wherever he can, both as a tourist spot and as a business opportunity.

"He's not just a great mayor for Las Vegas, he's one of America's great mayors," Palmer said. "He has worked extensively with our business council to help mayors in other cities try to duplicate some of the successes Las Vegas has achieved."

David Damore, a political science professor at UNLV, says Goodman's success has more to do with his party affiliation and Las Vegas' style of municipal government than with accomplishments.

"He's a Democrat in a strong Democratic city and so far he hasn't been challenged within his party," Damore said. "Mayor of Las Vegas is a pretty weak position in terms of real power."

Under Las Vegas' council-manager government, the city manager is traditionally the most powerful figure, with the mayor essentially being the first among equals - just one of seven votes - on the council.

That allows Goodman to take credit when things go well and spread the blame around when they don't, Damore said.

But Christopher Stream, a professor in the public administration department at UNLV, believes it's not that simple.

"He does perform ceremonial tasks and he does a great job of being a link to the public, but he's not just some presiding officer," Stream said.

Goodman has forged close partnerships with the department heads in City Hall and with the council, affording him more influence than his position typically allows, Stream said.

Some have suggested that because of that influence and his popularity, Goodman sometimes runs roughshod over the council, but Brown disagrees.

"I don't buy into the idea that where the mayor goes we go as a council," he said.

Brown acknowledges Goodman has a vision for the city and is passionate about seeing it fulfilled, but he says it's a plan that's difficult not to embrace.

A vibrant downtown filled with high rises, retail and entertainment options and a professional sports team are things any growing metropolitan area wants. And although some credit Goodman for spearheading the drive for a downtown rebirth, others say that the changes were market-driven and that the mayor was simply along for the ride.

During Goodman's tenure, the Las Vegas area has led the nation's large cities in job growth, with an increase of almost 20 percent from 2000 to 2005. The city also experienced double-digit economic growth in recent years, thanks largely to the construction spawned by expansion in the casino industry and housing.

Downtown developments such as Juhl, Streamline Towers , and Soho and Newport lofts, which Goodman championed, have poured money into the economy and added jobs.

Union Park, on the land formerly known as the 61 Acres site, is poised to turn a barren area that is literally on the other side of the tracks into a major development featuring the $250 million Smith Center for the Performing Arts, the Frank Gehry-designed $70 million Lou Ruvo Brain Institute and a 54-story headquarters and retail space for jewelry wholesalers.

Critics, though, say there also is a downside to Goodman's vision.

The same economic growth that spurred the city's revitalization has made housing for low- and middle-income residents increasingly difficult to find. The median price for a new home in the city, about $150,000 when Goodman entered City Hall, now is more than $330,000. Over that same period, the median household income in Las Vegas increased less than $4,000 to about $48,000.

Others point to crime and what they see as inadequate attention paid to social issues.

The homeless population, estimated in a UNLV study at 6,700 when Goodman came into office, has nearly doubled, according to current estimates. The violent crime rate has seen a more modest increase, from 665 per 100,000 residents in 1999 to 674 per 100,000 in 2005.

But just as it is difficult to assess how much credit Goodman deserves for the advances of the past eight years - did those things happen because he was in City Hall, or was he in City Hall during a fortuitous period of growth that would have made any mayor look good? - determining how much blame, if any, he should shoulder for the shortcomings also is problematic.

Goodman's deep pockets and sense of civic responsibility have allowed him to put in many more hours addressing the issues than the job requires. He has been a full-time mayor in a part-time job that pays less than $60,000 a year, a salary that has hardly been a magnet for hordes of qualified candidates.

Brown says that although Goodman's method of addressing issues such as graffiti and homelessness sometimes borders on bizarre, it brings those problems - and Goodman - attention they might otherwise not get.

And Goodman loves attention.

The enduring image of his mayoralty is that of a grinning Goodman standing in front of a bank of cameras with a martini in one hand and a showgirl on either side.

It's one of the things that lifts him above the level of mayor to pop-culture icon, says Felicia Campbell, an English professor at UNLV and editor of the university journal Pop Culture Review.

"He's certainly very colorful going back to his years as a mob attorney," Campbell said. "The martini glass and the showgirls help give him that appeal, that fascination, that is always a part of it."

It's not a coincidence, she says, that Goodman's elevation to iconic status has coincided with the country's growing love affair with the city.

From Texas hold 'em poker tournaments to Criss Angel to "CSI: Las Vegas," people can't seem to get enough of all things Vegas. The publicity that the city has received from hosting events such as the NBA All-Star Game and the Vegas Grand Prix have added to Las Vegas' allure, which undeniably blossomed under Goodman.

"It's kind of a chicken-and-egg thing," Campbell said. "It's hard to say which came first, but they are definitely feeding off of each other."

Surprisingly, those who know Goodman best say he is a very private person out of the public eye.

"He's a very sensitive, extremely family-oriented man," said Carolyn Goodman, who has been married to him for 45 years.

Goodman says he could not have achieved his success without her.

"But there's always been that little element of, 'How close can I really get?' " Carolyn Goodman said.

That's a question the public rarely asks as people flock to him at public appearances.

It has been that way, Carolyn says, since she met him in college. He always has had many friends and people love to follow him.

That pied-piper charisma is going to make it extremely difficult for the person who follows Goodman in the mayor's seat.

Brown, who has been mentioned as a possible successor, said the next mayor should follow Goodman's lead but not try to duplicate his personality.

"Whoever does it is going to have to be sincere and be their own person," he says. "If they try to be Oscar, they will fail miserably."

Goodman says if he has a legacy, he wants it to be what he sees when he looks out the window of his 10th-floor office in City Hall - the growth that has taken place in the city under his watch.

"If they remember me for something in 20 years, I hope it's that."

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