May 16, 2002
What's a nice Jewish boy doing running a city like this?
Oscar Goodman sure likes his Beefeater.
So much so that this Las Vegas mayor had proposed to become a spokesman for the gin company for $100,000. The money, Goodman promised, would go to the city coffers.
On a November Friday afternoon, just a day after news of the Beefeater negotiations leaked out (actually, Goodman himself announced it at his weekly press conference), the mayor's phone is ringing off the hook. "When I said you weren't available, a reporter told me, 'What if I bring a bottle of Beefeater?'" Goodman's aide tells him. "I said, 'Well, why didn't you say that earlier?' You might have actually done it!" They both laugh, but the aide isn't joking, and neither is the mayor: Goodman takes his Beefeater seriously, especially if representing the company would help bankroll his dream of making downtown thrive.
Goodman, who before he took the non-partisan position of mayor in 1999, was best known as the defense lawyer for the mob including clients like Meyer Lansky and Anthony "Tony the Ant" Spilotro. He states with pride that he played himself in the movie "Casino." "Life is very short. You have to have a good time every second," the mayor says.
In the serious post-Sept. 11 world where Las Vegas tourism was hit by the fear of travel and the city suffered minor terrorist threats, the mayor hasn't changed his plans. "I'm not going to allow the enemy to affect our way of doing things," he says. "Everyone is supposed to be having a good time in Vegas. That's what we're here for."
And that's what his constituents most love -- and his critics most hate: Goodman's ability to have a good time, his flair for the theatrical and his talent for controversy. This year, readers of the Las Vegas Review-Journal voted Hizzoner both their Favorite Local Politician and Most Colorful Character. Lookswise, he's nothing outstanding; in his suit he could be any other 62-year-old successful Jewish lawyer you see at the Conservative synagogue. But when he opens his mouth -- which he does more often then not -- his features take on a life of their own, giving the word "colorful" more color.
"Whoa, look at this jerk, right over, what an idiot. He fell right on his head, he's probably dead." From the car the mayor is laughing at a guy who ran across the highway.
We are on our way to a furniture store opening -- yes, a furniture store opening -- because ... well, it's a long story. But it's been a long day for Goodman ("brutal," he says), starting with a prayer breakfast, a speaking engagement to nurses, then a four-hour meeting working on an arena proposal for downtown. "It's just one thing after another, but that's what mayors do," he says, as the phone rings and someone on the other end threatens a lawsuit.
"Man, he's a paranoid jerk, who if he wants to do business with the city sure started off on the wrong foot. He's got a long, hard way to go with me," Goodman tells the caller. After the call is finished he says, "The only thing that people don't realize is that when they threaten me with a lawsuit, I relish it. I mean, that's what I did for 35 years as a lawyer. So if they say lawsuit, I say, take your best shot."
And this is all before five o'clock, the time for a drink or a bet at the tables.
If some mayors have the personality of their cities -- like gruff, tough Rudolph Giuliani is New York -- then Las Vegas has finally met its match.
"City residents have been longing for an elected leader with this kind of moxie," a Las Vegas Sun columnist wrote recently. "Finally we have a mayor who can promote Las Vegas the way it should be promoted -- as Sin City.... Yes, you've got to love the mayor of Las Vegas. God bless him."
The columnist was blessing the mayor's bid, in March, to be the spokesman for Tanqueray instead of his beloved Beefeater. Why the defection? Beefeater would only cough up $25,000, and Goodman wanted his original asking price of $100,000, so he cut off negotiations with Beefeater. A third unnamed company has also entered negotiations this month, and they hope to close the deal with someone soon.
This is not the only one of Goodman's highfalutin ideas which might end in success: on Monday, they signed a deed to the post office in order to turn it into a Mob museum. Other ideas include bringing to Vegas Hollywood studios, a major league team (he got a minor league hockey team instead) and a top-notch medical center. Last week, downtown saw the opening of a $100 million dollar entertainment complex.
Goodman doesn't lack for causes. He takes on the casino establishment for not supporting the entire city (note: his downtown projects) and politicians in Washington for proposing the nearby Yucca mountain as a nuclear-waste dump. The homeless accuse him of being heartless for suggesting that they be rounded up and bused to an abandoned prison or pushed farther toward the Pacific Ocean, and the 19 or so synagogues in the area vie for his time, but never ask him for something he won't deliver. "They don't mess with the mayor in Las Vegas. Nobody asks me anything that would make me angry. They want me to be a happy mayor."
When Oscar Goodman came to Las Vegas 37 years ago, fresh from law school in Philadelphia, there was only one synagogue (his Conservative one) and more churches per capita than any city in the world. Since then, the Jewish community has flourished to more than 75,000.
Goodman, who raised four children here with his wife of 37 years, says that his Jewish values have made him the person he is today. "I was raised by a very ethical, moral mother and father. They were parents who were supposed to be honored. Kabed et aviycha v'et imecha," he says, quoting the Hebrew commandment of honoring your parents. "They installed certain values. I'm not sure that had I not been Jewish that I would have had that kind of upbringing."
Drinking? Gambling? Jewish values?
"I think some of the greatest Jews in history have gambled and drunk. Shoot, that's part of Judaism, as far as I was concerned," Goodman says in his own defense.
"I used to remember going to my grandfather's house, and the gambling was a little different. During the holidays we used to play -- it was like bowling but with hazelnuts, and you would win money ... and the afikomen? That's gambling.
"Drinking, the first thing you did when you walked into my grandfather's home, he said 'Do you want some schnapps?'" he recalls.
"So I'm following a long line of degenerate Jews in being the mayor of Las Vegas."