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Welcome to Oscar’s World

Times Staff Writer

It is a chilly morning. Three jets lift off from a military base in the desert, their plumes engraving the sky like chalk on a blackboard. Dawn, when gamblers go to breakfast before bed and the neon struggles to stand out against the new sun, is a weird time here. No one is quite awake, except Oscar Goodman.

The mayor is holding court in the corner of an Omelet House, drowning in black coffee and hyperbole. Many people and things -- Liberace; Carolyn, his wife of 42 years; Romeo y Julieta cigars -- have been called “the best.” He has declared himself the happiest mayor in the world, in the greatest city in the world.

He has summoned three aides, ostensibly to talk politics. Instead, he’s telling a story about the time he drank so much with a two-star general -- they did beer bongs with a funnel and a hose -- that the guy’s wife called the next day and accused him of murder. Nobody cracks up Oscar like Oscar, and he begins to snort and shudder with the full-body laugh that seizes him with some regularity.

“It’s the best!” He pounds a meaty palm on the table. “The best!”

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It would be easy to dismiss Goodman as a caricature of his hometown if he didn’t have ambitious plans to make Las Vegas a sophisticated and cosmopolitan city.

Since he took office five years ago, Goodman’s charisma, ego and sheer volume have made him a spectacle and a star.

In December, when he went to a meeting in Anaheim to try to land big-league baseball in Las Vegas, he arrived with a showgirl on each arm.

There are casino chips with his face on them, and he appears to be the only politician with an endorsement contract for a gin maker.

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He has played himself on “CSI” and in Martin Scorsese’s “Casino.” Three producers are vying to make a reality show about him. Another producer is trying to make a miniseries about him.

Goodman’s critics say he can point to few real accomplishments, particularly considering that this is the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the nation. They call him a media hound who is more mascot than leader.

But Goodman, 65, a Democrat and a former Mafia defense lawyer, has begun to engineer an ambitious agenda, and investment is starting to arrive in Las Vegas, even in long-neglected and seedy areas downtown. Many of Goodman’s detractors are starting to agree that change is afoot.

Before he took office, there had not been a building of significance constructed downtown for 25 years. Today, city officials say, there are 12 either finished or working their way through the planning process, including a proposed mixed-use tower that would be the tallest residential building in the West and would include a $32-million penthouse.

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Goodman has drawn up plans for an “urban village” on one 61-acre site, a patch of dirt near downtown that he has named the “Jewel of the Desert” with customary restraint.

For now, it’s mostly blueprints and glossy brochures. But many Nevadans are taken with the possibilities. And Goodman’s vision for the city raises an intriguing question: Can a man who drinks, gambles and curses unceasingly, travels with his own Elvis impersonator and hangs a photo of himself wearing a diaper over the commode -- not a grown-up, as he would be the first to tell you -- turn Las Vegas into a grown-up city?

*

Goodman points at Jim Ferrence, a political consultant who ran Goodman’s campaign when the mayor was elected to a second four-year term in 2003.

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“I believe you owe me a little something,” Goodman says.

Ferrence slides a $100 bill past the pancake syrup and the creamer. The two had placed a wager on the fate of Nevada’s controller, who admitted using state facilities and computers to work on her reelection. Ferrence had bet she would resign before her recent impeachment proceedings. Goodman had bet it wouldn’t happen. He was right. He pulls out a money clip, leafs past the small bills and tucks his winnings behind the other hundreds.

“Someone had some inside information,” Ferrence grumbles.

Goodman’s rivals are surprised by his popularity, given what some have called crass behavior and given that the mayoral position here has not historically been a pillar of power.

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The Las Vegas Valley is home to 1.5 million people, but only about a third of them live in the city of Las Vegas. The metropolitan area is a hodgepodge of jurisdictions -- cities and unincorporated areas that resemble a jigsaw puzzle on a map. Goodman’s dominion, the city itself, has a young and middle-class population of about 520,000.

The city of Las Vegas does not include the Strip, the boulevard of resort casinos. It means Goodman may be mayor of Las Vegas, but he’s not the mayor of what the rest of the world thinks of as Las Vegas.

Even the position he does have is largely ceremonial, entitling him to one of seven votes on the City Council.

So how is that Goodman was reelected with 86% of the vote, only to watch his popularity climb from there? He’s done it largely by bringing an insolent attitude to City Hall -- by reminding people that he doesn’t really need to be the mayor.

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“I made a lot of money,” he says. “I had all the fame you could want. I’m a gourmand. I drink. I gamble with both fists. I had a great life before this. But I am in love with Las Vegas. So I take the job seriously, but I don’t take myself seriously.”

His tactic is paying dividends.

In the 2003 election, some voters who live outside the Vegas city limits showed up at the polls and got angry when they learned they could not vote for Goodman. Word got out that he takes 5:30 a.m. walks, and now several dozen people -- strangers -- often meet him outside his house to join him.

“I’m like a folk hero,” he said. “It’s -- it’s -- a phenomenon. I can’t explain it.”

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Marvin L. Longabaugh, who runs Magellan Research, a Las Vegas public opinion research company, said independent polls routinely showed that Goodman was, by far, the most popular politician in the state.

“There is a certain percentage of the population that, for lack of a better term, drinks the mayor’s Kool-Aid,” he said. “There is a little bit of puffery in what he says. But there is a lot of truth too. And I’d rather have a mayor with ideas that are too large than a mayor with ideas that are too small.”

Goodman’s popularity allows him to do pretty much whatever he wants -- whether it’s openly gambling on another politician’s scandal or savaging the owners of Strip casinos as money-grubbers -- with little fallout.

Over breakfast, an aide reminds Goodman that he must address the salary and benefits concerns of firefighters. Firefighters are often considered untouchable in city halls across the country. Not this one. Goodman, claiming he was slighted when a union representative did not return his call, responds with a string of epithets. His aides look dismayed.

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“I couldn’t care less,” he says. “Let them campaign against me.”

“We’ll tell them you’re mildly upset,” Ferrence says meekly.

“I want an apology. And I don’t want it with a scowl!” Goodman says.

The veins in Goodman’s forehead begin to recede.

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“Oh well,” he says. “At least I get it all out. At least I’ll never die of a heart attack.”

“No,” says Mike Sullivan, another consultant, shaking his head. “You’ll die in a fire.”

*

Las Vegas was one of four cities fighting last year to adopt the Montreal Expos baseball franchise. Washington eventually won, but the fact that Vegas was in the fight this time was in itself a victory.

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Vegas has a minor league team-- the triple-A affiliate of the Dodgers -- named the 51s, after the government’s mysterious “Area 51" base that has become a touchstone for people who believe in alien life-forms. The city has tried to lure a big-league team for years, but has been unsuccessful, largely because of concerns about putting a franchise in the midst of legal gambling. Goodman says landing a team is a critical element in what he calls an imminent renaissance.

For now, the centerpiece of his efforts is the 61-acre parcel that he helped secure for the city shortly after taking office. There, he says, the city will build a cluster of vertical development akin to Lower Manhattan.

The site would contain scores of businesses, 8,000 residents in garden apartments, a performing arts center and a medical center. Goodman says the buildings will be placed at angles to block the sun, bathing the shops and cafes below in shade most of the day. The development, he insists, will one day be like the ancient Greek agora -- a marketplace and a venue for civic discourse.

“I envision Socrates walking around,” he says.

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It is the kind of talk that has long made Jon Ralston, probably the premier political observer in Las Vegas, dismiss Goodman as a huckster. Today, even Ralston -- who says he sometimes feels like the only person in town who is not a fan -- is starting to see results.

When Goodman announced plans to build a massive market to sell furniture five years ago, the industry was skeptical. Today, demand for space is so heavy that developers have had to speed up construction. Goodman was belittled two years ago for bringing in a $95-million outlet mall -- and for offering tax breaks to the development company.

“Now? The only complaint they have? Not enough parking!” he says. “I willed all of this to happen. Nothing would be happening if it weren’t for me.”

Ralston is starting to agree.

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“He is the Sisyphus of Las Vegas,” said Ralston, a newspaper columnist and talk show host who has covered politics here for nearly 20 years. “I have been surprised at what he’s been able to accomplish, frankly. And it is based on pure force of personality. He is a piece of work. But I give him credit for creating an atmosphere of possibility. He has sold his dream.”

*

It has been a busy day. The director Tony Scott called with an offer to appear in another movie. A production team from E! dropped by the office after lunch to film a television show called “The 50 Hottest Moments in Las Vegas.” Goodman has called his wife four times to tell her that he loves her.

Goodman is behind the wheel of his Mercedes. It is 2 p.m., nearly time for the first drink of the day, he points out. This energizes him. His cellphone rings.

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“I’ll take Detroit minus four and a half for two,” he says into the phone. That’s a $200 bet -- legal here -- on whether the NBA’s Detroit Pistons can beat the Cleveland Cavaliers by more than four points that night.

Legend has it Goodman once placed a bet on which way a cockroach would run; he is coy about whether that is true. “And give me Sacramento minus seven,” he says. (Later that night, he will win the Detroit bet and lose the other.)

Goodman was raised in a middle-class household in West Philadelphia. His mother was a Bohemian artist who turned out delicate sculptures of girls dancing in a circle. His father was a prosecutor and Goodman’s hero; as a boy Goodman walked to the trolley each night to meet him. Goodman became a lawyer too.

In 1964, two years after they were married, he and Carolyn moved to Las Vegas, then a small gambling oasis. He soon became a top trial lawyer.

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Over the years he defended Meyer Lansky, organized crime’s business mastermind, and Tony “the Ant” Spilotro, who made a name for himself by killing people with ice picks and reportedly putting one man’s head in a vise.

Goodman became rich -- he was once paid a $1-million fee for a single case, and multiplied his wealth many times over through real estate -- but the work was not without its challenges. At one point, the federal government tried to throw him in jail and fined him $50,000 for refusing to divulge who had paid the legal fees of mob capo Natale “Big Chris” Richichi.

Goodman still insists, almost reflexively, that the mob never existed and that his former clients were just misunderstood businessmen.

Last spring, the state ethics commission determined that Goodman had improperly lobbied to help his son Ross’ business, iPolitix, which produces software that tracks political attitudes. Goodman, who was not fined, has promised to appeal the ruling.

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“I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “And the public knows it.”

*

In an old, moneyed neighborhood called the Scotch 80s, aides are giving away Oscar Goodman bobblehead dolls at the door of his 5,000-square-foot home. The Goodmans are throwing a party for about 70 people to kick off the state legislative session. Guests are sipping Syrah out back, next to the koi pond, and pronouncing it “Sarah.”

Gin martini in hand, Goodman steps out of his library, a plush room full of his mother’s sculptures and gifts from reputed mobsters who, it turns out, have a taste for Asian batiks.

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He gives a conspiratorial nod, and three of his political allies lean close. He confides that he received a phone call earlier in the day from five business leaders. The men said they would each give him $300,000 if he would run for governor -- a $1.5-million war chest.

Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn, a Republican, can’t run again in 2006 because of term limits. A dozen people are said to be considering a run. Though many are pressuring Goodman to jump in, most political observers say it’s unlikely that he will.

“Being governor is a real job,” Ralston said. “His version of working hard now is drinking gin, doing the cuchi-cuchi with Charo, getting on TV as much as he can and having the time of his life. If he did get in the race, however, he would be a huge factor.”

Goodman has a better idea. He’ll take the money, pretend to run and shake up the establishment. Then he’ll agree to drop out in exchange for a small favor: a $1-per-room hotel tax that buys a baseball stadium, increasing exponentially his chances of landing a team.

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“I could do it,” he tells them. “They’re terrified that I’ll run. They’re terrified that I’ll win. Everybody here is real nice, and they almost always do what I ask. But if they don’t ... well, then I wouldn’t have any choice, would I? I’d have to be governor!”

He quakes again with a full-body laugh.

“It’s the best!” he shouts. “The best!”


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