From Las Vegas — Santa Claus and his elves arrived in this discounted city Wednesday night without the help of reindeer, traveling instead by zip line. The jolly one flew past a giant plastic Christmas tree and landed near a Fremont Street casino marquee touting a 99-cent shrimp cocktail. St. Nick then disappeared to make room for the city's scene-stealing mayor, former mob attorney Oscar Goodman, who once nearly got me killed.
Yes, we go back a ways, and I'll get to that. I had stopped in to check on Goodman before he leaves office in June after 12 years of calling himself the happiest mayor of the greatest city in the world — a city that has gone boom and then bust on his watch. The median home price has hit a 14-year low of $120,000 amid a storm of foreclosures, and a recent study ranked the Las Vegas economy 146th among 150 of the world's metropolitan areas.
Not that any of that was the mayor's fault, nor has the bad news killed his party spirit.
"If people were smart, they'd be looking to leave their rotten weather" and move to Las Vegas immediately, where everything's on sale, said the mayor.
Yeah, all you've got to do is find a job in a city with 14% unemployment.
Goodman, who plans to open a speakeasy after he's termed out of office, was introduced at Wednesday night's tree-lighting ceremony by Councilman Gary Reese, who called him "the greatest person I've ever met in my life." Goodman told the crowd he'd rather share the stage with showgirls than a councilman. "It's amazing I don't have a martini glass in my hand," said the mayor, who has never been big on self-censorship.
In 2005, while speaking to fourth-graders, Goodman was asked to name the one thing he'd want with him if he were marooned on a desert isle.
A bottle of gin, Goodman told the kiddies.
"What am I supposed to take?" Goodman asked me. "The Old Testament?"
Rat Pack platitudes, and Goodman's claim that graffiti artists should have their thumbs cut off, only seem to have advanced his political career. He was reelected, twice, with more than 80% of the vote.
It's a job with little authority or power, said University of Nevada, Las Vegas, professor David Damore. So Goodman has used his favorite character — himself — to sell the city to the world.
Goodman would argue that he's more than a ceremonial figure. He'll tell you to put him down for making things happen, including some big downtown developments that include a furniture expo hall, a brain study and treatment center, and a planned new City Hall and performing arts center.
Not to mention the mob museum, scheduled to open next year, though the idea offended the sensibilities of a local Italian American group.
"They wanted to hang me."
Goodman said he joked that he'd been misunderstood — he was talking about a MOP museum. Then he got slick. He schmoozed a former Vegas FBI agent into not just supporting, but chairing, the nonprofit museum, which will occupy the former federal courthouse where a U.S. Senate committee on organized crime met in 1950.
The committee's findings on rackets led to gambling bosses around the country fleeing crackdowns and flocking to Las Vegas, where sin was celebrated. Goodman, now 71, has gone from defending guys with nicknames to running the city his defendants used to own. Wouldn't you be smiling?
"Have you met one person who doesn't say I'm the greatest?" Goodman asked me Thursday morning at City Hall, where he sits on a wood-carved throne in an office filled with gin bottles, photos of plumed showgirls and a display case with 11 different bobble-heads of guess who. (He autographed one for me).
Yeah, I told him. At the Christmas tree ceremony I met a transit employee who said she was tired of the lousy economy and didn't care to hear another word about the mob museum or the glory of Bombay gin, for which the mayor has been a pitch man.
Then there's Jon Ralston, local TV and print bulldog, who says Goodman is "a great actor" and self-promoter who helped reenergize downtown but squandered an opportunity to do more. He could have put his popularity to work improving schools and infrastructure, diversifying the economy beyond gaming and helping residents crushed by the economy.
Goodman does not like Mr. Ralston. At a Dec. 1 news conference, he refused to answer a question from Ralston's producer, who wanted to know the terms of a deal that will bring the Zappos shoe people to downtown Las Vegas.
"I said to someone, they should break her legs," Goodman told me.
Speaking of broken legs, I thought I was in for a tune-up in 1988 while covering a mob murder case in Philadelphia. Nine knuckleheads were on trial and from where I sat, they were guilty enough to begin writing up the batting order for their prison softball team.
Goodman helped them beat the murder rap, though, and I made the mistake of going to the Four Seasons hotel, where they celebrated with Italian hoagies and Dom Perignon.
"You were a schmuck," Goodman said.
Yeah, but I needed a column. And I got one when I was ordered to leave and threatened by a guy with knots on his head. Goodman, rather than help me, shrugged his shoulders while one of his lawyers ushered me through the lobby and onto the street, where I ran for my life.
Even now, all these years later, I look over my shoulder now and then. You never know when someone might be coming to cut off your thumbs.