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Las Vegas mayor's name in lights

Oscar Goodman's star power has inspired a stage production and wife Carolyn's campaign to succeed him in office. Challenger Chris Giunchigliani is essentially running against both of them.

June 03, 2011|By Ashley Powers, Los Angeles Times
  • Carolyn Goodman is considered the front-runner to replace her husband, Mayor Oscar Goodman, in Tuesday's election for the nonpartisan position.
Carolyn Goodman is considered the front-runner to replace her husband,… (Julie Jacobson, AP )

Reporting from Las Vegas — The lights dimmed at the tiny theater and out strode the play's lead character: a bespectacled, bearded, pinstripe-suited, gin-swilling, mobster-defending Vegas lawyer named "Oscar Goodfella."

The budget production traces his journey from Philadelphia to Sin City, where he cavorts with gangsters nicknamed "Pastrami" and "Sloppy Joe" and dotes on his blond wife, Carolyn, who sighs on cue at his shenanigans. Tired of courtroom brawls, Oscar runs for mayor.

"They want to meet you, not your policies," Carolyn says of the city's voters.

"I have no policies," Oscar replies.

Yet he wins handily, and plants himself in a Bavarian throne in City Hall for the next dozen years.

Fiction? Not quite.

The play, "Oscar: A Good Man," is essentially a collection of gags based on the Vegas-stereotype life of term-limited Mayor Oscar Goodman, whose theatricality turned a snoozer of a job into one of national (though not always favorable) headlines.

The show's mere existence explains why Goodman's wife, Carolyn, is considered the front-runner to replace him in Tuesday's election for the nonpartisan position, despite a feisty challenge from county Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani and some campaign bumbles.

"It's clear that if her last name wasn't Goodman, she wouldn't stand a chance," said Kenneth Fernandez, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Few mayors are colorful enough to inspire a playwright — it's hard to imagine "Tony: The Villaraigosa Story" or "Bloomberg!" But Oscar Goodman's stagecraft, which includes mayoral poker chips, feather-headdressed showgirls and Bombay Sapphire martinis (he has an endorsement deal with the gin-maker), papered over that the mayor technically has little power in the city — and none over the Las Vegas Strip, which is county turf.

"The economy is in the toilet right now, but it doesn't feel like that when you're around Oscar Goodman," said actor Derek Stonebarger, who adopted facial scruff and thick-rimmed glasses to play the mayor.

So Las Vegas barely bristled when Oscar ran his mouth about wanting to cart the homeless to an abandoned prison, open legal brothels in downtown Las Vegas and cut off the thumbs of graffiti taggers (none of which came to fruition). A grade-schooler once asked what he'd want if stranded on a deserted island. His answer: gin.

"Goodman is so prone to making outrageous and offensive comments, it is hard to be shocked by him anymore," a Las Vegas Sun editorial said in 2005. Two years later, he won his third four-year term with more than 80% of the vote.

Oscar's backers view him as a symbol of their devil-may-care city, which he defends with as much zeal as he once did reputed Mafiosos. They applaud him for railing against President Obama for saying bailout-funded executives shouldn't jet off to Las Vegas — though Oscar's fit probably drew more attention to the throwaway remark.

The Las Vegas mayor's role is mostly ceremonial. The mayor runs City Council meetings and can declare emergencies, but lacks veto power over the other six members of the council. Still, Oscar is credited with persuading nightclubs, art galleries and even a clinic devoted to brain health to open in still-scraggly downtown.

"When I go door to door, I find I'm running against a name ... people think it's Oscar they're supporting instead of Carolyn," said Giunchigliani, who's trying to push voters who normally blow off local elections to the polls. A former state lawmaker who bested more than a dozen contenders to face Carolyn Goodman in a runoff, she's been more focused on business licensing and urban planning than, for example, photographing a Playboy playmate (another Oscar stunt).

"He was flash and jazz more than substance," Giunchigliani said. "It worked then, but this is now."

Carolyn Goodman is no slouch either, having founded an elite private school. But while she's pummeled Giunchigliani as a hot-tempered tax-and-spender, she's also handed her rival some lines of attack.

She has appeared confused over the purpose of the federal DREAM Act, which would offer illegal immigrant children in college or the military a path to citizenship. She doesn't support legalizing gay marriage, though Las Vegas is considered a top gay vacation spot, and she angered some activists by referring to transgender people as transvestites.

(Is either issue relevant to being mayor of Las Vegas? That's also up for debate.)

Most vexing to Team Giunchigliani: Carolyn Goodman has offered few specifics as to how she would lead the city, besides carrying on her husband's push to transform downtown from gritty to gentrified and adding her voice to calls to better fund education and diversify the region's one-note economy.

"He is more of a consummate entertainer, but our core values are the same," she said during a campaign stop this week at an American Legion barbeque, as she waited for her husband to finish shaking hands.

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