Politics

Meet the Goodmans: Las Vegas’ Flamboyant Political Family

They’re into more than showmanship. They’re struggling to turn the gambling mecca into a thriving 21st century urban place.
by | January 2017

Everything is different in Las Vegas. Even something as simple as the launching of a bike-share program.

The bike event started out early on an October morning in standard photo-op fashion. At 7 a.m., workers began setting up a small stage beside the bike station outside the Downtown Grand Hotel and Casino. By 8:15, reporters from the local TV stations were there. Just after 9, the primary speaker, Mayor Carolyn Goodman, arrived. But one piece of stagecraft was conspicuously absent: There were no bikes.

The event started anyway. A reporter asked if the 77-year-old mayor would be riding a bike that day. “Only if it has three wheels,” she responded, explaining that as a child growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan she’d never learned to ride a bike. Reporters looked disappointed. They need not have worried. Moments later, “Viva Las Vegas” erupted from the sound system, and a whole cavalcade of Elvis impersonators, legs pumping furiously, rounded the corner on new City Share bikes. There were three Elvises in the lead -- each sporting the oversized gold-framed sunglasses, bouffant pompadour and white rhinestone suit that the King wore during his Las Vegas years. Behind them, wearing purple T-shirts and Elvis wigs, came a dozen government employees. Laughter swept through the assembled group as the media rushed toward the Elvises. You might call this Las Vegas politics, Goodman-style.

It’s been 17 years since the Goodman family took control of the city’s top elected office. Oscar Goodman, a flamboyant mob attorney -- he played himself in the 1995 Martin Scorsese movie Casino -- stunned political observers by winning the mayoralty in his first political campaign. He was re-elected twice. When term limits forced him to step down in 2011, his wife Carolyn decided to run. She was 71 years old and had never served in office before. Despite a somewhat shaky grasp of municipal issues, she won handily.

Oscar (in Las Vegas, he’s a first-name celebrity) was a showman. At a time when some residents and business leaders wanted to slough off Las Vegas’ louche past, Oscar embraced it. He attended events with showgirls on each arm. He kept a prop from the movie The Godfather -- the severed horse’s head the Corleone family put into the bed of an uncooperative Hollywood producer -- in his office. When a group of fourth-graders asked him what book he’d bring with him to a desert island, he said he’d prefer to bring a bottle of gin.

But it’s a serious mistake to regard either of the Goodmans as mere entertainers. Oscar, for all his unorthodox behavior and his shady past, was a genuine urban dreamer. He envisioned a time when the city, not just the casino resorts of the Strip, would become a global destination. He wanted a downtown with businesses, residents and attractions that included a performing arts center, professional sports teams and museums. And during his tenure, the city arranged a land swap that opened 61 downtown acres for development. Today, those acres are at the heart of an area that includes the 5-million-square-foot World Market Center, a brain research facility run by the Cleveland Clinic, a vast premium outlet shopping mall and the Smith Center for the Performing Arts.

Three-term Mayor Oscar Goodman made a point of embracing what makes Las Vegas unique.

When Carolyn first ran for office in 2011, she did so with the stated purpose of continuing Oscar’s work and building out the center of the city. But over the course of the past five years, she has emerged as a formidable politician in her own right, with goals, strengths and priorities different from her husband’s. Like Oscar, Carolyn has tended to the city’s downtown. But she’s also taken on an even larger challenge: finding a way for a city filled with hard-working but low-skilled service employees to thrive in an era when successful cities depend increasingly on well-educated knowledge workers. She is promoting school system innovations as a first step.

But a year into her second term, she is struggling with a familiar issue -- the rivalry between the city of Las Vegas and surrounding Clark County.

For decades, the casino resorts of the Strip, located outside city limits on county land, have overshadowed the older attractions of the city. The county used its portion of sales and hotel room taxes to build an infrastructure that would support sprawling suburban development. Developers responded by transforming the desert into strip malls and high-end residential enclaves. Meanwhile, the city increasingly became a magnet for a poorer population of casino and hospital workers, many of them Latino immigrants. That raises a fundamental question that the Goodmans are determined to answer: How does a blue-collar city make it in a white-collar world?

Despite some recent investments, Las Vegas remains a working-class, service-job town.

The Goodmans were an unlikely addition to Las Vegas when they arrived in 1964. Carolyn was the daughter of a prominent New York obstetrician and a graduate of Bryn Mawr. Oscar had a B.A. from Quaker-run Haverford College and a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. They moved to Nevada when Oscar got a job with the Clark County district attorney.

Back then, Las Vegas was a city of 70,000 people, but when Carolyn first saw it, it looked like a tiny outpost in the desert. “Everything you could see in the distance was rolling sagebrush, some cactus,” she recalls. “Far in the distance straight ahead were some little buildings. On your left was the Strip, maybe five buildings.”

Within just a few years of the Goodmans’ arrival, everything began to change. In 1966, Jay Sarno and his partners opened Caesars Palace on the Strip. With a 14-story, 700-room hotel and such over-the-top amenities as an entrance modeled on St. Peter’s Square in Rome, it was an order of magnitude larger than anything that had come before it. Equally grandiose casinos began appearing on the Strip nearly every year after that.

The scale of these developments was impossible to replicate within the city of Las Vegas, where land prices and the constraints of a city grid limited how large casinos could be. Development in Clark County took off. By the 1980s, growth in the county’s suburbs far outpaced growth in the city. “When we arrived here,” Carolyn recalls, “downtown was where everything happened. It was the hub, and then by the ’80s, early ’90s it became very, very deteriorated. Prostitution, crime‑ridden, drugs -- just yuck.”

While downtown Las Vegas was declining, the Goodmans were thriving. Oscar established his own practice as a defense lawyer, and soon attracted a lucrative clientele that consisted largely of organized crime figures. Carolyn, who was raising four adopted children, didn’t like the educational options available and decided to establish an independent secondary school, the Meadows School, modeled on her exclusive Manhattan alma mater. It was an audacious undertaking. The new school’s first facilities were a cluster of trailers on a car lot owned by the parents of one of the students. Within four years, it had moved to a 40-acre campus in the thriving western development of Summerlin. Carolyn served as president and chief fundraiser. Within a decade, she had built the Meadows into an elite prep school, with 900 students and a $19 million budget.

While Carolyn was building a prep school in the suburbs, a new mayor, Jan Jones, was taking her first steps toward reviving downtown. Jones used the power of eminent domain to convert part of Fremont Street into a covered pedestrian mall, where visitors would be entertained by a nightly light show. The idea was to turn a collection of small downtown casinos into, in effect, one giant entertainment space. “The Fremont Street Experience,” the city called it. To some extent, it worked. The number of downtown visitors rose. Jones, a telegenic Stanford business school graduate, also campaigned successfully to build the new Clark County administration building and the new U.S. courthouse downtown. These and other initiatives helped stabilize the center of the city. But when Jones proposed to consolidate city and county governments, allies such as the casino magnate Steve Wynn, who had made a major investment in the downtown Golden Nugget, begged off.

“I remember Steve Wynn saying to me, ‘You know what? You better drop this,’” Jones says. Wynn’s rationale was clear: He had too much at stake on the Strip to risk antagonizing county commissioners to please the city. The consolidation push died. Jones’ response was to run for governor, which she did, unsuccessfully, in 1994 and 1998. Her departure opened the door for Oscar Goodman. “I saw a malaise on the part of the people who were down here,” Oscar says now. “They had no energy. Nothing was happening. I said, ‘Geez, maybe I can do something. Maybe this needs a good kick in the pants, and maybe I could make it into something like the Gaslamp District in San Diego.’’’

Within days after Oscar announced his run for mayor, the influential Las Vegas Review-Journal published an editorial titled “Anybody But Oscar.” Most pundits viewed him as a sideshow doomed to lose. He did not. Las Vegas voters, many of whom were new arrivals from other parts of the country, were delighted to have a flamboyant outsider representing them. Oscar soon established a working majority on the city council. He also figured out how to deal with an political constituency: real estate developers.

By proposing an ingenious land swap with Lehman Brothers, which owned part of the old Union Pacific railyard downtown, Oscar secured the 61 downtown acres that now include the brain research facility and the performing arts center. But Oscar had dreamed of something more -- a city center with a diverse combination of residents, businesses and visitors. That was slow to develop. At the same time, the mayor was pursuing major league sports teams, but running into intense opposition. The casino owners wanted visitors to stay on the Strip and gamble, not go to a basketball arena or to a ballpark. The city was checked by the casinos and county interests one more time.

There was one deal Oscar struck, however, that the county could not block or compete with. At the end of his final term, Oscar arranged to sell the old City Hall to a group of investors who had landed an unusual new tenant, the Zappos online shoe retailer. Zappos was based in the suburbs, but its CEO Tony Hsieh had become a fan of downtown. He liked its bars and subcultures. Hsieh also worried about sustaining Zappos’ creativity as it grew into a mature company. Moving its headquarters to downtown seemed the perfect answer. At a time when Las Vegas was still deep in recession, the Zappos deal was the ultimate gift Oscar bequeathed to his successor, Carolyn. In 2012, Hsieh and his partners announced that they were investing $200 million in downtown real estate. They also pledged additional money for new small businesses, tech startups, education, arts and health care, bringing the total commitment to $350 million.

The Freemont Street Experience helped bring people downtown again.

Today, the once-prevalent claims that Hsieh could single-handedly remake Las Vegas look far-fetched. It’s not that Hsieh hasn’t had a big impact. He clearly has. Hsieh’s Downtown Project owns and operates 11 businesses. It has invested in more than 50 small businesses and more than 100 tech companies, and it has opened a school where children can learn to be entrepreneurs. It’s bankrolled entrepreneurs such as Natalie Young, who after years spent working as a line chef on the Strip received $225,000 to open Eat, a restaurant that serves as one of the hubs of the new downtown. Directly across the street is another attraction, the Container Park -- a complex of shipping containers outfitted as hip restaurants and shops, surrounding a playground and stage. Hsieh himself lives part-time around the corner, in a walled-off trailer park, filled with retro-chic Airstream trailers and tiny houses. In Oscar’s view, Hsieh has brought “tremendous value” to downtown Las Vegas.

What hasn’t come, at least not in significant volume, is the high-paying tech employment both the Goodmans have hoped for. Nevada’s other large city, Reno, a much sleepier place but several hundred miles closer to Silicon Valley, has had greater success attracting tech firms. The tech jobs that have migrated to the Vegas area are nearly all in the suburbs. The city itself has a robust services industry -- something with relatively little upscale employment. The Zappos employees are similarly placed closer to the bottom of the economic ladder. “I’m not going to demean them, because they certainly have a serious function,” Oscar says. “But the employees at Zappos are $10-an-hour phone people.”

That understates the entry-level wages at Zappos. But his larger point is that Las Vegas has not become the tech center thet Hsieh and the Goodmans hoped it would be. In short, five years after Hsieh’s investments, Las Vegas remains a primarily working-class, service-job town.

Whether that represents failure is a complicated question. As the economy has recovered, Las Vegas’ low-skilled, decently paying union jobs have attracted a new wave of immigrants, largely Latinos. In many ways, they are coming for what the city has always offered: a unique place in the post-industrial blue-collar economy. As Oscar likes to say, “the reason that people moved here wasn’t to live in the 125 degrees, but to make a living.”

The Goodmans have always appreciated this aspect of the city’s economy. But for Las Vegas to thrive, both believe it needs more skilled workers. It’s that challenge that has led Carolyn to focus on educational attainment.

The new city hall was started during Oscar’s term, but Carolyn was the first mayor to occupy an office there.

In their influential 2010 book, The Race Between Education and Technology, economists Lawrence Katz and Claudia Goldin argued that educational attainment drives economic success. Economists Ed Glaeser and Enrico Moretti extended this insight to cities. It turns out there’s one variable that correlates to cities’ success more than anything else -- the percentage of residents with a college degree. In the city of Las Vegas, only 22 percent of residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher, many fewer than in the country as a whole, let alone the nation’s most prosperous metropolitan areas.

Determined as she is to do something about this, Carolyn’s tools are limited. Fully 85 percent of school funding comes from the state. Nevada’s level of education funding ranks just ahead of Mississippi’s, at the bottom of the national charts. Even a half-billion dollar education initiative enacted by the state in 2015 is unlikely to move those numbers very much. Moreover, the local school district covers all of Clark County, leaving the mayor with only limited influence over the schools. Nonetheless, during her first term in office, Carolyn forged a close relationship with Clark County School District Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky. Together, the mayor and superintendent have focused on ways to better serve low-income students in the city proper. “There is this amazing redevelopment going on in downtown Las Vegas, but there is a glass barrier that is keeping the student who can see it from being a part of it,” says Skorkowsky.

To address the problem, Carolyn’s administration created a new Department of Youth Development and Social Innovation. For the past two years, Lisa Morris Hibbler, who heads the department, has worked with the school district, other jurisdictions and social services providers to coordinate services for students and their families, providing meals during the weekend and holidays, creating summer academies, and offering individual tutoring. Carolyn prides herself on that kind of collaboration. Oscar “would listen to you and then make a decision,” says Hibbler. “She wants to build a consensus and work with people.”

That leadership style was on display the day of the Elvis bike-share brigade. After posing for pictures, Carolyn made a beeline to a small group standing at the back of the seating area. That group included the heads of the city’s public works and community development departments. Las Vegas has a city manager form of government, and department heads report to the city manager, not the mayor. But you’d never know that from the interaction that followed. While the Elvises mugged for the cameras, Carolyn pressed the group about when the next aspect of the downtown transportation plan -- free electric vehicles serving the downtown area -- would start, and how different parts of its route would be paid for. “I follow up,” says Carolyn, when asked how her approach to governing differs from that of her husband.

Oscar agrees. “I told the city staff what I wanted to see happen. They made it happen,” he says. “Carolyn, on the other hand … she actually works. She goes to meetings. She participates in her ideas rather than having the staff do it.”

Despite Carolyn’s skills at consensus-building, however, the perennial problem of city-county rivalry persists. While Carolyn has worked well with the school district and with the mayors of other cities in the area, she’s struggled with the county board of supervisors.

Case in point: the Oakland Raiders. For years, owner Mark Davis had been exploring the possibility of moving his National Football League franchise to Los Angeles. Last January, the NFL rejected that idea, which prompted billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson to approach Davis about bringing the team to Las Vegas. Carolyn and the county embraced the idea, and the state legislature obliged by passing a $750 million public financing package (paid for with a hotel room tax) intended to help build a $1.9 billion facility.

Adelson wanted a site on the Strip. Carolyn wanted it in the city. Moreover, she believed the city had the perfect site -- a large parcel downtown. Building a stadium on the Strip would require at least $250 million in infrastructure upgrades, Carolyn reckoned. Her site had much better freeway connections, along with easy access to the more than 25,000 parking spaces downtown. “The property belongs to the city. It is not privately owned. We can give them that,” she says. “It is in the heart of where people live. It so hugely affects lower-income families, people that need jobs. Much like San Diego, San Francisco, Baltimore, Denver, you go into the heart of the city, you build, and everybody around it thrives, business grows.”

But that summer, the developers announced that they had narrowed their focus to two sites. Both were out in the county, just beyond the Strip. The Strip casinos were eager to upgrade roads in the area so they could handle more visitors. A stadium would jump-start those investments. A vote by NFL owners on a possible move is expected this year. Carolyn is still pushing for a city location.

What may be more important to realizing the Goodmans’ vision, however, is the city’s latest addition -- the new University of Nevada, Las Vegas, medical school, the first med school in southern Nevada, which will be built downtown. Instead of flying to Utah for advanced medical procedures, Oscar says, Nevadans will come to Las Vegas. At least some of the doctors providing those services and procedures will choose to live in the city rather than in the exurbs.

“You need high-quality medical care and research to build a world-class city,” Carolyn says. “You need world-class culture, and you need major league sports. That drives everything else.”

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