Has Oscar been good for us?
Tue, Dec 8, 2009 (7:45 p.m.)
I am occasionally asked why I hate Oscar Goodman.
I understand the question’s genesis—I have been relentlessly critical of Goodman, whom I believe is a remarkably skillful poseur, bringing to bear the same Olivier-caliber acting chops that helped him keep mobsters and other assorted vermin on the streets.
But I do not hate Goodman. I hate how he has treated some loyal employees. I hate how he has brought Mob mores to City Hall—you are with me or you are dead to me and how The Family (helping his wife’s school and his son’s business) is everything. I hate how, after downplaying his abhorrent client list by draping himself in the Constitution as a lawyer, he has spent way too much time subverting it as mayor, especially in his treatment of the homeless. I hate his self-above-all approach, which he claims also helps the city, but really has done so either intermittently or in inchoate ways that may never become complete. I hate his thuggish, classless nature, most recently in evidence when he publicly demeaned a woman’s figure during a charity event, a Goodman grotesquerie captured and shown to the world by TMZ.
Most of all, though, I hate to think what Goodman might have been, could have been. Like other big-city mayors, he could have brought his prodigious intellect, almost as capacious as his ego, to bear to become a leader for a state desperately in need of one during the last decade. Instead of telling fourth-graders the wonders of Bombay Sapphire or threatening to slice off the thumbs of graffitists or panting after national TV appearances by attacking the president on his travel-to-Vegas remarks, Goodman could have used his bombast to argue for a better K-16 education system, to talk about better ways to fund road projects, to be the force behind a broad-based tax system.
Oh, His Honor has blithely alluded to these topics. But there has been no follow-through, no commitment to serious issues as there has been his lust for attention, good or bad, from the smallest foreign publication to network news. Indeed, his utter lack of seriousness has epitomized his mayoralty. His enormous popularity has little to do with his accomplishments but derives from his Happy Mayor persona. He will do almost nothing to risk that popularity because, it seems, he needs the people’s love so badly.
Goodman has been good for Goodman—of that there can be no doubt. But has that translated into being good for Las Vegas?
Goodman surely believes his legacy will be his rejuvenating a Downtown that was populated when he was elected 10 and a half years ago by dying casinos and a wheezing Neonopolis. The casinos are still dying and Neonopolis has wheezed itself into a coma, but there are changes.
From the World Market Center’s sprawling complex to the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Brain Center to the soon-to-be-seen Smith Center for the Performing Arts, Downtown has shown signs of life. The 61 acres, purchased early in Goodman’s term, has given the city the opportunity to master-plan a site that could change the feel of Downtown Las Vegas.
But did Goodman make all of this happen? He once derided the World Market Center proposal as a furniture warehouse and showed little interest. And spirit man Larry Ruvo and ex-gamer/banker Don Snyder are much more responsible for the brain center and performing arts complex, respectively, than Goodman.
But here is what the mayor deserves credit for: When he announced his candidacy on March 4, 1999, Goodman declared, “I want to be Las Vegas’ ambassador to the rest of the world.”
He has made good on that promise. And in so doing he has—mostly—created interest in the city from entrepreneurs, some legitimate and some not so, who might not have come without Goodman’s ebullient hawking of Las Vegas. Yes, his showgirls-on-each-arm approach has emphasized his unseriousness to national audiences at times. But even though a booming economy for most of his term might have attracted developers even if we had a mayor without Goodman’s flamboyance, he deserves kudos for taking advantage of the opportunity to become not just the happiest mayor but the greatest salesman in the universe.
I do find it ironic, for those who don’t remember, that the man who ran against developers, who promised to impose impact fees on them (never happened), turned the city into Roundheels Central, where no tax incentive is too great for any developer who can take advantage of Goodman’s good will, so long as His Honor gets to take credit.
Goodman has made all manner of promises about Downtown during his tenure, yet his legacy is likely to be undetermined when he leaves. Professional sports still seem unlikely. And many Las Vegans have not changed their feeling about going Downtown because those casinos are not beacons of beauty, nor does the Fremont Street Experience light up many locals’ imagination.
Goodman also seems slightly delusional about his city hall project, which I believe he hopes will bear his name. He must believe his popularity alone can sell the public, but in these economic times that seems evanescent. And we are supposed to be excited that the developers want to build a casino, too? Just what Downtown needs.
To be fair, Goodman took on what seems an unsolvable problem. Not only is any Downtown redevelopment problematic, but try attracting folks to one that is unlike any other inner city and whose anchor tenants are aging casino properties. Surely he has done as well or better than anyone could have.
But in the end, that seems small ball compared to what he might have done—and perhaps, still could do. Goodman is smart as hell, has a unique populist charisma and is a remarkably quick study. He knew nothing about the city when he ran, and now he is a veritable encyclopedia.
He could do the same for the state—if he wanted to, if he could turn outward instead of focusing inward, which I doubt. I hope Goodman ultimately isn’t satisfied with whether he was good for Las Vegas and perhaps decides to apply himself and show he can be good for the state.
It may be that no one else could really change the way Nevada works, no one else could truly go above the usual crowd and play to the bleachers—if he really wanted to do that and not just get more applause from the cheap seats.
If he did, I surely wouldn’t hate that.