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Is Carolyn Goodman more than just a name?

Oscar’s better half has plans of her own if elected mayor

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Her husband is one of the country’s most recognizable personalities, but Carolyn Goodman says she’s ready to forge her own path as Las Vegas’ mayor.
Photo: Justin M. Bowen

It’s going to be awhile before I get my sit-down interview with Carolyn Goodman. She’s just arrived at her campaign headquarters off Meadows Lane, and everyone gathered here—volunteers and supporters alike—wants some face time. “This is pretty typical,” I’m told by Isabelle Holman, her volunteer coordinator and a personal friend for decades. “People are just drawn to her.”

Carolyn sits down with the group to talk about the “incident” from the March 11 debate. Mayoral candidate and businessman Victor Chaltiel referred to himself as the only non-politician present. Carolyn, sitting alongside City Councilman Steve Ross and Clark County Commissioners Chris Giunchigliani and Larry Brown, gently reminded him the same was true of her, reaching over and tapping his knee to make her point. Chaltiel responded by wiping off the spot on his pants where Carolyn had touched him. “I told Oscar, ‘I think we’ve got a lawsuit on our hands,’” Carolyn Goodman says jokingly. Still, she seems to understand that the incident represents a teachable moment for a rookie candidate and debater. The lesson: Casual gestures have no place in the cutthroat world of politics.

But just as quickly as the topic is raised, it’s gone, and Carolyn is quickly swept into another discussion. As I wait for my turn, I’m struck by the warm appreciation of each person who approaches Carolyn and spends some time with her.

Is it simply her last name? Because here stands Carolyn Goodman, who turns 72 on March 25, retired from the Meadows School and campaigning for the seat held by her wildly popular husband the past 12 years. Since entering the race, Carolyn has been called Oscar 2.0, Oscar’s puppet and other unflattering terms that suggest her candidacy amounts to little more than a fourth term for the happiest mayor on Earth. In addition, she faces some tough competition: Giunchigliani, Brown and Ross haven’t lost an election between them. Brown’s been a strong supporter of parks. Giunchigliani has proven herself to be a grassroots force. And Ross is a successful labor union leader. Carolyn? She’s primarily been a wife, mother and the founder of the private Meadows School in Summerlin. Yet here she is, leading the race. A recent poll has her at 36.5 percent of the vote, more than twice that of her closest competitor (Brown, with 17.5).

Again, I wonder: Is it the name? As I continue to wait for my interview, Holman insists Carolyn would be holding her own even if her last name were Smith. “Carolyn knows everybody.”

Carolyn and Oscar Goodman moved to Las Vegas in 1964 and started their family five years later, adopting four children from Nevada Catholic Welfare. Ironically, they chose Las Vegas for, among other things, its schools. “At that time, the Clark County School District was No. 2 in the nation,” Carolyn remembers.

She's currently projected in polls as winning the Las Vegas mayoral race, but Carolyn Goodman is taking nothing for granted, hitting the campaign trail hard.

Goodman obtained zone variances so her children could attend George E. Harris Elementary, run at the time by Dr. LeOre Cobbley. But shortly after she enrolled them, then-superintendent Kenny Guinn made a significant change. “They took all the schools in West Las Vegas and converted them to a one-year program where children were bused from around the community,” Goodman explains. “They spent one year there and then went back to their junior high.” Goodman found that ridiculous. She went to Cobbley and spelled out a plan that would allow her school to avoid the 6th grade centers and instead focus on technology and bilingual education. The predictable answer: No money. She was told she’d have to lobby the Legislature.

Instead, Goodman started her own school. In 1983, she met with 300 families, borrowed $300,000 (interest-free) from friends and founded her school on a meager acre and a quarter lot near Meadows Mall donated by Fletcher “Ted” Jones. Cobbley joined Carolyn there, and the Meadows School opened in 1984 for 140 students in grades K-through-6, with classes housed in modular buildings.

Today, the Meadows—relocated to a 40-acre parcel in Summerlin in 1988 after the Howard Hughes Partnership donated the land—is well known as one of Southern Nevada’s top college-preparatory academies. Its students typically attend and graduate from four-year colleges, and its coffers are big enough for teachers to continue receiving raises even in these tough economic times.

From the beginning, though, Goodman made it clear the school was not about making money. She incorporated it as a nonprofit and says, “Once anything is for profit, the goal becomes satisfying the stockholders. I wanted the focus to always be on the children. We really went out to find families of all races and religions, and we set aside a fifth of our operating budget for low-income families.”

Despite often working 60-hour weeks, Carolyn herself did not take a salary. That’s typical, says Holman, a former Meadows employee. “She doesn’t spend her money on designer clothes, she’s driven the same car for 20 years, and she never wants to take credit for anything.”

Goodman made another executive decision at Meadows: Every student and employee would have to be invited back every year. And she made it a point to meet directly with parents and students whenever problems arose. While she admits running a school is nothing like running a city, Goodman feels her skills will translate well.

“Every time Oscar would come home and talk about a problem with the city, most of the time it was territorialization. I used to see that all the time at the school—somebody who doesn’t want to let go of something,” Carolyn says. “I can address those things, working with unions, trying to get city workers to compromise, bringing both sides to the table. My philosophy is people get mad and hate things because they don’t understand the other side. You have to let people feel ownership and feel part of something, whatever it is.”

If Carolyn were only a politician’s wife, it might be easy to dismiss her validity as a candidate. But in the short time I spend with her, I’m struck by the woman’s natural charisma and absolute confidence. Her cadence is controlled and measured, and she isn’t big on small talk. When she says things like, “I’m to ... tal ... ly ... HONEST!” you don’t feel the need to argue.

Throughout our interview, Carolyn is in full game-face mode. She sometimes puts on sunglasses to combat the sun glaring through the window, but when she takes them off, her gaze is unwavering. The woman is focused.

Then Carolyn’s phone rings and that game face goes away. It’s hizzoner. The tone in her carefully modulated voice goes up slightly. This force-of-nature personality suddenly seems ... giddy. Upon hanging up, Carolyn knows she’s been caught. They’ll be married 49 years in June, she says, calling her husband “a genius” for the way he drew national attention to both vandalism (“cut off their thumbs”) and the homeless (“send them to the prison in Jean”). And she admonishes those who thought he was serious—“Oscar can’t kill a spider, for God’s sakes.”

It’s a glimpse of another Carolyn, the one who asks Oscar what he wants for dinner each night and has it ready when he gets home, along with a Bombay Sapphire martini. That might sound strange for a woman who helped build a successful school and who is now taking a shot at the city’s top job, but Carolyn just sees it as a sure path to a happy marriage. “Men are simple. And if you take care of those simple things, they’re happy.”

Meadows graduate Jenica Yurcic has known Carolyn almost her entire life. She tried taking the school’s admissions test in third grade, but didn’t know how to read and failed. At the time, her parents were living in Section 8 housing. “My mother called Carolyn from a pay phone at the Arizona Charlie’s bowling alley and asked for her help personally. Carolyn told her, ‘Teach her to read and try again.’ The first thing she tried teaching me to read was a car manual.”

Yurcic took the test again in 5th grade, and, although she again failed, this time she was admitted by a headmaster who saw her promise. It was the right call. Yurcic had to take out personal loans and get help from her grandparents to attend, but received Student of the Year honors all seven years she attended Meadows and graduated in 1995, going onto to become a successful lawyer. When she hears the name Goodman, she says, “I think of Carolyn, not Oscar.”

If Carolyn is elected outright on April 5 (she needs more than 50 percent of the vote for that) or in a general election in June, Carolyn has a definite vision for the city, including bringing in more retiree dollars. “There’s a huge retiree population in Buffalo and Chicago that could come here with no income tax, corporate tax, estate tax and enjoy this wonderful weather,” she says.

Carolyn admits the city would need “massive advertisement” from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, as well as the Nevada Development Authority, to accomplish her goal, “but that’s got to be sold to them, and I think I have a persuasive voice and somewhat of an intellect.”

In addition to “putting a lot of emphasis into medical care” and “making sure the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Brain Institute takes advantage of continual growth,” Goodman hopes to nurture the city’s cultural element, including “attracting more young professionals Downtown” and getting a supermarket built there to service their needs. With the cost of gasoline rising, Goodman has an idea for the Strip: “The hotels should say, ‘Come here and we’ll give you a tank of gas to get home.’”

Goodman notes that, technically, the mayor’s office requires little beyond holding city council meetings and declaring emergencies, but adds, “Look at all Oscar was able to accomplish.” She says she’ll aggressively pursue bringing new businesses to Nevada that will create new jobs and that she’s ready to be a voice for the city. Like Oscar … minus the showgirls and martini glasses. “Oscar can get away with things, like Don Rickles, that I can’t imagine getting away with,” she says. “I don’t need publicity, I don’t like publicity. In fact, this is very disturbing for me because it’s not me. Oscar loves the flamboyance, but I’m an under-the-radar type person.”

So why run? Carolyn says it’s a direct result of the Goodmans’ strong bond. “You cannot love someone if you don’t trust and respect them.” She believed in his vision when he first ran in 1999, and she wants that vision—particularly Downtown redevelopment—to continue. “What he accomplished is amazing to me. That’s the only reason I filed, to see [the city] continue in that direction.”

But Carolyn is careful to point out that she hasn’t supported her husband on everything. The two have had differences, like the F Street closure. “It wasn’t that it was so terrible a thing. It was the symbolism of what it meant,” Carolyn says, referring to the perceived disenfranchisement of a historically black community. And she had words for Oscar after his scathing response to President Obama’s two slights of Las Vegas: “I said, ‘No matter what, he is the President, and in my opinion, you respect him.’”

The interview is over, and Carolyn puts her sunglasses back on and gets up. But she doesn’t leave until she’s spoken, one-on-one, with the supporters gathered at her headquarters. She appears at ease through it all, never rushed. She’s a mayoral candidate, yes, but today she talks as casually as if she were in line at the supermarket.

She notices I’m about to leave, and suddenly her energy is fixed on me—I “have” to get a piece of her Carolyn Goodman for Mayor cake from Cardenas Markets. She won’t take no for an answer. Normally I’d have waved and kept walking, but damned if I didn’t leave with a piece of cake atop my reporting equipment. You try saying no to Carolyn Goodman.

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Ken Miller is Las Vegas Weekly's associate editor, having previously served as assistant features editor at the Las Vegas Sun ...

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