LAS VEGAS — In the parquet-and-Persian rug atrium of his ritzy office here, mayoral hopeful Oscar Goodman is fighting an uphill battle.
"I don't think that calling me a mob lawyer is a fair characterization," says thecriminal lawyer to an unyielding TV reporter. "Ninety-nine percent of your questions concern my roster of clients. I'd prefer to be asked what I envision for this great city."
Here in America's fastest-growing metropolis, image is often more important than fact. And Mr. Goodman is trying to convince locals and visitors that mafia connections are a thing of the past - both for himself and for the city.
Indeed, to many voters here amid the neon and dust, Goodman represents a fresh face - not a link to the city's shady past. To Americans, he's one of a class of plain-spoken politicians, like Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, who have found public favor despite - or perhaps because of - their bluntness and colorful backgrounds.
The polls predict a 35 percent margin of victory for Goodman. If they are correct, the man who has represented reputed mobsters Meyer Lansky and Anthony "The Ant" Spilotro will get his chance to prove that he and this Gotham in the desert once known as "Sin City" have both changed their ways.
"For 20 years, Las Vegas has gone out of its way to beat back the stereotype that the city is run by the mob," says Jeff German, chief political analyst for the Las Vegas Sun. "But now, having a criminal defense attorney of his stature become chief spokesman has brought back fears the city will be stereotyped again."
By most accounts, both Goodman and Las Vegas have largely cast off the organized-crime connections that continue to thrive in the public imagination. A multiyear federal investigation is expected to announce this month that the mob no longer has the influences it once had. And it has been years since Goodman represented anyone such as Lansky or Spilotro - whom Goodman defended successfully, despite suspicions Spilotro had murdered 22 people.
Over the years, such clients have amounted to perhaps 5 percent of his business, Goodman says, an outgrowth of his lifelong concern to support the underdog and give a fair shake to everyone.
"Mob lawyer is an unfair characterization of what I've been," he says in an interview here. "I'd rather be called a constitutionalist, because what I've done all my life is protect your rights and my clients' rights at the same time."
"As for the city," he says, "I don't think there has been any meaningful presence of what has commonly been thought of as organized crime for 10 to 15 years."
The right man?
Despite such assurances, some locals didn't think it was the best idea for Goodman to run. Whatever his past, he played himself in the recent movie "Casino," which starred Sharon Stone and Robert De Niro, whose picture adorns his office wall. A Las Vegas Review-Journal editorial called him a "barrister to butchers," writing: "Anybody but Oscar, mob mouthpiece wrong guy for mayor." And Chamber of Commerce president Pat Shalmy said, "the image we've been trying to improve over the years might be set back."
But by virtue of energy, wit, and unabashed boosterism, Goodman has managed to charm his way into a commanding lead, despite a lack of political experience. He says he wants nothing more than to have his city become "the greatest resort destination in the world."
That means cutting the burgeoning traffic congestion that has occasionally turned clear skies into dingy gauze. It also means managing growth - the population here has doubled to about 1.2 million in the past 20 years. The sprawl threatens the away-from-it-all desert life that attracts homeowners and resortgoers.
"Despite the fact that his messages lack substance and specificity, he has succeeded with a populist message because of personal charisma," says Michael Bowers, a political scientist at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. "The fact that he is a neophyte is part of the reason folks like him."
In Goodman's favor
Two other factors are working for him. His principal opponent, City Councillor Arnie Adamsen, has been a city official for 12 years without many achievements to show. Also, current Mayor Jan Jones has achieved great success despite her own lack of political skill when elected. Before her election, she was best known as a television ad pitchwoman.
"A lot of people who run for mayor of Las Vegas take it seriously, but the people don't," says John Smith, political analyst for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "Goodman hasn't run a campaign that is heavy on issues. He has told people he is a family man who has lived here 34 years, loves the city, and would never harm it, and to not be afraid of him. The bloc of voters who have gotten to know him have totally warmed to him."
What that means for the future, analysts here say, remains to be seen. The city has a weak-mayor system of government, in which four other councilmembers have equal voting power and a city manager runs basic city services.
So a mayor's main strength, they say, is his ability to set an agenda by force of personality.
There's plenty to do. With the skyrocketing population have come gangs, homelessness, and increased crime. And because the largest casinos have been built beyond the city limits, there are new inequalities Goodman says he must deal with.
He also speaks of helping to alleviate congestion by coordinating stoplights and making use of new highways. Meanwhile, increased developer fees will help pay for street lights, water, and police protection.
For now, Goodman says he will work to add more class to Las Vegas's glitz. That means attracting more intelligentsia to local universities and adding more bookstores, libraries, and cultural venues. But he also wants more boutiques, restaurants, and casinos.
"This city is really unlike any in the world as an adult playground, but also a community of real people with real problems," he says. "Making them both run smoothly is something only a can-do mayor will achieve. I intend to be hands-on."
Las Vegas snapshot *It is the sixth fastest growing city - and the fastest growing metro area - in the United States. Nearly 50,000 people relocate to the city each year.
*By 2000, it will have about 120,000 hotel rooms, more than any other city in the country.
*It has the least rain and snow and the lowest relative humidity of any metro area in the nation.
*It is the top metro area for income per capita, with a continual annual growth rate of 2.3 percent, according to the US Commerce Department.
*Some 6.6 percent of Clark County residents are problem or pathological gamblers, according to a recent study. Clark County surrounds Las Vegas.
*Nevada has the highest high-school dropout rate in the country: 9.9 percent.
Sources: Associated Press, Las Vegas Department of Commerce