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Of Rats and Men

October 20, 2003

Most people know Las Vegas as the slickly packaged, corporate version that is hawked coast-to-coast by the local government's convention authority these days. But, not so long ago, Las Vegas was just a dusty, desert town where a few of the nation's wise guys, bookmakers and one defense attorney came to reinvent themselves.

Guys that were considered crooks and hoodlums somewhere else blew into Vegas with its legalized gambling and became the city fathers. Talk to any of the city's old timers and they wax eloquent about the good old days when the town was run by the Mob, when your wife or girlfriend could safely walk unattended anywhere in the city.

No one pines for the old Vegas like Nevada's best writer, John L. Smith. Smith has chronicled much of the Las Vegas story in his books about the city's famous and notorious, as well as in his columns in the Las Vegas Review Journal newspaper. His latest book, Of Rats and Men: Oscar Goodman's Life From Mob Mouthpiece to Mayor of Las Vegas is the biography of Las Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman. Goodman describes himself as the "happiest mayor in the country." Once happy hour starts, and Goodman commences to consume his considerable daily intake of gin martinis, no doubt, other mayors would be hard pressed to keep up in the happiness department.

Goodman only recently became a politician, winning the mayor's seat as a long shot candidate in 1999. Goodman was thought to be unelectable after years of defending the likes of Meyer Lansky, Nick Civella, Tony Spilotro, Frank Rosenthal, Nicky Scarfo, and Vinny Ferrerra, plus a host of other organized crime figures.

The bulk of Smith's book is devoted to stories of Goodman's defense of these mobsters as well as his representation of U.S. District Court Judge Harry E. Caliborne, Mustang Ranch brothel owner Joe Conforte, Jack Gordon (LaToya Jackson's ex-husband), wife-beating country star Tracy Lawrence, drug addict casino mogul Ted Binion, and even ear-biting boxer Mike Tyson. Goodman specialized in defending the undefendable.

Las Vegas is a town full of big egos, and Oscar Goodman has arguably the largest. Because of his ego, Goodman didn't take every high-profile case offered. In 1994 Goodman was approached to be on O.J. Simpson's dream defense team, but Goodman passed. He also passed up an opportunity to be on former Panamanian President Manuel Noriega's defense team. Sitting second chair is not Oscar's style.

Mr. Smith and his subject share a reverence for the mobster types that controlled old Vegas, and a healthy distain for the Federal Government that would stop at nothing in an attempt to convict these men that allegedly trafficked drugs, ran prostitution, operated gambling operations throughout the country, and skimmed profits from Nevada casinos. Although suspected of murder and other atrocious crimes, Goodman believes that his clients were men of honor, while those in government and their informants were rats of the worst kind.

The following paragraph from the book captures Goodman's essence:

The government hated to be upstaged or proved wrong and Goodman was not a congenial combatant. He gloated in victory, snarled in defeat, and never gave an inch. Prosecutors had been his clients' mortal enemies and that made them his enemies, too. Even after 35 years, he remained a one-man revolutionary whose deep distrust of government bordered on anarchy. Long-time observers of Goodman saw a man who would rather have thrown a bomb in the courtroom in order to make a statement than cut a deal for his client. Oscar Goodman would never go quietly into that good night.

Anarchist Oscar has become "hizzoner" having served as mayor for four years and counting, winning re-election this year with an extraordinary 86 per cent of the vote. Instead of going toe-to-toe with the government, he is the government, except the office of mayor has very little power plus the land controlled by the City of Las Vegas is relatively small compared to that controlled by the Clark County Commission. Essentially, all that a Las Vegas mayor can impact is downtown. The world famous strip, with its seemingly endless rows of corporate-controlled attractions, is located in Clark County. And, the fastest growing municipalities in the valley are Henderson and the city of North Las Vegas, each becoming a sea of stucco suburbia where the politically correct are trying to outlaw the growing of grass.

A decaying downtown is the only canvass for Goodman to paint his legacy on. He continually tries to attract a major league sports franchise to the city. He has proposed rounding up the city's homeless and shipping them to a prison in Jean, Nevada, south of Las Vegas. He insists on dictating what can and will be built on 61 acres of city-controlled land that he calls "the most valuable real estate in the United States." Although the real estate market dictates that tilt-up concrete office buildings are in demand and the most likely use for the 61 acres, Goodman will have none of it. He is holding out to make downtown Las Vegas a major league city worthy of his vision. The market be damned. Additionally, Goodman's city health and building inspectors are now aggressively working to bulldoze private property that the city considers blight.

Goodman has made the complete transition from government agitator to log-rolling politician. When the local office of the FBI was thinking of moving its offices outside the Las Vegas city limits, Goodman stepped in, delivering 5.3 acres to the U.S. Government at no charge. A new IRS building is also on the drawing board for downtown. It's hard to imagine the Oscar Goodman of twenty years ago handing land over to his archenemy.

Mayors throughout the city's recent history have partnered with developers hoping to create attractions to re-vitalize downtown. Goodman is no different. None of these projects have accomplished anything other than wasting taxpayer money.

Goodman is so popular that he was courted heavily to run against incumbent Republican governor Kenny Guinn in 2002. But, again his ego wouldn't let him run against Guinn. "Why didn't Goodman run for governor?" Smith asks, "Because he didn't want to work a smaller room under a smaller spotlight.

"He would have gone out of his mind in Carson City, where his nightlife activities of [sports] betting and Beefeater might not have been fully appreciated. For the consummate showman, giving up his starring role as Las Vegas mayor to run for governor would have been like leaving Broadway to pursue summer stock in Winnemucca."

Anyone who is fascinated with mobsters, that love The Sopranos or who enjoyed the movie Casino (Goodman played himself in the movie) will not be able to put down Of Rats and Men. Goodman was the mouthpiece for dozens of wise guys with funny nicknames, and John L. Smith chronicles the stories of all of them through the memories of Goodman and his wife Carolyn, plus a wide array of sources, both friends and foes.

What Oscar Goodman now does best is shill for the new Las Vegas, while continuing to relentlessly self-promote. As the book makes clear, the Oscar Goodman story is far from over. But, as the city has gone corporate, run by lawyers and CPA's, much of the charm of the old Las Vegas that Goodman was so much a part of, has been lost, no doubt making Goodman and his biographer very sad.


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