LAS VEGAS - Oscar Goodman knows exactly how his life would have turned out had he not relocated to this desert gambling mecca back in 1964.
"If I had stayed in Philadelphia, I would have become a federal judge. All of [Arlen] Specter's aides became federal judges," said the 70-year-old West Philly native who began his legal career working for the then-assistant district attorney and current U.S. senator from Pennsylvania.
But Philadelphia's less-than-ideal winter climate and his own sense of adventure brought Goodman to Las Vegas, where today he is enjoying his third and, by law, final term as the city's mayor.
Despite common assumptions, the city of Las Vegas, over which Goodman presides, begins at the northern end of the Strip, about where the Stratosphere casino-hotel is. The part of the neon-trimmed highway that houses mega-resorts like Caesars Palace and Bellagio is a separate jurisdiction.
The gregarious, flamboyant (some might say outrageous) Goodman is a perfect fit for his town. After all, he's a guy who feels under dressed if he's seen in public without a hand wrapped around a martini glass and an arm around a showgirl.
His office is hardly what you expect to find in a city hall: Visitors are greeted by a floor-model replica of the iconic Las Vegas sign bearing the inscription, "WELCOME TO FABULOUS MAYOR GOODMAN'S OFFICE."
The anteroom is lined with large display cases boasting numerous pictures of Goodman with the likes of presidents Obama and Clinton, singer Michael Jackson and actors Tony Curtis and Steven Seagal. There also is an impressive array of personalized sports memorabilia, including a pair of boxing gloves from Muhammad Ali and an Eagles helmet.
His spacious personal office is crammed with more pictures, awards and countless tchotchkes. His desk is a huge, cluttered semicircle of dark wood upon which are two 1.75 liter bottles of Bombay Sapphire gin, for which he's served as a celebrity spokesman.
Behind the desk is an ornately carved wooden chair that extends at least a foot above his head and looks far more like a throne than a standard-issue executive seat.
"There is a clown component to Oscar," said John L. Smith, political columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and author of "Of Rats and Men: Oscar Goodman's Life from Mob Mouthpiece to Mayor of Las Vegas" (2003, Huntington Press).
"He can put his foot in his mouth as quickly as anyone I've ever seen. And Oscar can't resist the crowd."
Among Goodman's more notorious gaffes was his response to a question asked by a fourth-grader during an elementary school appearance. A student wanted to know what Goodman would want with him if he were marooned on a desert island. Hizzoner responded, "A showgirl and a bottle of Sapphire Bombay Gin."
But there's a method to his frivolity after all.
Smith described the mayor of Vegas as historically being "just another city councilman [but with] ribbon-cutting privileges" until the Haverford High School/Haverford College/Penn Law School alum took what was "essentially a part-time job and corralled it into a strong-mayor form of government."
In the process, Goodman has ruffled some feathers, including those of municipal ethics watchdogs. In 2004, the Nevada Commission on Ethics determined Goodman had breached regulations by having his name on the letterhead of his son Ross' law firm. However, no fine was levied; Goodman subsequently went to court and had the panel's ruling overturned.
But the local media kept up the drumbeat, and later that year, Goodman ultimately bowed to the pressure and had his name removed from any official documents issued by the firm.
Not that such dust-ups have affected his political standing. And citizens who gave Goodman 86 and 84 percent of the vote in his two re-election bids have been repaid with an unprecedented downtown renovation agenda.
The city of Las Vegas has long been the victim of the kind of urban blight and decay more commonly seen in older Rust Belt cities. But Goodman has offered a blueprint that includes a brain-studies center operated by the prestigious Cleveland Clinic (construction began last year); a 61-acre master-planned community; a performing arts center, and, if Goodman gets his wish, a "mob museum" and an arena that would someday house an NBA franchise (although the latter is considered by many to be a long-shot given Las Vegas' legal sports betting).
Not bad for a guy who arrived here with his wife, Carolyn, and "$87 in our pockets."
The go-to guy
Goodman chose to migrate to the Nevada desert after a couple of Vegas cops - who happened to be in Philadelphia testifying in a case Goodman was working on while in the district attorney's office - suggested that it would be a good place for him to settle.
At first, he found work as clerk in the D.A.'s office. Then he became a public defender before opening his own law office. "And it's been 'Katie, bar the door' since," he said with a smile.
Despite a legal environment where "nobody was making a living doing criminal law exclusively here," Goodman persevered.
"You took any case that walked in the door to bring home the bacon," he remembered. That included filing bankruptcy for a blackjack dealer at the long-gone Hacienda Hotel, where his wife enjoyed playing at the $10 tables.
The work was as minor as it comes. But his association with that dealer would lead Goodman down a path he never could have envisioned while growing up at 61st and Christian - and certainly not while toiling in the D.A.'s office.
As Goodman tells it, a Hacienda casino pit boss one day received a call from a "big East Coast" mobster who said he was looking "for the best criminal lawyer in Vegas" to represent his stepbrother. "The guy I did the bankruptcy for said, 'Get Oscar.'
"So I get a phone call telling me to come to such and such an address. I'm scared to death. I get to the address and a guy hands me three hundred-dollar bills and says [affecting a gravelly gangster voice], 'Here's three dimes. You'll get a phone call tomorrow. You better win the case.' I started to shake."
Goodman went on to win the case, which, in late 1970, led to Goodman becoming the Mafia's go-to guy for legal affairs.
A mob-connected bartender in Minnesota had become the first of 19 people tried under newly instituted wiretapping laws championed by then-U.S. Attorney General (and future felon) John Mitchell. The defendants' brash defense counsel actually deposed Mitchell who, under questioning, admitted it wasn't his signature on the warrants requesting the taps (a legal requirement).
Goodman won 19 acquittals, and "Get Oscar!" became the slogan for many of the nation's most prominent gangsters, including Meyer Lansky, Anthony "The Ant" Spilotro and Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal (the latter two were portrayed as "Nicky Santoro" and "Ace Rothstein" in the 1995 movie "Casino").
Goodman, the father of four grown children (one son is a judge) and grandpop of six, found fame and fortune - not to mention the enmity of federal cops and prosecutors - as a mob mouthpiece. But he eventually got bored with his work with organized crime figures, especially after Spilotro, with whom Goodman was especially close, got whacked in 1986.
"Representing Spilotro took up a lot of time. After he died, I had a big void in my life," he recalled.
Goodman branched out to civil law, winning a landmark case on behalf of a young boy who suffered severe and permanent damage after being vaccinated for mumps. Besides getting his client a massive cash award, Goodman's work resulted in new federal product liability laws. But even that didn't quiet his restlessness.
"I began to see how much I could charge people, and I really began to dislike myself. That's not who I am," he said. So, in 1998, in the face of what all the experts and pundits saw as overwhelmingly unfavorable odds, Goodman decided to run for mayor.
Now in his 11th year in city hall, Goodman has no plans to slow down once his term concludes in May 2011. While he hasn't yet declared his candidacy, neither has he ruled out a run for governor of Nevada. He recently changed his party affiliation from Democrat to independent, a reflection of what he's described as his frustration with the two-party system.
"I need the governor's race like I need a hole in the head," he reasoned. "But my nature is to go where others fear to tread."
Although he acknowledged the rest of the state's electorate is neither as sophisticated nor as liberal as Las Vegas', he insisted if he does run, he won't conform to what voters in what he likes to call "the cow counties" might want him to be.
"I won't change," he said. "I envision making my announcement to run for governor with showgirls on my arm. If [the people] don't like it, they can vote for someone else. And if I'm governor, I'll cavort with showgirls and I'll keep drinking my gin and betting on anything that moves.
"I won't change!"