In 1964, newlyweds Oscar and Carolyn Goodman, from Philadelphia and New York City, respectively, relocated to Las Vegas. As a high-profile criminal defense lawyer, Oscar Goodman would gain national attention for his success in representing mobsters and other controversial clients in Vegas. Then, like a Hollywood script (he played himself in Martin Scorsese’s 1995 mob epic Casino), he became the city’s mayor, serving three consecutive terms from 1999 to 2011.
Carolyn Goodman is her own Vegas champion, with education among her forefront missions. In 1984, she established and ran The Meadows School, Nevada’s first nonprofit, college preparatory school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grades. She retired in 2010, and one year later, her husband swore her in as the city’s second-ever female mayor. Her third and final term runs until 2023. Their spousal succession as mayors is believed to be the first in the U.S.
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Ardent ambassadors of all things Vegas, the couple spoke candidly in April on what drives this unique American destination in good times and, as now, when the chips are down.
What brought you to Vegas in 1964?
Oscar: As a third-year University of Pennsylvania law student, I had inquired about a clerkship at the Philadelphia D.A.’s office. Arlen Specter hired me and put me on a murder case involving two suspects that had fled to Vegas. That experience prompted me to apply for the Vegas D.A. job. I asked Carolyn if she wanted to move to the land of milk and honey. Anywhere but Israel she said! Right after taking the Pennsylvania bar, we drove to Vegas and haven’t had a bad day since.
Carolyn: We arrived with $87 between us. But the 24/7 excitement and action of Vegas was all we needed. Our parents raised us to lead purposeful lives. And Vegas, then as now, is a place where you can truly participate and make a difference.
Oscar: Vegas is for second chances in life. Just work hard and don’t bother anybody. Individuals are defined by whatever is happening at any given moment. Big shots are creatures of their own imagination—everybody contributes to making Vegas great.
Define your style of leadership.
Oscar: Courageous and decisive. Like Churchill in WWII. Otherwise, we’d all be speaking German. Or, nothing happens. You get mush. And right now, we are in a state of mush.
Oscar: Vegas has overcome potential disasters before. One week after I became mayor in 1999, we experienced a 100-year storm. Our streets were rivers. I declared an emergency and told people to stay home. In 2017, we suffered the Route 91 Harvest Festival massacre. Carolyn held her head high for the city and called for courage. But COVID-19 is different. We are fighting for economic buoyancy as hospitality workers, small business owners and other citizens and their families are shut out and suffering behind the scenes.
Carolyn: I look at Las Vegas as a real example of life in the United States. Many people perceive Vegas purely as a non-stop playground. But this is an exceptionally diverse community of 2.5 million people, many of whom came here intentionally to contribute to the city’s creative and cultural expansion. They are integral to our efforts to become a truly world-class city. Successes include our philharmonic and ballet; our entertainment and dining scenes; and venues like The Neon Museum and the Mob Museum that tell our unique story. Now, some 80,000 of those people have filed for unemployment, pushing the rate from two percent in March to 30% in April.
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How are you responding as mayor?
Carolyn: All my efforts go to maintaining a positive outlook. Throughout the shutdown, I am conducting all city council, planning, recommending committee and other business, in public, in our chambers. I want our community and the world to see our readiness to get back into the groove once this pause in the action passes.
Relationships are solid gold in Vegas—what is the heart of your bond?
Oscar: Here I was representing mobsters and she was running The Meadows School. It was strange bedfellows, even at home, but it all worked out.
Carolyn: We can have a go at each other but always have fun together. The ability to laugh in good times and bad helps everyone who loves someone. And we still pinch ourselves at our luck in waking up every day in fabulous Las Vegas.
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