LAS VEGAS (JTA) — You haven’t heard a lot about Carolyn Goodman, which may be just how she wants it.
Goodman, 76, was elected mayor of this city in 2011, succeeding her husband, Oscar Goodman, who had served three terms and was barred by term limits from running for a fourth. She was reelected last year.
Whereas Oscar is “flamboyant,” as Goodman put it in an interview in her office overlooking the Strip, she is more self-effacing. She is prone to be gracious in victory, once praising her opponent following a tough municipal election as having “good intentions” for Las Vegas. Oscar, a former mob lawyer who played a version of himself in “Goodfellas,” had once called another challenger a “piece of crap.”
She’s also disarmingly candid, confessing that she was “born a brunette” and recounting with pride the adoption of her four children, whose photos surround her in her office.
“The second one’s an attorney, very much like his father, very aggressive,” Goodman said.
On the eve of the presidential caucuses in Nevada, Goodman shared her thoughts on the growth of the city’s Jewish community, the November election and how her husband would love to give Republican front-runner Donald Trump a run for his money.
Her seventh-story office, in a gleaming building towering over neighboring bail bondsmen shops, is a tribute to Oscar. There’s a huge pencil drawing in the foyer depicting moments in his mayoralty, with the centerpiece a portrait of Oscar and Carolyn Goodman smooching.
“Fifty-four years come June,” she said of her marriage. “It should have been 55, but my parents really didn’t like him.”
Did they come around?
“Yes, of course, one always comes around to Oscar,” Goodman said.
They met when she was at Bryn Mawr and he was at Haverford, when the suburban Philadelphia colleges were both strictly single-sex. He went on to study law at the University of Pennsylvania (as did two of their children) and was hired while still studying for the bar by then Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney Arlen Specter – later a U.S. senator – for a dollar an hour.
That’s how they came to Las Vegas in 1964.
“There was a wealthy Jewish widow by the name of Lulubell Rossman, who was murdered and the money that she kept under her mattress was brought out here to Las Vegas,” Goodman said.
The alleged killers were apprehended and returned to Philadelphia by two sheriffs. Specter, she recalled, told Oscar to take them out to dinner.
“At 2 in the morning, he woke me up and he said, ‘How would you like to move to the land of milk and honey?’” Goodman related. “And I said, ‘For heaven’s sake, we’re just newlyweds, I don’t want to move to Israel yet.’” (Later she said if it weren’t for her family, who all live in Las Vegas, and her job, she would consider aliyah.)
“So I said to him, ‘Whatever you want to do, let’s go look.’” They visited in May 1964 and moved in August that year.
Goodman was involved in the local Jewish federation from the get-go, heading the women’s divisions for several years while her husband made a name for himself defending the gangster Meyer Lansky and others with sobriquets like Fat Herbie, Lefty and Tony the Ant.
“When we came here in ’64, there was only one [Reform] temple and there was an Orthodox temple operating out of a little house on Maryland Parkway,” Goodman said. “And now I can’t even begin to tell you.” (Todd Polikoff, the current federation director, estimates there are about 60,000 Jews in Las Vegas, along with 28 congregations – only 15 have buildings – and four Jewish schools.)
What was attractive about Vegas? In Manhattan, where Goodman grew up, residents never met their congressman and had to wait for someone to die to get season tickets to Carnegie Hall. Las Vegas was wide open.
“To go ahead and do something, not to be recognized, but to be part of things growing and developing — we both had that urge,” she said.
After 17 years jointly in office, is there a Goodman legacy in Las Vegas?
Goodman doesn’t like the word, at least not applied to her.
“To me, everything that both of us did, but more specifically — as I say, I can only speak for me — I wasn’t looking to get any recognition,” she said. “If there’s a legacy here at all, I think that Oscar brought the town back, the core of the city of Las Vegas back, from crime-infested, boarded up, really scummy core of the city, back to vitality and began the whole initiative to see everything you see behind me take place.”
She swept her hand toward the picture window behind her.
Asked about the presidential election, Goodman – like her husband, an Independent – politely offered: “You want somebody who has the qualities and dignity of a presidential leader.”
I took that as a cue to ask if she’d ever met Donald Trump, whose Las Vegas tower is visible in the distance.
Goodman recalled an appeal her husband once made for Trump’s help in developing a rail yard the city had obtained from Union Pacific. Trump was interested, but soon they began arguing. Oscar, whose mother was an artist, favored an eclectic architectural approach. Trump envisioned something more uniform.
“I had such a headache when I left,” Goodman said. “You obviously have not met Oscar. He’s [like] Donald Trump, but so kind and good. And a religious, very religious man. I don’t know if Donald is or not.
“But two egos — like, humongous egos — and each one, every statement out of one man, the other one had to come back. I’m sitting there doing this between the two of them” — she swiveled her head like she was watching a tennis match — “and I’m thinking, oh my God. What a headache I’ve got from this,” she said.
Her husband was vindicated, she said, again gesturing to the city vista and a reward for architectural excellence from the U.S. Conference of Mayors, one of many plaques crowding her desk.
I pressed Goodman on her impression of Trump.
“He is who he is, when you see him, that’s what I saw, too,” she said. “He really does know how to hit everybody’s nerve center. I think Oscar, if he had a choice in life, he would love to be running against him right now.”
At 76 he’s too old, Goodman said of her husband.
“He would have a good time,” she said, “except, as I say, Oscar is really a very good Jew and very religious and very loyal to it.”