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‘I am who I am’: Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman known for downtown renewal, speaking her mind

After 13 years, the New York native reflects on guiding the city through COVID and leaving her mark following her showman husband’s three terms in office.
Carly Sauvageau
Carly Sauvageau
Local Government
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When Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman and her husband, Oscar, first arrived in Sin City from Pennsylvania in 1964, finding little more than a dry desert landscape, she thought she had made a huge mistake. 

Fifty years later, the Goodmans are wrapping up a quarter of a century during which one or the other has been the city’s mayor.

The thick L-shaped jurisdiction that more than 656,000 people call home does not include the Las Vegas Strip but does contain the downtown arts district, The Smith Center for the Performing Arts and the University Medical Center (UMC) campus and surrounding medical district — developments that the Goodmans have helped shape. 

The flashy and outspoken couple has also been at the center of major controversies that gained national attention, including when Carolyn Goodman, now 84, offered the city up as a “control group” for how a metropolitan area could function without coronavirus shutdowns.

A year before the next general election, a long list of familiar faces in the Southern Nevada political landscape have jumped in the race for mayor in 2024, including Councilmembers Cedric Crear and Victoria Seaman as well as former Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley.

As the Goodman era comes to a close, many are looking back on what the mayoral couple has meant to Las Vegas — and what will come next. 

“It's more than a mayor,” said Derek Stonebarger, the owner of ReBar in the downtown Arts District. “They're the king and queen of Las Vegas.” 

Manhattan roots

Goodman was born Carolyn Goldmark on March 25, 1939, as the second daughter to two affluent multigenerational New Yorkers. Her father was an obstetrician and gynecologist and her mother was “all about her dissertation in economics” at Columbia University, where her mother’s father, Edwin Robert Anderson Seligman — who was an expert in taxation and was partly responsible for creating income tax — spent his career as an economics professor. 

Goodman described growing up with her parents and older sister as “a beautiful life where we were more seen … but not heard.” Just before Goodman was to start second grade, her family moved across the Hudson River to a New York high-rise near the hospital where her father worked.

The move meant a change in schools and Goodman being held back as she was about to enter second grade.

“I worked like a dog because I must have been the dumbest kid in the class,” she said.  

It was during her time studying sociology and anthropology at Bryn Mawr — a private, women-only liberal arts college in Pennsylvania — that a friend introduced her to Oscar Goodman, a man she said she was not impressed with at the time because of his “overstuffed, arrogant” persona.

That perception changed after she saw Oscar’s showmanship dissolve when he was with his family. The two have been a couple ever since.

Mr. and Mrs. Goodman go to Las Vegas

When she spoke to The Nevada Independent in September, Goodman said humor and mutual respect have kept her and her husband together for 62 years.

“We've been laughing a lot,” Goodman said.

When the couple decided to get married, Carolyn’s parents weren’t impressed with her choice in a spouse. At that time, Oscar was fresh out of college with plans to go to law school but was young, unproven and had no stable source of income.

Though the Goldmarks were Jewish just like the Goodman family, they tried to assimilate into New York culture as much as they could. They never attended synagogue and identified as Ethical Culturalists, according to Nevada author and columnist John L. Smith, who wrote the Oscar Goodman biography Of Rats and Men.

Ethical Culturalists believe life should be centered around creating meaning in the here and now rather than contemplating questions about the afterlife.

As Carolyn recalled in Smith’s book, her father thought Oscar had a lot of chutzpah to ask to marry his daughter.

However, Carolyn told KTNV she was actually the one to ask Oscar to get married: “I said ‘You know, I’d marry you if you just asked me.”

She said her parents wanted to break up the couple and tried to prevent their inevitable union. 

“They said if you wait a year, we'll give you a wedding,” Goodman told The Nevada Independent in September. “They figured sometime during that year I wouldn't wait and find somebody else. But that didn't happen, of course.”

Oscar and Carolyn Goodman in front of the Trevi Fountain in Italy on their 10-week honeymoon across Europe in 1962. (Courtesy of Carolyn Goodman)

The couple was married on June 6, 1962, by a rabbi and an Ethical Culturalist official at a club on 76th Street in New York City.

When they returned from their 10-week honeymoon in Europe, the Goodmans moved to a tiny apartment in Philadelphia while Oscar attended law school and Carolyn worked as a secretary pro bono for Oscar’s father Allan Goodman, who was an attorney. She also worked for Sun Oil Company, now known as Sunoco, for $72 a week, according to Smith. 

Seeking a change of pace after law school, Oscar jumped at an invitation from then-Clark County District Attorney Ted Marshall to work in Las Vegas. The Goodmans packed up 37 boxes of books and a bedroom set and moved to Las Vegas with $87 to their name.

At that time, the city had fewer than 100,000 residents.

“As far as the eye could see, there was nothing but rolling sagebrush,” Carolyn said. “And I looked at Oscar and I thought my parents were right. I never should have married him. It is a hole here.”

But it wasn’t long before the Goodmans were immersed in the Las Vegas community. While Oscar made a living defending some of the country’s most notorious mobsters, Carolyn worked in marketing for the Riviera Hotel. She eventually took a job with the developers of Caesars Palace before moving on to the Department of Labor to work as a career counselor. 

The Meadows school

The Goodmans always wanted kids, but they struggled to have children and eventually decided to pursue adoption.

“We had these four beautiful little kiddies that are 42 months apart. They're all adopted, each at three days [old],” Goodman said. “They're beautiful. They all returned to live here.” 

The oldest, Oscar Jr., is a prostate cancer researcher and medical doctor. He is 42 months older than the youngest, Cara, who Carolyn said has mayoral potential but who has no plans to leave her job as a therapist for the burn and trauma ward at University Medical Center.

Between Oscar Jr. and Cara are Ross and Eric. Ross is a practicing attorney with his own firm, Goodman Law Group. Eric is a judge for Las Vegas Township Justice Court and a former justice of the peace. 

It was while raising children that Goodman’s mind turned to the quality of their education, and she became interested in developing a continuum of education from preschool through 12th grade. In 1984, Goodman and North Ninth Street School Principal LeOre Cobbley founded The Meadows School. Goodman served as the president of the board that she helped organize and gathered funding for the school. 

What started as a collection of prefabricated modular buildings on 1.25 acres of a used car dealership parking lot loaned by a board member eventually became a prestigious private institution serving students from preschool through high school that has produced nearly 1,500 graduates, including Cara Goodman, who was one of three seniors in the school’s first graduating class in 1991.

Goodman announces an unexpected campaign

Oscar was sometimes known as “the happiest mayor in the universe,” often posing with a showgirl in one hand and a Bombay gin martini in the other. 

But it wasn’t all smiles and showmanship when Oscar was mayor. During his mayorship, he threatened to cut off the thumbs of graffitists in town and told the owner of the Plaza Hotel & Casino he would “burn that place down unless you fix it up.” He also received criticism for telling a group of fourth graders he would bring gin with him if he was stranded on a deserted island.

In 2004, Oscar got in trouble with the Nevada Commission on Ethics for handing out invitations during a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting to a cocktail party promoting his son Ross’ business, iPolitix. The commission ruled that Oscar had used his power as mayor for personal gain, which he decided not to appeal until Carolyn convinced him otherwise

This resulted in a legal battle between Oscar and the Nevada Commission on Ethics that ended with the Nevada Supreme Court ruling in Oscar’s favor.

Tom Letizia and the Goodman family on the night Carolyn announced she would run in 2011. (Courtesy of Tom Letizia)

Oscar declined an interview with The Nevada Independent.

Oscar’s big persona was a tough act to follow. After he termed out in 2010, several high-profile people jumped at the chance to be the next mayor of Las Vegas.

One candidate was former Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, who had no suspicion Carolyn would run when she threw her hat in the ring. Not even Tom Letizia, political consultant to both Goodmans throughout the decades, suspected Carolyn’s campaign announcement.

“I truly believe that what really changed her mind was she wanted to continue Oscar’s work,” Letizia said. 

Goodman's entry into the race a day after Giunchigliani filed altered the dynamics of the race.

Despite Giunchigliani’s name recognition, she was up against a candidate who shared personal commonalities with the older demographic that votes at a higher rate in local elections (Giunchigliani is 16 years younger than Goodman) as well as the Goodman brand.

“Oscar was a different mayor. He was more of the glitz and the show and making people feel the jazzy part of Vegas,” Giunchigliani said. “I figured that Carolyn was going to carry some part of that.”

Goodman won the 2011 mayoral race with more than 60 percent of the vote. Less than a fourth of registered voters in Las Vegas cast a ballot in the race.

Over the next decade, Goodman would win two more mayoral races, her third campaign starting with a health scare.

Oscar called Letizia the night before Goodman’s re-election campaign announcement in 2019, asking him to meet earlier than planned. With no idea what Oscar was going to tell him, Letizia met him at a cafe across from City Hall the next morning.

“He said, ‘You know, we haven't told anybody about this yet. The only ones that we’ve discussed this with are the family. But Carolyn was diagnosed with cancer,’” Letizia said.

She had stage 1 breast cancer in 2009 but was treated successfully with a lumpectomy. In 2019, the cancer came back with a vengeance — this time it was stage 2, still treatable but more aggressive.

“We had to run a different campaign,” Letizia said. “We realized that she wasn't going to be able to attend a lot of events.”

Letizia and Oscar worked together the next several months, with Oscar speaking on Carolyn’s behalf when necessary. Despite her frequent absence from campaign events, Goodman won in 2019 with nearly 84 percent of the vote.

Timeline

Facing a different political landscape

Despite her husband helping with her mayoral campaigns, Goodman said her relationship with Oscar hasn’t influenced her policies, mostly because of how much politics have changed since he last held office in 2011.

“It's so different in so many ways,” Goodman said. “It's because of COVID, it's because of societal issues, it's because of technology. And so when he's remembering … how to handle [issues] or try to add an input to something, it's irrelevant.”

Goodman said she and Oscar still enjoy talking about societal issues and agree in broad strokes on policy and approach, but when she comes home and he asks how the day went she usually just responds, “It was challenging.”

Over the years, the Goodmans saw that the city invested in arts and culture, from the creation of the Arts District to The Smith Center and Symphony Park. 

With financial assistance from the late Tony Hsieh, the Goodmans, through various city policies, brought major businesses downtown — not only Hsieh's shoe and clothing company Zappos but the Las Vegas Premium Outlets and World Market Center. Carolyn also moved with city staff to a new $185 million Las Vegas City Hall after leasing the old city hall to Hsieh to house Zappos for a 15-year $18 million lease

Under Oscar’s leadership, Las Vegas developed a medical district and downtown became home to the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, which specializes in treatment for those with dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

Mayor Carolyn Goodman during an interview at Las Vegas City Hall on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

While Carolyn was in the mayoral seat, the city created its own charter school, Strong Start.

The city in 2018 also opened the Courtyard Homeless Resource Center, which provides 24/7 medical and mental health services, legal assistance, as well as employment and educational opportunities for the homeless. 

Of the accomplishments, Carolyn said it was hard-working city staff that made everything possible.

“These past 12 years have just been phenomenal. We get everything done so quickly,” Goodman said.

But she has also dealt with fights on the city council, one of which turned violent, a global pandemic in a city whose economic driver is entertainment and controversial developments that cost the city millions. As downtown develops, businesses benefit from  the increased economic activity, but some business owners told The Nevada Independent during interviews for this story that they also worry they could one day be priced out of their properties.

Giunchigliani is one of several people who have said a lot more affordable housing needs to be developed in downtown Las Vegas. It’s a need amplified by ordinances Las Vegas adopted in 2019 related to where people experiencing homelessness can sit or lie down, which was met with protests at city meetings.

Carolyn says the ordinances don't criminalize homelessness, but former Nevada Homeless Alliance Executive Director Emily Paulsen said that the mayor’s claim was “categorically false.”

In September 2023, the city joined an effort to overturn protections for people sleeping outside that were secured through Martin v. Boise and Johnson v. Grants Pass.

But the controversy that attracted the most attention happened during the 2020 pandemic shutdown, when Goodman called for casinos to stay open and offered up the city’s residents as a potential “control group” on multiple national television networks.

Goodman calls for casinos to stay open during COVID-19 lockdown

On March 17, 2020 — for the first time since John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 — every casino in Nevada shut its doors. Unlike the 1963 shutdown, Nevada’s nonessential businesses stayed closed for 78 days, a decision made by then-Gov. Steve Sisolak with cooperation from the Strip’s biggest operators in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. 

“The decision’s been made in consultation with our health districts and the school superintendents. This is a courtesy call I’m giving you guys 20 minutes before I announce,” Sisolak said to the City of Las Vegas, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “The schools are closing tomorrow morning.”

The governor had spoken with casinos before he made the official announcement as well.

Goodman said following the shutdown order, the city was drowning in calls from thousands of people suddenly out of work.

“You can't even imagine the ladies on the phones all day long,” Goodman said. “And we're not responsible. It's the governor's office that's responsible.”

Goodman was vocal about her opposition to shutting down the casinos. On MSNBC, she said, “Let the businesses open and competition will destroy that business if in fact, [it becomes] evident that they have disease. They're closed down, it's that simple.” 

People wait to take their pictures in front of the Las Vegas sign on the Las Vegas Strip on Saturday, March 6, 2020. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

At that time Nevada was seeing around 100 new COVID cases a day. From the beginning of the pandemic until March 23, 2023, there were 12,093 deaths in Nevada. Of the people who died, 9,334 died in Clark County.

But the interview that would, much like the coronavirus, go viral and spread across the country was one with CNN’s Anderson Cooper on April 22, 2020.

During the interview, Cooper questioned Goodman’s comments from the MSNBC interview. 

“Doesn’t that sound like a virus Petri dish?” he asked.

“It sounds like you’re being an alarmist,” Goodman replied. 

When Cooper asked how she planned to open casinos, Goodman said she didn’t own a casino so it was out of her control. She also said Las Vegas should reopen and serve as a “control group” for COVID-19.

The interview quickly gained nationwide attention, with celebrities and YouTubers creating comedy videos about the interview. Clark County commissioners spoke out against Goodman’s stance and three of her fellow council members — Brian Knudsen, Olivia Diaz and Crear — wrote an op-ed to make it clear the council did not agree.

More than three years later — through the help of vaccines — COVID variants still surge but do not put the strain on the health care system they did in April 2020.

City councilmen Knudsen and Crear looked back on the situation during interviews in July.

“Of all my constituents, I would say 50 percent agreed with her and 50 percent didn't agree with her,” Knudsen said. “I didn't agree with her on that particular stance. But that's the job of being a leader as you step out ahead of everyone else.”

Crear also disagreed with Goodman’s stance but said that as a small business owner, he felt particularly affected by the shutdown.

“We're all Monday morning quarterbacks,” Crear said. 

As she looked back, Goodman told The Nevada Independent she “loved every minute of” the CNN interview and is still waiting for Cooper to apologize.

“It was supposed to be a three- to five-minute interview. It turned into 23 minutes,” Goodman said. “I know him well enough to know he thought, ‘I gotcha and I'm gonna use you.’”

Cooper’s office did not reply to The Nevada Independent’s request for comment.

Goodman stands by her opinion that the casinos should have never closed down. She is vaccinated but her worries now are for children who missed developmental milestones because of school closures and the toll the shutdown took on people’s mental health.

Las Vegas’ next mayor

Goodman said she doesn’t expect she or her husband to slow down anytime soon once she terms out. 

“I don't even feel 25 years old,” Goodman said. “Although I know my body knows it’s over 25. But [the time as mayor] has been an incredible good luck story for us.”

Oscar still gets media requests to talk about his time defending members of the mob and is the namesake of a successful restaurant downtown in the Plaza Hotel & Casino — the same establishment he threatened to burn to the ground if it wasn’t fixed up — named Oscar’s Steakhouse. Carolyn said she knows she has to do something or she will find herself lazing in her pajamas well into the day.

Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman during the grand opening at Weera Thai Market in Las Vegas on Thursday July 13, 2023. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

“I tried in my lifetime twice to retire. And after six weeks, I thought, ‘Nope,’” Goodman said. “So I have no idea what's next. There will be something. At this point I have another year and a half [in office]. So my concentrations are here.”

Who does she think will be the first to earn the title of Las Vegas mayor long after a quarter of a century of Goodmans, and who will she support?

Carolyn said she has only endorsed two people in her life — Knudsen and former Rep. Joe Heck — and she plans to keep it to those two. 

“I don’t endorse, that’s all I can tell you,” Goodman said.

Carolyn’s legacy

The Goodmans have often been remembered for their controversial opinions and glitz. The Washington Post called the couple “politicians so clearly [resembling] the place they represent, it's hard not to be in awe.” But many of those who have worked closely with Carolyn recall her work ethic and warmth.

“Carolyn Goodman is the hardest-working politician that I've ever met,” Knudsen said. “As a person, she makes you feel good every time you see her … She's warm and caring and remembers things about you.”

Knudsen, who married his husband in the Goodmans’ backyard in a service officiated by Oscar, said Carolyn always asks about his children.

Crear, who grew up with the Goodman kids, said the Goodmans’ door was always open, especially to children, and remembers their house was the first home where he’d ever seen a koi pond. 

Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman during city council meeting on Wednesday, June 7, 2023. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

As the mayor, Crear said Carolyn has maintained that approachable nature.

“I can walk right in [to her office] … and can have a conversation with her and she never turns you away,” Crear said.

Goodman said she views herself as “a very lucky person” to have the life she does working for Las Vegas.

Knudsen, Letizia and Crear agreed there is no difference between Goodman in front of an audience and behind closed doors.

“I am who I am,” she said. 

This story was updated on 11/13/23 at 9:20 a.m. to correct Oscar's relationship with Oscar's Steakhouse.

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