LAS VEGAS — For 12 years, Mayor Oscar Goodman has been a flamboyant constant in a city where aging headliners and iconic casinos are routinely replaced to make way for the next big thing. But Las Vegas voters will find his name missing from Tuesday's primary election ballot.
After three terms and countless martinis, the self-proclaimed "happiest mayor in the world" is term-limited. Eighteen hopefuls are vying to succeed him.
In a strong signal that the city's political life might not be changing that much, however, the front-runner is Goodman's wife, Carolyn.
In an election that in many ways has become about who has the outlandish personality, popularity and negotiating skills to succeed Las Vegas' ultimate showman, Goodman wants his legacy continued with the mother of his four children.
Carolyn Goodman, who for years has attended public events alongside her husband and his regular entourage of feather-draped showgirls, is somewhat of a celebrity, too. She founded a local school attended by the children of casino owners and other Sin City luminaries and shares his same acid wit. She's raised more cash than any other candidate in the field.
Oscar Goodman has all but handed her the keys to City Hall.
"It's hers to lose," said Jan Jones, a Caesars Entertainment Inc. executive who preceded Oscar Goodman as mayor. "Carolyn has strong name identification. She is a powerful figure in her right."
Among the crowded crew of candidates trying to best her, or more likely finish second and force a runoff, is an affluent Frenchman who kisses female voters on the hand, a tequila maker and a handful of elected officials with strong policy pedigrees but none of Goodman's showmanship. They argue Las Vegas needs a serious leader to pull it up from its hardest stumble yet. Nevada tops the nation in unemployment, and the Las Vegas casinos that have long carried the state's limited economy are hurting in this era of thrifty tourists.
"He has been continuing with his gin and girls when people are losing their jobs and houses," said Victor Chaltiel, a French venture capitalist who has pumped more than $1 million of his own money into his campaign to replace Oscar Goodman. "It would have been appropriate to say, 'This was fun, but it's now time to get to business.'"
Oscar Goodman is the first person to admit he would be mayor for life if the law allowed it. The former mob lawyer who ran for office in 1999 despite questions about his lawless friends has transformed what was once a do-nothing City Council position into one of the most powerful posts in Nevada.
"Whoever the mayor is, they are going to have their work cut out for them," Goodman said. "If anyone tries to copy me, they will fall right on their face."
The mayor's relentless civic cheerleading and penchant for shocking statements – he has advocated for cutting off the thumbs of graffiti vandals, told a room of school children he'd bring a bottle of gin if he were stranded on an island and is a staunch defender of legalized prostitution – won him international recognition.
"He played with that notion of what Las Vegas was," said Mark Fierro, a Las Vegas publicist who managed Goodman's first campaign in 1999. "He said, 'We know what you think of us' and he turned it into a positive."
Goodman quickly became a one-man extravaganza, passing out poker chips bearing his moniker and leading the local tourism group. He also rallied to restore the run-down casinos of downtown Las Vegas. Homeless camps, illegal prostitutes and drug deals around Fremont Street have since given away to family-friend LED shows, hipster bars and emerging art galleries. More recently, Oscar Goodman arranged a coup to steal Zappos.com from next-door Henderson. The high-tech retailer agreed to occupy City Hall after city officials move into a new downtown headquarters starting next year.
His vision of a downtown playground for tourists, residents and businesses has become a central issue in the campaign to replace him. His successor also must tackle a $10 million budget deficit.
All the candidates support his downtown plans, but critics complain City Hall needs to be more business friendly and lean. Chaltiel and long-shot hopeful and tequila maker George Harris, for example, have campaigned to run City Hall like one of their private investments.
Despite the high stakes, the race has attracted little attention in Las Vegas, where nearly 20,000 voters, or 9 percent of the electorate, showed up for early voting.
Carolyn Goodman's assumed victory has likely taken some of the buzz out of what was supposed to be a tight race until her surprising last-minute entry. She captured 37 percent of voters' support, more than double that of her closest competitor, Clark County Commissioner Larry Brown, in a poll last month commissioned by the state's largest newspaper, the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Brown is one of four candidates considered a serious alternative to Carolyn Goodman along with Chaltiel, Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani and City Councilman Steve Ross.
Brown has emphasized the need for a new face in City Hall on the campaign trail. But he also conceded that his best bet is to make it into the general race, which would give him a few more months to boost his name recognition. Goodman can win outright by capturing more than 50 percent of the votes. Otherwise, the top two vote getters face off in June.
"Could this primary be viewed as a battle for second place," Brown asked. "I think that's fair."
Las Vegas' first lady is quick to stress that she is her own woman. She points to her commitment to reshaping Las Vegas' troubled schools as a major difference between her and Oscar Goodman. But it's clear a Carolyn Goodman administration wouldn't be too different from the consecutive terms of her husband, who makes no secret of his affection for gin martinis and his habitual sports bets.
On the campaign trail, she, too, has passed out poker chips adorned with her image. And the mayor's wife said she would be proud to continue his legacy.
"The beauty of it is, I don't have an ego," she said. "I am thrilled to have the resource of my husband."
The mayor's longtime supporters have all been told to support Carolyn Goodman Tuesday, and, for many, it's an acceptable transition.
"Carolyn would be the ideal successor," said Alexandra Epstein, executive manager of her family's historic El Cortez casino in downtown Las Vegas and a former student at Carolyn Goodman's Meadows School. "She doesn't have the same personality obviously as Oscar, but she wins everyone over that she meets."
Part of the allure of her candidacy is that it ensures Oscar Goodman will remain in the spotlight. He said the local tourism bureau has asked him to become the face of Las Vegas in future marketing campaigns.
Of his wife, he said, "I'm going to be her showgirl."