June 28, 1999 12:00 PM

Riding down Las Vegas’s glittering Strip, Oscar Goodman gazes at the dazzling neon “touting the city’s storied casinos: Caesars Palace, Harrah’s, the Tropicana. “If I leave here for even half a day, flying back I see the lights, and I get a catch in my throat,” he says. “You fall in love with this city.”

Apparently the attraction is mutual. On June 8, Las Vegans voted nearly two-to-one to make Goodman—a criminal-defense attorney who has represented some of the city’s most notorious mobsters—their next mayor. “I have done the Lord’s work for my clients,” says Goodman, 59. “Now I’m going to do the Lord’s work on behalf of this city.”

Previous beneficiaries of the Lord’s work à la Goodman have included such legendary figures as Meyer Lansky, whom he helped to beat money-laundering charges in the late ’60s. In the ’70s he successfully defended mobster Tony “the Ant” Spilotro against federal charges ranging from burglary to murder. But nowadays Goodman mostly represents clients whose only use for mattresses is good back support. “There aren’t many reputed mobsters left,” he says.

Some Vegas voters were troubled by Goodman’s connections, but he insists the work was useful mayoral training. “I just made sure the prosecution was doing its job right,” he says. “I make the government honest.” Now, he maintains, he’ll do that as mayor, his first elective post since he served two terms in the mid-’70s as president of his synagogue.

After deciding to run he struggled for a time to get financial backing—”No one took my candidacy seriously,” he explains—but eventually spent $1.2 million on his campaign to win the part-time job, which pays $48,500 a year. Much of his backing came from the casino industry, but he also picked up vocal support from the very prosecutors he’d taken on in the courtroom. “I always found him to be very bright, honest and ethical,” says Lamond Mills, a former U.S. attorney. “He’ll be good for this city.” Goodman sees it as a plus that he’s inexperienced politically. “I’m not in anybody’s pocket,” he says. “I am my own man.”

The oldest of three children of a Philadelphia prosecutor and his wife, a sculptor, Goodman met his own wife, Carolyn, while he was a student at Haverford College and she was at nearby Bryn Mawr. Carolyn, 60, says her spouse hasn’t changed much since she saw him in his first college play. “He’s a bit of a frustrated actor, but he can’t remember his lines—he’s better at improvising,” she says. (Now president of the board of a nonprofit private school, she is the mother of their three grown sons and a daughter.)

Goodman was an intern at the Philadelphia district attorney’s office in 1964 when two Las Vegas sheriff’s deputies came to the city to hand over a murder suspect. Taken with their descriptions of the booming casino town, he decided to move there. “He woke me up at 2 a.m.,” recalls Carolyn, “and asked, ‘How would you like to move to the land of milk and honey?’ ”

The desert outpost proved fertile ground for the budding lawyer, who lost his first murder trial but then got his client a second trial, helping him to beat a death sentence by arguing that he was the victim of mistaken identity. “It was almost biblical,” he says. “There’s nothing like the feeling of saving someone’s life.” Soon some of the city’s shadier characters began seeking his services. In 1970, after the FBI raided bookmakers nationwide, Goodman took on clients in 19 cities, successfully arguing that the government had tapped phone lines illegally. “When I uphold the Constitution,” says Goodman of his work, “everybody benefits.”

Michael Bowers, who teaches political science at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, says Goodman had populist appeal, making his career nearly irrelevant. “People judged Ronald Reagan by what he did in office,” says Bowers, “not by the fact that he made B movies.”

Though, as mayor, Goodman will technically have no more power than the other four members of the city council, he pledges to trim the fat from the city’s bureaucracy and fix up Vegas’s shabby downtown. And while he looks forward to the challenges at city hall, he’ll miss the simple pleasures of running for office. “During the campaign, I was able to kiss all the women,” he told a supporter on election night. “What happens after the election?”

Thomas Fields-Meyer

Leslie Berestein and Melissa Schorr in Las Vegas

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