Life After Oscar?

His Vegasness is leaving City Hall, and he’s taking his gin with him. The whole Valley should ask some hard questions of those vying for the throne.

Wander through a park or a coffee shop in Henderson or North Las Vegas and ask voters to name their mayor. You might get a quizzical look or an uncertain reply, but the names Andy Hafen and Shari Buck are not likely to be consistently heard. Instead, a large percentage of people would probably offer one name—Oscar Goodman.

Just as Rudy Giuliani was America’s mayor, Goodman has become the mayor of the Las Vegas Valley. His persona is so large, Boss Goodman has come to embody our region’s spirit.

His term-limited era is about to end and that sparks a particular question for the 18 candidates in the post-Oscar primary race: how to resonate with voters in a community where fewer than one of every five registered voters is expected to cast a ballot in the April 5 primary?

Goodman’s successful re-election bids in 2003 and 2007 saw voter turnout rates of just 18 percent and 15 percent, respectively, and a recent Las Vegas Review-Journal story noted that a similar number is expected to cast votes for a primary ballot that will have the largest field of candidates since 1967.

Yet, there are very real questions to be asked of the candidates in the six weeks before the primary balloting and—if no one grabs 50 percent plus one of the April 5 vote—the months before the June 7 general election. The answers could set the direction of the Valley for decades to come:

• Will our economic rebound be defined by a return to the residential, commercial and megaresort construction boom that preceded the collapse? Or could it be more strategic and diversified?

• What sort of industries and businesses would they pursue as a part of a diversification strategy, and how do we persuade potential employers that the Las Vegas Valley is a good place to raise families and hire first-rate workers?

• Will they use the city’s bonding authority to create construction jobs?

• Should public employee pay and benefits be reduced, particularly for future hires?

• How important are our public schools and universities to our economic future, and what will you do to protect their budgets?

• Should urban sprawl continue once lenders open their vaults or should we look for more sensible development patterns?

• What do they think about the proposed consolidation of public services in a balkanized Valley, where three cities and the county often overlap?

• Would they support a statewide graduated, broad-based business tax on banks, big-box retailers and restaurateurs, similar to the taxes many of them willingly pay in neighboring states, with the money generating revenue for government services?

In a region that places a premium on well-known brands and compelling images, it is tempting to vote for Goodman’s wife, Carolyn, to replace him as Las Vegas’ mayor. She has the pedigree, the personality, connections, money and the experience of founding and operating The Meadows School in Summerlin.

For many, she is the intuitive choice to take the showcase office in City Hall. But low voter turnout and limited interest in local politics could offer an opening to any one of her three best-known and most politically connected opponents: Clark County Commissioners Larry Brown and Chris Giunchigliani, and Las Vegas Councilman Steve Ross.

Wealthy businessman and first-time political candidate Victor Chaltiel could have a shot if he aggressively spends his own money to establish name identification and assumes the anti-incumbent, successful entrepreneur label in the Tea Party era of voter outrage.

The race is further muddied by the deep ballot, which is nonpartisan and therefore lacks the organizing force of races in which the Democratic and Republican labels provide order to tickets where we know little about individual candidates. You have to crack the voter’s guide, attend candidate debates and follow the daily news coverage to gain some understanding of the Gang of 18.

The Internet and cable TV could help educate voters, but it’s fair to wonder if our media habits will allow us to think to see the civic landscape in a fresh light. We tend to seek out websites and cable channels that reinforce our attitudes, and our consideration of competing ideas is often limited to devising clever ways to shout them down.

Meanwhile, many newcomers seem simply to lack interest in local issues, preferring to learn as little as possible about their new home. Perhaps they believe they’re simply passing through, or that they’ve paid their civic dues elsewhere so why bother to participate?

Goodman remains the wise-cracking, gin-swilling politician whose 12-year run has come to define our region in a manner reminiscent of the Daleys in Chicago, Ed Koch in New York City and Tom Bradley in Los Angeles. It is unusual for an elected official to become as big as the city he or she represents, but that is what Goodman has achieved, and it will be tough for some voters to let go of that last name.

But don’t sell short the political savvy of Brown, Giunchigliani or Ross and their ability to turn out the vote. All three have established campaign operations, fundraising lists and key ties: Giunchigliani and Ross to labor; Brown to motivated northwest Valley voters.

And in the heat of a competitive general election campaign, that race could turn on an unexpected issue. It could even find the Goodmans and their apparent sense of familial entitlement becoming an issue.

The race could offer the latest stamp of approval for the Goodman name, or it could turn sour if a clever opponent generates a message that resonates with a small percentage of voters who decide that a well-known name is a liability in a time of deep economic trouble. Doubt it? Ask Rory Reid.