Carolyn Goodman, who will face off against Chris Giunchigliani on June 7 for the right to be Las Vegas’ next mayor, has been admirably clear about her major policy goal: She wants carry on her the legacy of her husband, Mayor Oscar Goodman. The media has expended considerable ink, and perhaps even a bit of mental energy, feigning consternation that a Goodman would be unshakably behind the continuation of Goodmanism. But five decades of marriage can do a lot of things to a couple, and they seem to have invested this particular couple with a shared belief that the nation’s hip creatives, its medical specialists and its philosopher-king/shoe salesmen should all move to downtown Vegas and make beautiful music together in Symphony Park.
The irony is that Carolyn and Oscar do have differences, but the differences are tonal rather than political. And since a mayor’s statutory powers in a council-manager form of government are minimal, the power of the office resides precisely in tone-setting. The Goodmans are both deeply traditional supporters of Old Vegas. But Oscar publicly emphasizes the “Vegas”—Look, Ma! Showgirls!—while Carolyn stresses the “old”: a Las Vegas where the businesses were small, the owners were hands-on, and everyone saw themselves as a stake-holder in the community.
Goodman made her mark in the city by growing The Meadows School—which she founded in 1984 and led until last year—into a powerhouse nonprofit, no-nonsense K-12 institution that builds from the fundamentals and teaches unabashedly to the top. She looks at life through the lens of a headmaster: The world works best when carved into small, connected communities that achieve shared goals one small step at a time. In the broader context of local politics, this perspective evolves into the ideology of the urban village, of the shopkeeper who understands that his fortunes ebb and flow with the fortunes of his block. Goodman dislikes scale, bureaucratic coldness and the corporate diffusion of responsibility and rewards. She favors face-to-face frankness and is a defender of the right to offend. (Just ask Oscar.)
Goodman has an insider’s confidence and an outsider’s drive. After studying at Manhattan’s exclusive Brearley School, she moved on to Bryn Mawr College—where she was student body president—and then married a Philadelphia boy who in 1964 graduated from law school and got the bright idea of taking her to Las Vegas. From 1968-70, Goodman worked as an employment counselor for the Department of Labor, serving west Las Vegas neighborhoods that were troubled then and remain troubled now. She still speaks of the city’s economic dead zones with a guidance counselor’s mix of bootstrapping inspiration and exasperation—“This is our community: yours, mine, ours. Don’t just sit there and complain—fix it!” She doesn’t believe in salvation-by-government, but she holds out hope that government can be a facilitator for private initiative and civic involvement. In this way, she is a product of the tight-knit Las Vegas professional class of the 1970s and ’80s, with its idiosyncratic combination of social engagement and ideological conservatism. She hopes to leverage that combination to build a new Las Vegas.
Before the recent primary, Goodman sat down for a wide-ranging conversation with Vegas Seven on everything from education to downtown dreams. Here are the highlights:
When Oscar and I moved here, we did research ahead of time. We did not have children then, but knowing that one day we would, the first thing we did was look for communities that had great education. And he had an interest in Las Vegas when we found out it was No. 2. So we came here confident that we would build our lives right here, knowing the education was so wonderful.
Three of our four children went through the entire process of the public school system, and only the last one had a combination of K-5 in a public school and then 6-12 at The Meadows. But in 1969 or ’70, there had been a change in social mores, changes to the structure of the family. The next generation of parents was lost in skills of how to parent, and we see the result of that now: Today Nevada is No. 48, 49 or 50, depending on the poll. Now Gov. Sandoval wants everybody reading in third grade. Excuse me! What about kindergarten? If a child has a learning problem or a physical or a mental challenge, they need programs that fit them. We’ve mainstreamed everybody: It serves nothing; it serves nobody. By fourth grade, most academically bright students are asked to sit and help somebody who’s not even up at the middle level. What a waste of the future leaders.
There are just so many flaws and so many problems. The schools have decided to usurp the role of the parent, which is not right. Schools should teach, as when I was young. Schools were the teaching force, and parents were the parenting force. We have a generation of wonderful teachers and wonderful students that are here and somehow managing, but our teachers are spending so much time with documentation and record-keeping and things for statistics.
And then, too, we have psychologists at school, and that’s a parent’s role to find: If your child has a problem, you go to your own physician to recommend a psychologist. You don’t use somebody that the district’s hired. There are just so many areas where they’re wasting money, and my sense is that at some point, somebody’s got to ask me, “What’s the formula?”
We should demand that our tax dollars—like when I was a little girl—give us a good education. This whole country is slipping away because we are so politically correct in everything we are doing. We’re no longer teaching reading skills, we’re no longer reading the great classics, we no longer have four years of history, we no longer demand four years of math. It’s absolutely appalling. Because so and so doesn’t want to do it, or I want my child to feel good. Feel good?! You know, you have to give a child the skills to be a successful, productive human being that then feels good.
I think both of us, fortunately, through no fault of our own, came from a father and mother, as a couple, each married over 50 years, with very traditional core values, which they passed on to my husband and to me. And when I met him and got through the façade of his wonderful humor and realized that we shared those values, I was finished. That was 50 years ago, and our core values are still identical.
When he says something, you can take it to the bank. I’m exactly the same. All of us make mistakes. And I will give people many [chances], for many mistakes. But lie to me once—you’re out of it. I can’t trust you ever again. We’re both very religious, very family-oriented, very vested in this community. We love sports; we adore culture. But I have my own thoughts, my own brain. I’m very different. Oscar, because of his flamboyance, is a very me-I-my type of personality. I run on a lower radar: I’m more of a we-us-our, all the time. And Oscar will tell you what I say to him all the time: “Stop talking about my city; it’s our city. Stop talking about my this, it’s our that.” So that’s a huge difference between us. But it is part of his charm. And so I love it, but aside from the fact that now I’ve got all these posters everywhere, I don’t really care if my face, name or anything is known. I just like to do the job. And when I see something that’s wrong, or something that’s falling apart, I’m going to fix it.
ON CORPORATE VEGAS:
I’m a firm believer that less government is better and private industry is where it should be. And that’s the purpose of government—to work with and make this place attractive to private businesses. But I am concerned: I don’t feel a flavor and a happiness out on the Strip. And I understand it. I mean, look at all the construction that’s stopped. And it’s all changed. In the old days, when you were little and you asked for a scoop of ice cream, you got a mound that you could never finish. And when Howard Hughes came in [in the late 1960s], things became apportioned bricks of ice cream or, you know, the McDonald’s syndrome. And everything became the profit for the stockholder.
As new hotels and casinos have left Las Vegas and are in New Jersey and everywhere else, all it’s doing is sucking the lifeblood out of our main industry, which is the tourist industry. There are so many things that are working against us. Yes, we are the food capital as far as our chefs and these wonderful restaurants. Shopping is glorious. Entertainment’s good. But the life is continuing to be sucked out of us as investment keeps going to the far East, to Macau or wherever, and we need to be more diverse in what we’re doing.
I have lived with a front-row seat for the past 12 years with my husband, watching him—without any official licensure to do anything—build this downtown, take it from something that’s really a rotting place into something that’s vital, energized and on the cusp in this horrible economy of being something really phenomenal.
I see young people absolutely drawn to downtown—creative software people. I went out and visited Zappos—what a treat—and there’s such creative energy, full of the arts and culture and reading good books and an intelligentsia that we’ve been lacking. And then of course, there’s The Smith Center for the Performing Arts: One night at The Beat downtown, [Zappos CEO] Tony Hsieh came up to us and leaned over to Oscar and said, “I just committed $2 million to The Smith Center.” There’s just such wonderful excitement, and it’s private. It’s all private stuff downtown. These small stores, small shops—and energy. I think that’s what’s so beautiful about downtown: It’s more of the feeling of old Las Vegas. There’s an excitement down there. And when you go on a weekend or a First Friday, you just feel the energy. There’s a youth to it, which is so wonderful. That’s our future.
We cannot be a culture of “no.” We have to work and make it possible for other businesses to come in there. The embryo has just come through and out of its shell in what’s been created so far—and in Oscar’s vision, his ability to pull people together to make it happen and to sell the concept. I think downtown has its own feeling of pride already, because they’ve seen something. There’s this beginning belief in a dream, and there’s a buy-in and an identity. That will revive the entire community ultimately, I hope.