The Ballad of Two Mayors

“A 3-Term Mayor as Brash, Shrewd and Colorful as the City He Led.”

The New York Times headline above Ed Koch’s obituary captured how he exemplified New York City in so many ways, good and bad. It also describes another former mayor who’s very much alive—Oscar Goodman. A look at both careers, and the ways in which they were similar, gives us some insight into our community and its history.

Koch was a liberal reformer who could be conservative, a popular politician who inspired hatred. He could be insulting but was himself sensitive to insults; he was at once an insider and an outsider, a staunch defender of his city willing to battle anyone who questioned it or him. Koch became mayor in 1977 after the city’s finances had collapsed; over the next dozen years, he led a civic comeback by combining controversial policies and hucksterism. Advocates for gay rights, the homeless and the mentally challenged felt Koch dismissed their concerns too easily.

That should all sound familiar. When Goodman became mayor in 1999, Las Vegas wasn’t in the same kind of trouble as New York City was when Koch took over. This was partly because mayors had been pushing for various kinds of Downtown redevelopment for years; Jan Jones in particular led a strong effort to make the city more appealing and inclusive. Nonetheless, while the Strip—that’s on county land, remember, not in Las Vegas—boomed in the 1990s, Downtown Las Vegas remained largely an afterthought for tourists and locals alike.

Goodman danced across ideological boundaries, roared at anyone who attacked his city or him, and sold exactly the image of Las Vegas he wanted to project. He helped bring renewed pride and purpose to Downtown. Meanwhile, he suggested cutting off graffiti taggers’ thumbs and banishing the homeless to the old Jean prison.

When New York City voters invited Koch to leave office after three terms, their town had rebounded, though not entirely. Goodman’s final term included the Great Recession, which severely damaged Las Vegas for reasons beyond Goodman’s control. But the city—particularly the Downtown core—had come a long way.

Goodman also knew when to welcome help. He encouraged such projects as The Smith Center, the Mob Museum, Fremont Street East and all that Tony Hsieh is plotting. These projects have changed the face of Las Vegas. We needed it.

In the 1980s, the city was under regular assault on the PR front. Koch himself had caught Nevada’s attention by suggesting sending his city’s drug pushers to a “barbed-wire tent camp in the Nevada flats.” (Nevadans voiced their displeasure, and Koch’s office said he meant no offense.) Around the same time, Governor Richard Lamm of Colorado declared one of every eight women under 45 in Las Vegas was a hooker. Chief Justice Warren Burger, meanwhile, threatened not to attend an American Bar Association meeting here because he deemed Las Vegas an “unsavory and unsuitable place” for lawyers to meet (really). Johnny Carson caused a ruckus by asking on The Tonight Show, “What’s the difference between a parrot and a Nevada woman? You can teach a parrot to say no.” Then-Governor Richard Bryan, who has a great sense of humor, wasn’t amused and demanded an apology. Carson said, “Lighten up.”

Nevada and Las Vegas needed defending. Just as Koch had stood up for his city, Goodman has defended his. Sometimes it seemed that he protested too much, but for Las Vegans, it was refreshing to see such an unyielding defense.

Koch exemplified his city as we now increasingly expect Las Vegas’ mayors to do. That brings me to my Ed Koch story: In my first year of graduate school at Columbia—his last as New York City’s mayor—I was walking up Broadway when I saw a car idling in front of a street sweeper. The sweeper’s operator pushed a button, and a public address system blared, “This is Mayuh Ed Koch. We’re trying to clean our streets. Would ya move yah caw, please?”

In good ways and bad, Koch was New York. But I didn’t dare tell that story until after Oscar left office. All of our street sweepers would have said, “Move your car or we’ll have you whacked.”

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