The Next Mayor Of Las Vegas Refuses To Leave Anything To Chance

Written By Steve Friess on March 16, 2023Last Updated on March 23, 2023
nevada gambling shelley berkley the strip

A few minutes into a Zoom with Shelley Berkley, I realize I’m getting a version of her stump speech and I find that supremely strange. I’ve known this woman for almost a quarter-century and she’s already a political legend – but here she is rattling off her qualifications as if she’d never run for public office before.

Berkley, a 72-year-old Democrat who served seven terms in the US House, is running for mayor of Las Vegas in 2024.  The office’s current occupant, Carolyn Goodman, will be forced by term limits to retire, and Berkley sees the vacancy as a way to return to public service and, presumably, eventually have a happier conclusion to that career. She left Congress after losing a brutally close Senate race in 2012 to then-Sen. Dean Heller.

So Berkley will be Vegas’ next and 23rd mayor and, as such, the world’s most visible elected leader associated with the gambling industry. There are few sure bets in politics and I don’t usually prognosticate, but this one seems pretty obvious. Maybe there’s some big new scandal that was missed in her prior decades under the microscope or maybe her opponents will effectively stir up the small-ball ethics issues she had at the end of her time in Washington. Maybe some health issue wil l get in the way.

Otherwise this post is hers for the taking.

But nonetheless, on Zoom with me more than a year before the election, she is eager to prove she’s qualified.

“I know the city very, very well, and I think everything I’ve done to date has prepared me for being the mayor of a world class city like Las Vegas,” she says in an unadulterated New Yawk accent that has survived the 60 years since her parents brought the family to Nevada.

Read more from the State of Play column:

Berkley gives her Las Vegas mayor elevator pitch

With that, Berkley launches into a recitation of, presumably, her campaign platform. She’ll work on diversifying the Vegas economy, of course. She name-checks a laundry list of fast-growing or sensitive demographic groups — seniors, Asians, Hispanics, Blacks, veterans, LGBTQ+ people – whose interests she says understands from her time in Congress.

She hopes to target the homelessness problem through private-public partnerships with the caveat that “I don’t think we will ever be able to eliminate homelessness” lest anyone a few years from now accuses her of overpromising when it turns out a mayor can’t solve poverty.

Berkley points out that she’s finishing up a 10-year tenure as president of Touro University Nevada, a private Jewish-sponsored four-year school with several other campuses around the nation. Nevada’s campus in Henderson focuses on health care disciplines; under her leadership they launched the state’s only osteopathic medical school. She reminds me she served two terms on the state Board of Regents before she went to Congress, too:

“To top it off, I’ve done education for decades. And while education is not under the purview of the mayor of Las Vegas, it would be awfully good when people or the school board members the superintendent of schools comes to speak with you for you to actually know what they’re talking about. I think that will make me a very well-rounded mayor.”

All of this sounds great. And somewhat unnecessary. She acknowledges to me that she doesn’t think she needs big plans or to talk up major changes she wants to make because she thinks her would-be predecessors have done a bang-up job. Says Berkley:

“I’m not in the position to say, ‘Oh my God, this city is going to hell in a handbasket, it has been neglected, it is falling apart, I’ve got to come in and clean it up. We have had good stewardship over the last 30 years.”

No, Berkley is no change agent. She just thinks it’s her turn. And while all of that policy expertise is super-duper, she knows very well she has in abundance one other key asset almost nobody else can match: razzle dazzle.

What the mayor of Vegas actually is and does

There was a time when, just like every other municipality, the mayor of Vegas was a dull politician who dressed in muted suits and had the charisma of a CPA. Often, City Hall would even remind national journalists that The Strip lay outside the city limits in unincorporated Clark County and, thus, the mayor had no jurisdiction and perhaps shouldn’t comment on whatever gambling industry or regional economic story was going on.

But when Berkley specifies “good stewardship over the last 30 years,” she’s marking the point at which the job she is now seeking was forever altered. In 1991, voters elected Jan Laverty Jones, locally famous as a TV pitchwoman for her family’s grocery chain and later her then-husband’s car dealership. Jones, the first woman to run the city, busted the stuffy old norms and embraced the bully pulpit part of the job. If the national media believed the mayor was a de facto political leader of the gambling industry, she was more than capable of taking on that responsibility.

When Jones (now Jones Blackhurst) left the job in 1999 to become an executive with Caesars Entertainment, the longtime mob defense attorney Oscar Goodman stomped a sitting city councilman who in another era would’ve inherited the office. Goodman allowed himself to be something of a caricature of Vegas itself, always balancing a martini while appearing flanked by scantily clad showgirls. He won the office not on policy positions but on his name recognition and boisterous personality. After three terms, his wife, Carolyn, by then as well known as he was, jumped in for three terms of her own.

Before Berkley stepped into the mayor’s race, the field consisted of two sitting councilmembers and a state bureaucrat. They might’ve been able to build cases for their candidacies if that was the whole lineup.

Now they haven’t got a chance.

Berkley says she has unbeatable Vegas, gaming and government experience

Like Jones and the Goodmans before her, Berkley has always been a true Vegas original. She’s been there since the state had fewer than 400,000 people; it’s well over 3 million now. All she has to do is start telling stories about the good old days and you know she’s seen it all.

There’s no doubt she’s the only member of Congress who was once a Vegas cocktail waitress, for example. She worked at the Hacienda, Desert Inn, and Harrah’s to pay her way through the University of San Diego School of Law, she recalls, having a grand time along the way:

“The Hacienda had a nine-hole golf course. That’s where I learned to golf. At the Desert Inn, we were wearing pink ruffles and shiny white go-go boots. That was the uniform. That was the year of, oh, what’s her name? Nancy Sinatra. You know, ‘These Boots are Made for Walking.’  So that was hot stuff. … And all of the drinks were free, so the tips were very, very high.”

In the 1990s, Sheldon Adelson hired her to help handle the development of the Sands hotel into the Venetian. The two would famously have a vicious falling out when Adelson insisted on opening the resort as a non-union property, which offended Berkley. He dogged her throughout her Congressional life, spending big money to support her opponents until, finally, she lost the 2012 race for Senate.

In Congress, though, she dressed the part of a Nevada gambling emblem. She loved bright lipstick and loud jackets. She co-founded the Congressional Gaming Caucus and fought the good fight for sports-betting and online gambling legalization at a time when all of that seemed farfetched. She was unabashed about her love of the glamour of Vegas and unafraid to be blunt and unusually transparent. In 2006, she revealed to me on my podcast that she missed a vote on Gulf Coast relief after Hurricane Katrina because she was recovering from plastic surgery.

So now she’s jumping back into the game to bring her star power and history to city hall. She knows and embraces the figurehead role she’d play on behalf of the industry in Nevada and beyond.

“The titans in the gaming industry are quite capable of running their casinos without the interference of the mayor of Las Vegas. But what sets me apart is that I was the leading voice for gaming in Congress, I was actually a part of the industry for almost 10 years, I understand the industry well. That would give me a unique perspective.”

After 40 minutes, I finally ask her why she’s running so hard so early. Most of the voters in Vegas voted for her repeatedly for Congress. She’s the best-connected, best-known candidate and she’ll undoubtedly have the most money, too.

She answers by quoting what former Nevada Sen. Richard Bryan told her at her campaign kickoff event at Jones Blackhurst’s house.

“He said there’s only two ways to run, unopposed or scared. The conventional wisdom is all this is a shoo-in for me. Not at all. And I certainly don’t take it that way after losing the Senate race. I’ve won elections and I’ve lost elections. And I am very prepared to run a very robust campaign and take absolutely nothing for granted.”

Photo by Playin USA
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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is the national gambling industry correspondent for Play USA and its related local sites. He is also a contributing writer for Newsweek. A Long Island native who earned a journalism degree at Northwestern University, Friess worked at newspapers in Rockford, Illinois, Las Vegas, and South Florida before launching a freelance career in Beijing, China, where he served as chief China correspondent for USA Today. After his return to the U.S. in 2003, he settled in Las Vegas, where he covered the gambling industry and the American Southwest regularly for The New York Times, Playboy, The New Republic, Time, Portfolio, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. During that time, he created and co-hosted two successful and groundbreaking podcasts, the celebrity-interview show The Strip and the animal affairs program The Petcast. In 2011-12, Friess was a Knight-Wallace Fellow for at the University of Michigan. That was followed by a stint as a senior writer covering the intersection of technology and politics at Politico in Washington, D.C., In 2013, he returned permanently to Ann Arbor, where he now lives with his husband, son, daughter and three Pomeranians. He tweets at @SteveFriess and can be reached at [email protected]

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