By Romain Raynaldy
LAS VEGAS, March 31, 2011 (AFP) – A Frenchman is gambling all his political capital in an unlikely bid to become mayor of Las Vegas – taking Sin City by storm with his Gallic-accented slogan “Victor for Vegas.”
Shaking hands in the shadow of the Tour Eiffel – the model one at the Paris Casino on the world-famous Strip – Victor Chaltiel is going all out to trigger an electoral upset.
The gambling capital’s voters go to the polls next Tuesday to choose a successor to incumbent Oscar Goodman, barred from standing for re-election after serving as mayor of the Nevada oasis city for 12 years.
Eighteen candidates are in the running, including Goodmanâ€™s wife Carolyn, who is leading in the polls. But only one of them kisses female votersâ€™ hands and addresses them in a French accent.
“At first I thought my accent would be an obstacle,” he told AFP while dashing between a meeting with the Asian Chamber of Commerce and a lunch with Republican voters.
“But an American friend reassured me. He told me: ‘Victor, in 38 years in the United States, has your accent ever stopped you succeeding and making your fortune? Never. So go for it’.”
Tunisian-born 69-year-old Chaltiel is a walking advertisement for French-style social advancement combined with the great American dream.
â€œFirst at everything, supported by grants all the way and not a centime in my pocket,â€ he was educated in Marseilles before going to the ESSEC business school in Paris and getting an MBA from Harvard.
After 18 years working for the Baxter pharmaceuticals group he struck out on his own and now, after 38 years in the U.S. including 15 in Las Vegas, he heads a venture capital fund.
â€œThe U.S. has given me a lot â€“ an education, freedom to get things done and financial independence. I want to give something back, to help the city tackle unemployment.
â€œAnd it wonâ€™t be easy,â€ added the Franco-American conservative, who is passionate about cutting taxes and red tape.
He may have been unknown barely a month ago, but Chaltiel has used his fortune to fund a massive ad campaign, which he says has thrust him to second place, even if polls before his publicity push put him lower down the rankings.
And out on the stump with him, he certainly seems to be recognized.
Hotel porters, casino staff, passing motorists, tourists, even an Elvis lookalike salute him in the street, shouting â€œVictor for Vegasâ€ and giving the double V hand sign from his TV spots, which can be seen on YouTube.
Billing himself as â€œA businessman, not a politician,â€ the smiling Chaltiel promises to get Las Vegasâ€”among US cities worst hit by the global financial crisis â€“ back to work.
He hopes to draw support from a wide range of voters, from Latinos and African Americans to Republicans and moderate Democrats.
â€œIn short, everyone who wants to find a job again,â€ said Chaltiel, whose website includes versions in Spanish, Korean, Chinese and Tagalog, although not French.
But first they have to vote â€“ of Las Vegasâ€™ 800,000 inhabitants, only 45,000 cast their ballots in the last municipal elections.
If elected, Chaltiel promises to develop the city as an international tourist destination. Currently only 14 percent of visitors come from overseas, as well as diversifying its economy notably by attracting the film industry.
But while using what he calls â€œthe fantastic Las Vegas brand, as powerful as Coca Cola,â€ he says he will not promote the cityâ€™s brothel sector, as some have suggested he should do.
â€œI am totally against it. Las Vegas has been known for the last 50 years as Sin City. For the next 50 years I want to make it a â€œBusiness City.â€