Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012 | 2 a.m.
In 1998, Sheldon Adelson put his money where his ideology was and rolled snake eyes.
The Las Vegas Sands chairman set out to change the composition of a board that had much more dominion over his daily life than anyone in Congress or the Knesset — the Clark County Commission. And he was equally determined to disarm an enemy that was regularly lobbing the political equivalent of SCUD missiles his way — the Culinary Union.
Adelson failed in both missions, frustrated by an electorate with too many Democrats and a GOP power structure only too eager to do what Adelson was loath to do: compromise.
In yet another political endeavor that year, Adelson tried to defeat — nay, destroy — a former employee running for Congress, but his ex-political counselor, Shelley Berkley, won a congressional seat despite his efforts.
As the national media tries to figure out just who the guy is who funded the $5 million life-support mechanism for Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign, I find myself amused at how much — and how little — has changed since Adelson burst onto the political scene here in the 1990s. And despite those setbacks almost a decade and a half ago, Adelson remains the same, immutable force of nature, an anti-Establishment (Mitt who?) billionaire who like most fantastically wealthy guys doesn’t really understand politics but unlike so many of them is willing to pony up for a cause he believes in, whether personal or political.
Adelson was an outsider when he bought into the Las Vegas Strip about 20 years ago, having become rich through his ownership and then sale of the computer show COMDEX. Adelson had infuriated local convention officials with his business practices and his long war with those folks, who were on great terms with almost every other casino owner, consumed him for many years. He eventually would build a convention center at the hotel he purchased, the Las Vegas Sands, the place the Rat Pack made famous.
In many ways, Adelson was the anti-Steve Wynn, the poet laureate of the Las Vegas casino renaissance who would regale the local and national media with an unmatched panache. All in all, the more reclusive Adelson would rather be in Israel, starting a newspaper, helping his friend, Bibi Netanyahu, or just building. Although Wynn was known for his private, volcanic outbursts — been there, experienced that — Adelson was seen as the prickly one and he had no interest in massaging his image with a media he thought was inherently hostile.
I think Wynn was skeptical, perhaps even disdainful, of Adelson when he razed the Sands and built the Venetian (I always wondered how the Chairman of the Board would have liked what the chairman of the board did with his place). But with the eventual addition of the Palazzo and Adelson’s well-documented — yes, Steve, even visionary — investment in Macau, Wynn surely developed a grudging respect and the two have now bonded in their mutual revulsion toward the president. (Unlike Wynn, I doubt Adelson voted for Obama.)
Adelson has ventured into local, state, national and international politics plenty of times before he found that $5 million this month to give to Gingrich’s super-PAC. He invested millions in ex-House Majority Leader Dick Armey’s Freedom Works and Gingrich’s American Solutions as well as, mostly unsuccessfully, trying to affect Nevada political outcomes.
Adelson’s relationship with Gingrich actually began in 1995 when the casino boss and Israeli hawk went to Washington to lobby on the Jerusalem Embassy Act. Adelson was walking down a corridor with then-Georgia Rep. John Linder when they encountered the speaker. Linder introduced them, they chatted and a friendship was born. The Adelson-Gingrich relationship actually blossomed after the speaker left Congress as the Las Vegan funded his PAC and they kept in touch over Israel and other issues.
Adelson’s $5 million this month really was a favor for a faltering friend, a life preserver thrown with no reason to believe it would save him but enough to keep him afloat through Saturday’s South Carolina primary. Adelson, I’m reliably told, has made no other promise of funding until after that balloting, which could either revive or entomb Gingrich.
No matter what happens with the speaker, Adelson will continue to do what he wants to do — ah, the luxury of being a multibillionaire — and will be as mercurial as ever. He infuriated his Strip colleagues recently by opposing web poker legalization, despite many entreaties, including from GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval. But he has joined the Nevada Resort Association, which he shunned for years (ironically, Wynn is no longer a member), has accomplished political and public relations pros around him and he is ready to throw the dice again on the political felt.
As President Barack Obama and Senate hopeful Berkley know, the eighth-richest man in the country has nothing to lose.