Tuesday, April 27, 1999 | 11:04 a.m.
Sheldon Adelson may be a relative newcomer to Southern Nevada's political scene, but he's been a major campaign contributor since the 1980s.
Adelson wrote in a newspaper column last year that he "was never involved in the political process" before taking on Clark County commissioners whom he believed were controlled by special interests.
He omitted the fact that he became one of the nation's leading individual political contributors at least eight years before entering Southern Nevada politics.
In the 1988 national elections, Adelson was one of only eight individuals in the country to give at least $100,000 to both the Republicans and Democrats for party-building activities, according to the Washington Post. At the time, the Boston media referred to him as "hedged bets" Adelson because of his generosity to both parties.
Adelson also contributed to the campaigns of politicians in his native Boston and to Massachusetts legislative candidates. Though he was not as active politically in Massachusetts as he has been in Nevada, Adelson was considered a special interest contributor by the Boston media because of his push to legalize casinos in that state.
The Boston Globe reported that Adelson and his company, the Interface Group in Needham, Mass., gave $8,800 to Boston Mayor Thomas Menino in 1993 and 1994 to rank fourth among the mayor's campaign contributors. At the time, Adelson had hoped to build a casino in Boston.
Though he advocated land-based casinos, Adelson opposed a proposal by former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld to approve riverboat gaming in that state.
"Riverboats are an attempt to cover the eyes, ears and mouth and say 'We're not really in the gambling business,' " Adelson told the Globe in 1993. "If the state wants to delude itself into thinking that there's no gambling going on in Massachusetts because it is out on a boat, fine. But I think it's a mistake. If the river goes dry, where is the casino? It's on land."
A year later Adelson urged the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce to support land-based casinos, arguing that the business could generate up to $1 billion annually in taxable revenues for Massachusetts.
As reported in the Boston Herald, Adelson told the chamber that casinos were "a viable alternative to increases in existing taxes."
Adelson reportedly was backed by Massachusetts state Sen. Thomas Norton, who headed a legislative committee that studied the issue. Massachusetts has yet to approve casino gaming, however.
Adelson told the Globe in 1996 that he only supported one party or the other because he agreed with its philosophy.
"I don't support people for business reasons. Period," he said.
As he did in 1988 Adelson gave at least $100,000 to both parties for party-building activities during the 1996 elections. That year he ranked fifth in Nevada and 13th in Massachusetts in the amount of money he gave to federal campaigns. Mother Jones magazine reported that Adelson ranked 46th in the nation among individuals with total campaign contributions of $231,000 in 1995 and 1996 combined.
Adelson also was one of 65 people who attended a $25,000-per-couple luncheon with President Clinton at the Henderson home of Sun Editor Brian Greenspun in 1996 to raise money for the Democratic National Committee.
A year later, Adelson began contributing almost exclusively to the GOP. That was right after his rift began with the Culinary Union, which backs mostly Democrats. Adelson told the Wall Street Journal in 1997 that his involvement in Nevada politics was a "defensive move, if I'm going to survive."
The Nevada Republican Party named him its man of the year in 1997 for his financial contributions. Charles Muth, a consultant for the state GOP in Las Vegas, said Adelson supported the Republicans because of the Culinary's efforts to "impede his business."
"He sees in this town that the Democratic Party and the Culinary Union are joined at the hip," Muth said. "That's why he's partisan in his giving here. They're so tied together that if you give $10 to the Democrats, you give $10 to the union, and they're trying to break him."
But Adelson stopped giving money to the Nevada GOP after the party decided against appealing a judge's ruling last year that a proposed Workers' Rights Initiative was unconstitutional. The initiative, which Adelson supported, would have required unions to get their members' permission to spend dues for political purposes.
Adelson's first major foray into local politics was in 1996 when he was the key contributor to Republican Lance Malone, a Metro Police officer who ousted incumbent Democratic Clark County Commissioner Paul Christensen. Adelson contributed $80,000 to Malone through his various corporations but was accused of directing even more through the state Republican Party. Malone's victory was one of the biggest local election upsets that year.
Christensen had been a Culinary supporter and also served on the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Association board, which was frequently criticized by Adelson.
Christensen also incensed Adelson in 1995 when he was the only commissioner who didn't sign a proclamation congratulating Adelson's Israeli-born wife on her becoming a United States citizen. Now a commissioner on the Nevada Transportation Services Authority, Christensen said Adelson wasn't "politically astute" when he decided against hiring former Sands employees on a first-come basis at the Venetian. He considers the hotel owner as abrasive as sandpaper.
"He's the kind of person that sees the objective and damn the consequences, full torpedoes ahead," Christensen said. "He's created a lot of ill will, but he's the multimillionaire and I'm working for a living so he may be right and I may be wrong."
Christensen recalled that when Adelson operated the Sands he encroached on the sidewalk with a marquee without getting the proper zoning variance.
"He doesn't like to play by the rules," Christensen said. "He likes to make his own rules."
Having helped to defeat Christensen, Adelson set his sights on fellow County Commissioner Yvonne Atkinson Gates, another Culinary supporter. He alleged that she voted against his Venetian hotel-casino building permits because he refused to allow her to open a frozen daiquiri shop in the hotel mall.
Gates scoffed at that allegation, but she left herself open to public criticism because of the daiquiri shop inquiry. With Adelson giving testimony the Nevada Ethics Commission found in January 1998 that Gates had violated ethics laws and reprimanded her.
The commissioner was able, however, to survive two recall attempts by Citizens for Honest and Responsible Government, which received financial support from Adelson.
Adelson pressed ahead in 1998 by getting involved in local races far beyond anything he had done in Massachusetts. He formed his own political organization, the Committee on Fairness, and spent $2 million on television advertisements in an attempt to defeat incumbent Democratic County Commissioners Myrna Williams and Erin Kenny and Democratic commission candidate Dario Herrera.
Kenny was portrayed as a free spender, Williams a back-room deal maker and Herrera a briefcase-toting boy on a tricycle. Adelson also was the largest contributor to the campaigns of Steve Harney and Mark Smith, who faced Kenny and Williams respectively.
Another candidate Adelson tried to defeat last year was one of his ex-employees, Democrat Shelley Berkley. When Adelson fired Berkley, his general counsel, in 1997 the move was believed to be caused in part by her ties to the Culinary Union as a long-time Democratic Party fund-raiser.
After declaring her candidacy for Nevada's 1st Congressional District, Berkley took a major hit when she admitted having advised Adelson that he needed to perform certain political favors in order to win support for the Venetian. Adelson said he criticized her suggestions, and she wound up apologizing publicly for her remarks.
Adelson, meantime, had contributed $350,000 to the Nevada Republican Party last year, trailing only the National Republican Senatorial Committee as a donor to the state GOP. Much of that money was spent on television advertisements attacking Berkley. Adelson also spent money on her opponent, Republican Don Chairez.
But his strategy backfired in what turned out to be one of the ugliest elections in recent Southern Nevada history. Adelson was painted as an individual attempting to buy the County Commission. One TV ad depicted him as the monster Godzilla. Even then-Gov. Bob Miller, who was silent for most of the 1998 elections, was so upset he called a press conference to blast the hotel owner.
All four Democrats he opposed proved victorious. Muth also suggested that Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., won re-election in a tight battle against then-Rep. John Ensign, R-Nev., largely because Adelson stirred up the union vote.
"Politically, Sheldon's mistake has been that he's gotten poor advice in the past from people who have not served him very well with their political advice," Muth said. "His scorched earth campaign didn't help elect any of his candidates. In fact, it probably hurt them in many ways and it stirred up the unions. We didn't want to stir up the unions so they could get out the vote."
Williams, who beat Adelson-backed Mark Smith in her re-election bid, found herself caught in the middle of the Adelson-Culinary feud. She was pro-Culinary but also used to be on friendly terms with Adelson, who donated $12,500 to her 1994 campaign.
She wound up returning that donation in 1997 after complaining that she was pressured by an Adelson representative to vote with the Venetian on a disputed traffic study. She said she returned the money because she didn't want it to appear that her vote could be bought.
Williams said she has since put the 1998 campaign behind her and is ready to move on. She joined her fellow commissioners in January by approving variances for the Venetian.
"The only way I view it is I have to do what's right for Clark County," Williams said. "I always supported things based on the merit of the issue. I don't vote based on personality. People who carry grudges always hurt themselves."
Adelson doesn't let politics get in the way of friendship. One of his closest friends, Polo Towers owner Stephen Cloobeck, has been one of Nevada's leading Democratic contributors for several years. Adelson attended Cloobeck's wedding in 1997.
Cloobeck shares Adelson's strong support for Israel and calls his friend the "entrepreneur's entrepreneur." Cloobeck said Adelson reminds him of his own father in having developed a fighter's spirit in order to survive the Depression.
"He has been respectful of me and I'm respectful of him," Cloobeck said. "He's never been a 'yes' guy. He always tells you where he stands on issues, which is very healthy. As a friend you have to love that.
"He's got a lot of humor in him and he doesn't take himself too seriously. He happens to be a very warm, sweet and caring man. That's what most people don't know. I also wouldn't bet against him, ever."
WEDNESDAY: As a philanthropist, Adelson donates money and his Sands Expo & Convention Center to needy causes.