Sheldon Adelson: Inside the mind of the mega-donor
September 24, 2012
LAS VEGAS — At the Republican National Convention in Tampa last month, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson got high-fives from strangers; entertained Karl Rove, Rudy Giuliani and George Pataki in his well-stocked luxury box; ate dinner with House Speaker John Boehner; and had a private meeting with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
Last week, Adelson got a front-row seat — and a shout-out from Mitt Romney — at a $1 million campaign fundraiser at a Vegas casino. Paul Ryan held a private meeting with Adelson four days after being named Romney’s running mate.
Worth just over $21 billion and now in the cross hairs of the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission, Adelson has made history: He is the first person to spend $70 million to sway a presidential election, and he plans to spend more — perhaps as much as $100 million — by Election Day. An estimated $20 million to $30 million of the giving went to groups that do not disclose their donors and had not been reported before.
Adelson (pronounced ADDLE-son) is the dominant pioneer of the super PAC era — by far the biggest donor to the web of secretive groups that are adding nearly $1 billion to the more traditional spending by the Romney campaign and the Republican National Committee.
The 79-year-old literally spreads the wealth: He sent $5 million to the super PAC run by Boehner allies and $5 million to the super PAC run by Cantor allies.
Despite his soaring influence as a party kingmaker and his mammoth financial footprint, Adelson is rarely seen or heard, and he has remained mysterious even to many top Republicans. He broke his silence to POLITICO to explain his methods and motives in the most detail he has yet offered.
Blunt and chatty during a two-hour interview in his owner’s suite at The Venetian resort on the Las Vegas strip, Adelson said he will continue to ante up — “whatever it takes” to defeat President Barack Obama, as he repeatedly put it. “I don’t believe one person should influence an election,” he said as he dined on salmon and mixed vegetables in his conference room, with a napkin tucked over his lavender tie. “So, I suppose you’ll ask me, ‘How come I’m doing it?’ Because other single people influence elections.”
He wants to beat them — and beat them badly: “I suppose you could say that I live on Vince Lombardi’s belief: ‘Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.’ So, I do whatever it takes, as long as it’s moral, ethical, principled, legal.”
Adelson has already given about three times as much as the previous record-holder, hedge fund manager George Soros, who dropped $24 million to try to defeat President George W. Bush in 2004. And Adelson has already given about one-third of the amount that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) spent on his entire campaign in 2008.
Everyone wants Adelson’s money, and so he knows why everyone loves him and comes calling. But he doesn’t really seem to mind getting hit up, enjoying the combat as an eccentric, happy warrior. “I meet with everybody, even people looking for small charity. If I have the time to take their call or to see them, I’ll do that.” Asked about unusual requests, he said with a laugh, “Well, money is money. So, I think the requests are all the same. They’re all looking for money.”
This is in an age of individual empowerment in politics, in which the Internet has supposedly democratized campaigns and giving. Yet Adelson recalls the robber baron era in his influence and single-handed ability to sustain candidates and ideological movements. In another irony, a party animated by revulsion at the looseness and vulgarity of modern life, and the lapse of traditional values, now depends on a huge funding stream from America’s capital of sin.
To some, Adelson represents the triumph of individual enterprise and the Superman capitalist — someone who can command, at will, an audience with many of the most important people in the country. To others, he is the bad guy in a James Bond movie — a wily, super-rich manipulator.
“He’s the man of the hour,” said a Republican official who has visited him in Vegas many times. “Everyone’s trying to get in to see him – every candidate, every PAC director, every campaign committee, every super PAC guy. When you’re giving out money the way he is, everyone wants a piece of the pie.”
From three time zones beyond the Beltway, Adelson has unabashedly shaped the presidential race: First, he prolonged Romney’s agonizing nomination campaign, single-handedly keeping Newt Gingrich in the race by stroking $20 million in super PAC checks.
Now, he is helping ride to the rescue of the floundering Romney campaign: The outside groups will spend about $10 million a week on TV time in swing states between now and Election Day on Nov. 6 – roughly the recent level of spending of the Romney campaign itself, which has been buying about $1 million a day in ad time.
So why does he do it? For the first time, Adelson talked in detail about his top five reasons:
1) Self-defense: Adelson said a second Obama term would bring government “vilification of people that were against him.” He thinks he would be at the top of that list and contends that he already has been targeted for his political activity.
Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands Corp. is being scrutinized by federal investigators looking into possible money-laundering in Vegas, and possible violation of bribery laws by the company’s ventures in China, including four casinos in the gambling mecca of Macau. (Amazingly, 90 percent of the corporation’s revenue is now from Asia, including properties in Macau and Singapore.)
The country’s leading megadonor is irritated by the leaks. “When I see what’s happening to me and this company, about accusations that are unfounded, that kind of behavior … has to stop,” he said.
Adelson gave the interview in part to signal that he intends to fight back in increasingly visible ways. Articles about the investigations appeared last month on the front pages of The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. He maintains that after his family became heavily involved in the election, the government began leaking information about federal inquiries that involve old events, and with which the company has been cooperating.
The aim of the leaks, he argued, is “making me toxic so that they can make the argument to the Republicans, ‘This guy is toxic. Don’t do business with him. Don’t take his money.’ Not all government employees are leakers, but most of the leakers are government employees.”
Asked to response to Adelson’s comments, the Justice Department said it does not comment on, or confirm, investigations.
2) Friends in high places: If Romney were elected, Adelson would have a powerful ally on the two issues he cares most about: the security and prosperity of Israel, and opposition to unions, including the so-called card-check proposal that would make it easier for workers to organize. Adelson runs the only nonunion casino on the Strip – a status he says he has retained by lavishing workers with benefits, including subsidized child care.
“He doesn’t care about access — he has access,” the Republican official said. “When these candidates sit down with him, they’re not just talking about this election, but about Israel in the future. He has the cause, and he has the money.”
Adelson said he recently told Romney: “I want to tell you something: I’m not looking for an ambassadorship. I’m not looking for anything, except if I’m fortunate enough to be invited to another [White House] Hanukkah party, I want two potato pancakes, because last time I was there, they ran out of them.” He explained that he went “to all the Hanukkah parties for the eight years of Bush … but the last time I was there, they ran out of … latkes.”
3) Loathes Obama: For all his wealth and worldliness (models of each of his personal airplanes hang from his office ceiling), Adelson is driven in part by the concerns of everyday conservatives. He recently read “The Amateur,” the anti-Obama bestseller by Edward Klein. And Adelson complained about Obama’s “czars,” a conservative preoccupation early in Obama’s term.
Adelson said he worries about “any man that sets up a shadow government, not accountable to anybody. … What are the czars, if they’re not a substitute for the secretaries of Commerce, of State, of Interior? They’re not under any rules, they’re just consultants to him in his office. And then he’ll come along and say, ‘Well, Bush did it.’ But that’s not the way the government is supposed to be run.”
Like many other businesspeople who depend on tourism, Adelson holds a grudge from just three weeks after Obama’s inauguration, when the new president said financiers receiving bailouts shouldn’t “go take a trip to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayers’ dime.”
“From that point on, Vegas started to go down,” Adelson said. “And he’s got the nerve, the chutzpah, to come here and raise money here. He should follow his own advice and not come to Vegas. He hurt me. He hurt 200,000 people working in the hospitality industry in this town.”
4) Efficiency on the right: Adelson has played a previously unreported role that has helped maximize the outside groups’ muscle. He has insisted that they coordinate their efforts, making the spending more efficient. “If word got back to him that a group wasn’t cooperating, he’d cut them off,” said a top official at one of the groups, who deals personally with Adelson. “It’s to maximize the dollars. You don’t want repetition. You don’t people doubling up. He doesn’t want to feel like his money is wasted.”
The largest groups — American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, which Karl Rove helped found; Restore Our Future, the pro-Romney super PAC; Americans for Prosperity, funded partly by David and Charles Koch; American Action Network, focused on House races; and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — were already coordinating. Crossroads bought ad time heavily in July, then went dark as Restore Our Future and Americans for Prosperity took over for August.
Starting this month, the division of labor has been by states. Restore Our Future is currently buying in Michigan and Wisconsin, while Crossroads is on the air in eight other states — Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia. The major groups say none of this fall’s state buys will overlap.
Rove remains the strategic mastermind, participants say. Adelson’s influence, according to top Republicans, is more philosophical and is especially strong with smaller, start-up groups — like the Young Guns Action Fund, started by Cantor allies — that otherwise might splinter off but instead are encouraged to act as part of the team.
One official said many donors have been pushing for such coordination, based on Rove’s Weaver Terrace Project in 2010, a meeting that brought the big conservative spenders together. “Most of the major donors have become sophisticated,” said one top Republican official. “They have a line of people out their door wanting checks, and the first question they ask is: Are you working with these groups? Sheldon is very pointed about it.”
5) Empowering small business: Adelson, son of a Boston cab driver and a seamstress, has been an entrepreneur since he was 12 and spent $200 to buy the exclusive rights to sell newspapers outside the employee’s entrance of a Boston department store. He says he has worked in more than 50 businesses, from bagel vendor to court reporter to mortgage broker to investment adviser to charter-airline operator. He got rich by starting COMDEX, the computer trade show, once a popular “Geek Week” for the budding industry.
Adelson has given to dozens of Republican or conservative candidates and groups for this election, and has been petitioned by many dozens more.
And his role is growing as an impresario of the right, with increasing gifts to causes beyond classic political groups, such as specific organizations dealing with topics like labor reform, tort reform and pro-Israel issues. He and his wife of 21 years, Miriam Adelson, a physician specializing in drug abuse and addiction, are partners in their many political and philanthropic projects. She listened in on the interview via speakerphone from the Adelson Clinic, a drug-rehabilitation center that she and her husband founded and funded in Vegas, along with another in Tel Aviv. They have also helped start one in Macau.
Also in Israel, Adelson’s family has started a conservative newspaper that is, like Romney, very supportive of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “We are too fair,” Adelson quipped. “We intended to make it fair and balanced because the other newspapers are so far to the left. The problem in education and in the press is that everybody is to the left.”
Adelson’s political network grew in part through the trips that he and his wife took to Israel with lawmakers through the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “I’ve accompanied 205 congressmen and senators to Israel,” he recalled. “So, I spend a week with each one of ’em. So, you must know that I have a lot of friends. And why do I have a good friendship with them? Because I never ask ’em for anything — never. And everybody says to me, ‘You’re the only guy that does something for us that never asks for anything.’”
Adelson said he had been fairly apolitical until a friend invited him to his first national political convention — the 1988 Democratic convention in Atlanta. “It wasn’t really a lot of fun because everywhere I went — in the coffee shop, walking down the hallway, going into an elevator — everybody was talking about what kind of job they’re going to get when Michael Dukakis became president,” he recalled. “It disgusted me.”
Then, he went to the 1992 Republican convention in Houston. “I didn’t hear a single word about what people were going to get,” he said. “They were dignified, well-behaved. I said to myself, ‘I don’t belong in that rowdy crowd down in Atlanta, the Democrats.’ I said, ‘That’s not really me.’ So, I guess I converted. … After I had given the Democrats $100,000, to fix the error of my ways, I gave the Republicans $100,000.”
On the negative press he has gotten since he became such a high-profile donor, Adelson said: “Do I suffer distress and humiliation? I’m not happy that these articles come out because, one, they’re completely wrong — 1,000 percent wrong. …
“I don’t want [my two sons, now 13 and 15], when they’re able to comprehend what this all means, to be teased at school and for people to say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to be associated with him.’ I have a belief to stand up for what you believe in, even if you have to stand alone. I had a picture that, in my previous office before we moved up to this floor, [was] of a caricature of somebody standing alone.”
But he said he does not regret making most of his donations in ways that trigger disclosure when it would be possible to make all the donations to committees whose backers are shielded by law: “I’m not used to hiding things, and it doesn’t occur to me. I’m proud of my name. I’m proud of my reputation. I’m proud of my family history. I’m a classical rags-to-riches story.”
Indeed, Adelson was public about his first big donation of this cycle, as he set the course for his record spree. “I gave 5 million or 10 million — I forget — to Newt Gingrich,” he said. “I said to myself, ‘Self’ — that’s what I call myself – ‘Self, what do you got to hide?’ … So I gave him the check. I didn’t expect anything to come out of it. I certainly never expected this — any pushback or any criticism of what I was doing.
“I said to them, ‘Look, my name connected with you could hurt you more than it could help.’ Because of [his funding in the 2008 cycle of the now-defunct] Freedom’s Watch, the unions came up and attacked me. They implied that I was like a Mafia don. And I said, ‘You want to reconsider?’ So they said, ‘No. We considered. We’d like to have your money.’”
Friends say he is enjoying his role enough that he plans to continue as the go-to sugar daddy for Republican candidates in 2016, as well. “I’ll be always available,” he said merrily. “The expression that I make a joke out of is that I put my money where my mouth is.”