LAS VEGAS — Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire mogul, Republican mega-donor and power broker who built a casino empire spanning from Las Vegas to China and became a singular force in domestic and international politics, has died after a long illness.
Adelson died at 87 from complications related to treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Las Vegas Sands announced Tuesday.
He was the son of Jewish immigrants raised in a Boston tenement who became one of the world’s richest men. The chairman and CEO of the Las Vegas Sands brought singing gondoliers to the Vegas Strip and foresaw the same potential in Asia. Forbes ranked him No. 19 in the U.S., worth an estimated $29.8 billion.
“If you do things differently, success will follow you like a shadow,” he said during a 2014 talk to the gambling industry in Las Vegas.
Blunt yet secretive, the squatly-built Adelson resembled an old-fashioned political boss. He became one of the nation’s most influential GOP donors by setting records for individual contributions.
In 2012, Politico called him “the dominant pioneer of the super PAC era.”
Adelson hosted the party’s top strategists and candidates at his modest office wedged among the casinos of the Las Vegas Strip. He helped ensure that uncritical support of Israel became a pillar of the GOP platform, never more visibly than when the Trump administration relocated the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2018.
The inflammatory move had been adamantly opposed by Palestinians and was long a priority for Adelson, who sat front and centre at the ceremony in Jerusalem. with his wife, Miriam.
More recently, he reportedly purchased the U.S. ambassador’s official residence near Tel Aviv for some $67 million in a manoeuvr that appeared be aimed at preventing the embassy from relocating back to Tel Aviv after Trump leaves office. Just weeks ago, Adelson provided a private plane for Jonathan Pollard, a former U.S. intelligence analyst who spent 30 years in prison for spying for Israel, to move to Israel after his parole ended.
When asked at a gambling conference what he hoped his legacy would be, Adelson said it wasn’t his glitzy casinos or hotels but his impact in Israel. He was closely aligned with the conservative Likud party and funded a widely-read free daily newspaper called “Israel Hayom,” or “Israel Today,” so supportive of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that some Israelis nicknamed it “Bibi-ton,” a play on words combining Netanyahu's nickname with the Hebrew word for newspaper.
In the U.S., Adelson helped underwrite congressional trips to Israel, helped build a new headquarters for the lobbying group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and later was a top supporter of the Israeli-American Council, whose conferences have attracted top Republicans ( Vice-President Mike Pence) and Democrats (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi).
His attachment to Israel was life-long and so deep that he once said he wished his military service had been in an Israeli uniform instead of an American one.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday that Adelson “will forever be remembered” for his work strengthening ties between the U.S. and Israel.
Adelson was a late bloomer in business and in politics. He didn’t become a casino owner, or a Republican, until well into middle age. Through the 1990s and after his wealth soared, his engagement in politics intensified. He was a supporter of President George W. Bush and backed Republican Rudolph Giuliani for the 2008 presidential race, before turning to the eventual candidate, Sen. John McCain, who lost to Barack Obama.
“Sheldon battled his way out of a tough Boston neighbourhood to build a successful enterprise that loyally employed tens of thousands - and entertained millions," said Bush in a prepared statement Tuesday. “He was an American patriot.”
Adelson's leverage grew considerably in 2010 after the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision lifted many restrictions on individual campaign contributions. He and his wife spent more than $90 million on the 2012 election, funding presidential candidate Newt Gingrich and later Mitt Romney.
“I’m against very wealthy people attempting to or influencing elections,” he told Forbes magazine in 2012. “But as long as it’s doable I’m going to do it.”
Adelson came around slowly to Trump, who ridiculed Adelson's support for Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, tweeting in 2015, “Sheldon Adelson is looking to give big dollars to Rubio because he feels he can mould him into his perfect little puppet. I agree!”
But after Trump’s surprise victory, the new president spoke often with Adelson and embraced his hardline views on the Middle East. He cut funding for Palestinian refugees and withdrew from the Obama administration’s nuclear nonproliferation deal with Iran. He bucked long-held and bipartisan U.S. policy that viewed Jerusalem as key to any peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Adelson, in turn, aided Trump financially, including $5 million for his inauguration, and supported him through his media holdings. Late in 2015, Adelson secretly purchased the Las Vegas Review-Journal — the paper’s own reporters revealed he was the new owner. Some longtime staffers left in protest.
In what was widely seen as a mark of the Adelsons’ influence with Trump, Miriam Adelson was given a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2018.
Adelson, who contributed more than $100 million to the 2018 off-year elections, held extraordinary power among Republicans even though he didn’t always agree with them.
“Our nation lost a remarkable American with the passing of my friend Sheldon Adelson," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday.
In a 2012 interview with The Wall Street Journal, he called himself “basically a social liberal,” who was pro-choice on abortion and supportive of immigrant rights. He cited taxes and differences over Israel as major reasons for leaving the Democratic party.
“His life made him a fearless advocate for freedom and entrepreneurship and a source of counsel and support to a generation of conservatives, including me,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
In Nevada, his influence was such that even the state’s most prominent Democrat, Sen. Harry Reid, hesitated to take him on. In a 2014 interview with MSNBC, the then-Senate majority leader differentiated between Adelson and fellow GOP billionaire donors Charles and David Koch. Reid had sharply criticized the Koch brothers as callous and greedy, while saying that he respected Adelson because he was “not in it to make money,” a widely challenged opinion.
“In the nearly four decades that I’ve known him, Sheldon Adelson has been outspoken with causes important to him," Reid said Tuesday. “His advocacy for the state of Israel and Jewish causes was without equal and made a difference in countless lives both at home and abroad.”
Adelson was married twice. He and his first wife, Sandra, were divorced in 1988. Three years later, he married Miriam Farbstein-Ochshorn, an Israeli-born doctor he met on a blind date and whom many believe helped deepen his involvement with Israel. Their honeymoon trip to Venice inspired Adelson to raze the historic Sands hotel-casino, once a favourite hangout for Frank Sinatra among others, and replaced it with a pair of massive complexes: The Venetian and The Palazzo, one of the city’s tallest buildings.
Adelson led efforts to move the NFL Raiders team from Oakland, California, to Las Vegas and his decision during pandemic to keep his casino employees in Las Vegas paid and insured despite closures and business slowing for casinos.
“That commitment helped keep thousands of Nevadans afloat during the most difficult of months, and Sheldon’s commitment will never be forgotten,” said Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak.
Sheldon Adelson adopted his first wife’s three children and had two children with his second wife. Among numerous philanthropic projects, he and Miriam Adelson were especially committed to the research and treatment of substance abuse, a personal cause for Sheldon Adelson. His son Mitchell, from his first marriage, died of an overdose in 2005.
Sheldon Garry Adelson was born in 1933, in the Dorchester neighbourhood of Boston. His father was a taxi driver, his mother the manager of a knitting store. A natural entrepreneur, he was selling newspapers by age 12 and running a vending machine business at 16. After dropping out of City College of New York and serving in the Army, he attempted to start dozens of small businesses.
Adelson, who said he disdained email, began to amass his fortune with a technology trade show, starting computer convention COMDEX in 1979 before selling his stake in 1995 for more than $800 million.
When he bought the Sands Hotel in 1989, he was thinking convention space, not just gambling, would make money. It did. He built a convention hall to keep his hotel rooms full on weekdays and others soon followed the business model. Meanwhile, he worked to replicate the Strip in Macao, the only place in China where casino gambling is legal, and his wealth grew exponentially.
When faced with water and marsh land, Adelson directed his company to build land where there wasn’t any, piling sand up to create the Cotai Peninsula. Soon his Macao revenue outstripped that of his Las Vegas holdings. He later expanded his business to Singapore, where his Marina Bay Sands hotel and its infinity pool were featured in the film “Crazy Rich Asians,” and had been pressing to open a casino in Japan.
His Macao business also spawned a long-running wrongful termination lawsuit brought by a former chief of Sands China Ltd. who accused Adelson and the company of firing him for exposing a host of misdeeds.
The Sands China lawsuit was among dozens involving Adelson, whose cases included his suing a Wall Street Journal reporter for calling him “foul-mouthed” (the parties settled, the words remained) to being sued by his sons from his first marriage for cheating them out of money (he won).
A long-running feud with fellow casino tycoon Steve Wynn turned to friendship when Wynn joined Adelson’s effort to end online gambling. Critics said Adelson was trying to stifle competition. Adelson countered that there was no way to ensure children and teenagers wouldn’t gamble and said he was “not in favour of it exploiting the world’s most vulnerable people.”
Trump’s election would again prove useful to Adelson. During the Obama administration, the Justice Department said online gambling that does not involve sporting events would not violate the Wire Act, a 1961 federal statute. In a legal opinion that became public early in 2019, the department reversed itself and decided the statute applies to any form of gambling.
AP writers Michelle L. Price and Ken Ritter in Las Vegas, Zeke Miller and Alan Fram in Washington, Josef Federman in Jerusalem and Tia Goldenberg in Tel Aviv, Israel, contributed to this report.
Kimberly Pierceall, The Associated Press