Sheldon Adelson, Conservative Donor And Casino Titan, Dies At 87

Jan 12, 2021
Originally published on January 12, 2021 8:47 pm

Updated at 12:27 p.m. ET

Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, one of the most prolific donors in conservative politics, died Monday night at the age of 87 due to complications from treatment for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, according to a statement from Las Vegas Sands, the company he founded.

Adelson made his fortune — a net worth of around $35 billion according to an estimate by Forbes — in the casino hotel industry. He spent much of it backing conservative politicians in the U.S. and Israel, shaping the political debate of both countries.

He was in the first wave of superwealthy Americans to take advantage of the Supreme Court's controversial Citizens United ruling, which opened the doors to eight- and nine-figure political donations so long as the money goes to independent superPACs and not candidates or party committees.

Fireworks explodes at a replica of the Eiffel Tower of Parisian Macao during an opening ceremony in Macau, China, on Sept. 13, 2016. The French-themed Parisian Macao is Sheldon Adelson's fifth property in the former Portuguese colony.
Kin Cheung / AP

Serial entrepreneur

Adelson grew up poor in Dorchester, Mass. His parents were immigrants. His father drove a cab.

"When I was 12, I bought my first business," said Adelson, who started out selling newspapers on the street. He told the story during a videotaped court deposition in 2008. "You know, you hold the newspaper in your hand and say, 'Hey, get your Daily Record.' We would yell that out. We would hawk newspapers," Adelson said.

By age 16, he had bought his second business — vending machines. And he kept on selling — packages of toiletries, spray cans of windshield de-icer. He ran a tour business and got into venture capital.

Then, early in the personal computer era, he bought an influential computer trade show called Comdex and held it in Las Vegas.

Comdex took off, so Adelson bought the legendary Sands Hotel and Casino and built a million-square-foot convention center behind it. It was the start of a new Las Vegas, a place that catered to big conventions all week long — not just the weekend crowd that came in for gambling and the shows.

"I think if you had to single out one individual who brought that kind of component to the city, it would be Sheldon Adelson," said Sig Rogich, a longtime Las Vegas communications consultant. "He was a transformational figure in Las Vegas history."

In 1996, Adelson imploded the Sands and built the Venetian, a complex with more than 8,000 rooms and more than 150 stores and restaurants. It's a model that he replicated in Macau and Singapore with enormous profit.

"If you do things differently, success will follow you like a shadow, and you can't get rid of it. So that's what I did," Adelson told the American Gaming Association convention in 2014.

Along the way, Adelson had battles. In the Comdex days, he fought the other casino owners. When he put up the Venetian, he froze out the unions that had represented workers at the old Sands.

"Anybody who stands up to him or stands in his way, he'll try to crush," said D. Taylor, international president of the labor group UNITE HERE and a long time labor leader in Las Vegas.

In 2015, the Adelson family bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper, in a sale originally shrouded in mystery and investigated by the publication's own journalists. There were several newsroom resignations after that sale, including a columnist who was told he could not write about Adelson.

The "Adelson primary"

The fortune Adelson made in the casino business was spent generously on donations to Jewish causes, medical research and the Republican Party. He and his wife, Miriam, gave around $500 million over the past eight years to Republican and conservative campaigns.

The couple's prolific political giving led to what was sometimes called the "Adelson primary," in which GOP presidential hopefuls would flock to Las Vegas to court Adelson and the Republican Jewish Coalition.

"Hey, listen, Sheldon, thanks for inviting me," said then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich at one such event in 2014. "I don't travel to these things much, but this is one that I thought was really, really important."

During the 2016 presidential primaries, Adelson initially appeared to back Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who received the endorsement of Adelson's Review-Journal. Unlike Rubio, Donald Trump said he didn't need Adelson's money. "If Sheldon gives to him, he'll have total control over Rubio, and that's the problem with the way the system works," said Trump in an interview with Fox News.

But after early reservations, the Adelsons backed Trump's 2016 election effort; they gave $5 million to his inaugural committee and then donated about $500,000 to the legal defense fund for his White House aides. During the 2018 midterms, the Adelsons donated more than $100 million to Republicans.

Trump awarded Miriam Adelson the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2018; the citation praised her work and philanthropy in combating addiction. "You have been truly incredible," Trump told her at the event, before looking out to the crowd. "Here to celebrate Miriam's award is Sheldon. Where is Sheldon? Where is Sheldon? Where is he? There he is. Oh, you didn't make the front row. He's probably angry."

In statement Tuesday, Trump said, "His ingenuity, genius, and creativity earned him immense wealth, but his character and philanthropic generosity his great name. Sheldon was also a staunch supporter of our great ally the State of Israel."

While Adelson was a staunch supporter of the Republican Party, he wasn't always in sync with the party's positions, telling reporters in 2012, "On the social issues, I'm not pro-life; I'm pro-choice."

Adelson continued to support Trump in his reelection bid, though about a week after the election, his newspaper's editorial board said the defeated president was trying to "delay the inevitable." The editorial column blasted the unfounded claims of voter fraud Trump and his allies were perpetuating.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Ivanka Trump unveil an inauguration plaque during the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem on May 14, 2018.
Menahem Kahana / AFP/Getty Images

Birthright Israel; Jerusalem embassy

Adelson also spent heavily on conservative causes in Israel.

He was a primary backer of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. According to a biography of the Israeli leader by journalist Anshel Pfeffer, Netanyahu helped the Adelsons secure unprecedented access to hold their wedding reception in the Israeli parliament building.

In 2007, Adelson launched Israel Today, a free daily that has become Israel's largest circulation newspaper. It features cheerleading coverage of Netanyahu and his family, a key asset in Netanyahu's longtime quest for positive press coverage in Israel. When Netanyahu addressed a joint session of Congress in 2015 against the Iran nuclear deal, Adelson was in the gallery.

Adelson also helped bankroll Birthright Israel, a program partially funded by the Israeli government to send Jewish youth from around the world to Israel on free guided trips.

He was a forceful advocate for moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Adelson heavily supported former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's 2012 presidential campaign in part because of his support for moving the embassy.

While the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations rejected such a move, Trump's administration embraced the policy.

Adelson even offered to pay for at least part of the cost of building a new embassy.

At the dedication ceremony for the new embassy in May 2018, the Adelsons sat in the front row just a few feet away from Netanyahu, Trump's daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner.

NPR international correspondent Daniel Estrin contributed reporting to this story.

Clarification: 1/12/21

An earlier version of this story said that Birthright Israel sends American Jewish youth to Israel on free guided trips. The organization sends Jewish youth from around the world on the trips.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Casino magnate and political megadonor Sheldon Adelson has died. He was 87 and had been battling non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Adelson was worth some $35 billion according to Forbes magazine, and he used his immense wealth to support Republican candidates, in the process helping to change the political dynamics here in the U.S. and in Israel. Peter Overby has more.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Sheldon Adelson was born poor but with the instincts of a businessman.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHELDON ADELSON: I've been in business for 69 years - since I was 12.

OVERBY: This is from a videotaped talk at the American Gaming Association's convention in 2014.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADELSON: If you do things differently, success will follow you like a shadow. And you can't get rid of it. So that's what I did.

OVERBY: Adelson did things differently in Las Vegas. He got rich running conventions, then much richer building casinos. His empire includes hotels and casinos in Las Vegas, Pennsylvania, Singapore and Macau. It's still expanding, helped by allies in the Trump administration. As Adelson's wealth grew, so did his interest in politics. He had good timing. In 2010, the Supreme Court gave its approval to multimillion-dollar contributions. Adelson became a leader in the first wave of the superrich to unleash their political giving. Starting with the 2012 primaries, he and his wife, Miriam, put nearly $300 million into Republican candidates and campaigns. Campaign finance analyst Bob Biersack tracked Adelson's money for years.

BOB BIERSACK: Beginning in 2012, with maybe one exception, he was the largest individual donor in terms of disclosed money by a pretty significant margin.

OVERBY: Sometimes the money came from Adelson, sometimes from Miriam and sometimes from them as a couple. It gave rise to what's called the Adelson primary. Presidential hopefuls would flock to one of his casino hotels in Las Vegas to court the Republican Jewish Coalition and especially Sheldon Adelson.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN KASICH: Hey, listen. Sheldon, thanks for inviting me.

OVERBY: That's Republican John Kasich in 2014, winding up his speech with an obvious truth.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KASICH: I don't travel to these things much, but this is one that I thought was really, really important.

OVERBY: In the 2016 cycle, the Adelsons gave close to $80 million during the campaign, then $5 million to the Trump Inaugural Committee and after that, $500,000 to the legal defense fund for Trump White House aides. In the 2018 cycle, they gave $132 million. At a White House ceremony that fall, President Trump gave Miriam Adelson the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The citation praised her work as a physician and philanthropist to research addictions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You have been truly incredible. Here to celebrate Miriam's award is Sheldon. Where is Sheldon? Where is Sheldon? Where is he? There he is. Oh, well, you didn't get - you didn't make the front row. He's probably angry.

(LAUGHTER)

OVERBY: Adelson avoided talking politics with reporters. But in 2012, he admitted in a press gaggle he wasn't always in sync with the Republican Party.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADELSON: On the social issues, I'm not pro-life. I'm pro-choice.

OVERBY: His No. 1 cause was Israel. He was heavily involved in its politics, backing hard-line conservatives, such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. One way he helped them was to launch and finance a free daily newspaper. It became Israel's largest circulation paper. In 2012, Adelson money kept Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign on life support for weeks because Gingrich made this pledge.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NEWT GINGRICH: I will issue an executive order directing the U.S. Embassy in Israel to be moved to Jerusalem.

OVERBY: Adelson lobbied the George W. Bush administration to move the embassy. Bush wouldn't do it, but President Trump did. Netanyahu opened the new embassy with a ceremony in May 2018.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: What a glorious day. Remember this moment.

OVERBY: As the prime minister spoke, Sheldon and Miriam Adelson sat beaming in the front row.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.