Intolerant, and anti-democratic, Sheldon Adelson may be one of the most dangerous corporate titans in America - with $20 billion in wealth dedicated to advancing his agenda. Yet despite nearly $100 million spent flogging his chosen candidates, only one of them won.
Back in the good ol' days when Senators were bought and paid for by corporate sponsors, Washington state's Sen. Henry Jackson, was known as the Senator from Boeing. Even earlier, in the 19th century, Senators represented Big Oil or the railroads. Today, the US Supreme Court's Citizen's United decision has returned us to those days of yesteryear, especially in the case of one particular race for the Nevada Senate seat once held by Republican John Ensign, who resigned in the midst of a sex scandal.
Dean Heller was appointed to fill Ensign's seat. His Democratic opponent in the race was Rep. Shelley Berkley. Berkley has the distinction of being the former corporate attorney for Sheldon Adelson's Sands hotel empire. They had a falling out in the mid-1990s when the casino mogul went to war against the powerful hotel trade unions and banned them from his facilities. Since then, Berkley and Adelson have become sworn enemies.
Ironically, on issues related to Israel, each outdoes the other to seem more pro-Israel and pro-Likud.
If Berkley's ethical lapses hadn't shot her in the foot, she might be Nevada's new senator. Unfortunately for her, she threw her weight around the US Congress, abusing her position to benefit her husband's kidney dialysis business, according to a story first reported by the New York Times. Given that Ensign resigned his Senate seat in disgrace, Nevadans may have been leery of giving the job to someone with her own ethical baggage.
What Does $70 Million Get You in US Politics?
Politico estimates that Adelson has sunk as much as $70 million into this year's election. He didn't get much for his money. His chosen presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, lost - as did Connie Mack and Allen West in Florida, George Allen in Virginia, and former Michael Jackson pal, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, running for a New Jersey Congressional seat.
Aside from the presidency, Adelson's most critical contest was the Nevada Senate race. He runs an empire based in one of the most heavily regulated industries in America: gambling. Currently, he faces a number of federal investigations. A former executive contended in court that Adelson personally approved arranging for prostitutes for high-roller clients at his Macao property; and that he approved paying bribes to the middlemen who, under Chinese government supervision, charter trips to the casinos for the wealthiest of Chinese gamblers. These junket organizers were reputed to have close ties to the Chinese mafia. If so, this would violate Nevada gaming laws.
Adelson was also accused of paying a Macao government official as a fixer to resolve legal headaches he faced with Chinese regulators. If true, this would constitute a violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
John McCain even raised the specter of foreign money entering the US political system in the form of the billions Chinese gamblers pour into the Sands corporate coffers. That could mean too that Sheldon Adelson's interests are not necessarily aligned with those of the US, but with those of the Chinese government officials who determine his success or failure.
Indeed, once when Congress was considering approving a motion criticizing China's human rights record, which the Chinese feared would torpedo their campaign to host the Olympics, Adelson was asked to intervene. He called then-Speaker Tom DeLay, who assured Adelson the resolution was dead. And it was.
If you are Sheldon Adelson, there are two elected officials who can protect you and limit such exposure: the president and your US Senator. The latter can arguably be even more effective, because a president must avoid any semblance of impropriety. Senators, on the other hand, regularly and routinely protect high profile constituents. So Heller would be a most critical Adelson-backed candidate.
The Heller-Berkley race was extraordinarily expensive. In a state with less than two million residents, the entire campaign cost at least $45 million. The two candidates together raised $17 million. But super-PACs and 501(c)4s spent another $27 million. Tablet Magazine says Adelson spent $4 million on Heller's behalf. We know the gambling mogul gave $10 million to Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS, which in turn spent at least $6.6 million supporting the Nevada Republican. That makes Tablet's claim quite credible.
Dean Heller: Senator from Sands
Dean Heller is the new "Senator from Sands." He's Adelson's man in the Senate and his inside guy when it comes to intervening on his behalf if the Justice Department heat gets too intense. If anyone can keep Adelson from wearing pinstripes and serving time, it's going to be Heller.
Though Adelson sunk tens of millions into the Romney campaign, the candidate wasn't his chosen one. That was Newt Gingrich, into whose coffers Adelson sank nearly $25 million. It is unlikely Adelson is nearly as heartbroken about Romney's loss as the latter is.
The gambling baron is looking to the future. He has put his marker on the table, showing America he's willing to spend in an unlimited fashion to achieve his business and political objectives. He knows there will be future campaigns and better candidates. When called upon next time, if he likes the political tune he hears, it seems likely he'll sink even more into such races.
Adelson "owns" another important politician. One who doesn't serve in the Senate or White House: Bibi Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister. Adelson's name may not appear in all the lists of donors to Likud campaigns, but the casino magnate's largesse is spent in a less direct, but no less effective way. He founded and owns Israel's largest daily newspaper, Yisrael Hayom. It also goes by the moniker, Bibiton ("Bibi-Paper"). Though Israeli newspapers are known for their political or ideological affiliations, never has a single newspaper existed to promote the career of a single politician - until now.
Yisrael Hayom tore off a huge chunk out of the newspaper market by doing one small, simple thing. It is free. Think of it as a national penny-saver on steroids. When faced with paying for Maariv, Yediot or Haaretz, most Israelis prefer their news free. That has caused immense fiscal damage to competitors and Maariv just announced it was being sold in a fire sale that averted almost certain bankruptcy.
Bibiton's commanding presence in the market doesn't come cheap. But thankfully, there is a very deep pocket absorbing a $40 million loss yearly to subsidize the paper. Netanyahu himself has said publicly that he could not have gotten elected without the paper and that his political program would have failed without its unstinting support. Here's what Haaretz's Yossi Verter wrote (Hebrew):
The truth comes out. Netanyahu believes that without Yisrael Hayom, his personal journal, edited ... night by night in his own office, he would never have been elected and the right-wing bloc would not win a majority.
Where Do Sheldon Adelson's Real Loyalties Lie?
While there may be potential danger to US politics from the alignment of Adelson's business interests with China, Adelson also nakedly promotes the interests in this country of another nation: Israel.
All we care about is being good Zionists, being good citizens of Israel. Because although I'm not Israeli-born, Israel is in my heart.
Though Adelson's wife, Miriam, is an Israeli citizen, Adelson himself is not. This slip of the tongue is instructive regarding how closely allied Adelson's political views are with those of Bibi Netanyahu's far-right Likud Party.
Also in this video, Adelson says he regrets that the uniform he wore when he served in the US Army was not Israeli, but is comforted his daughter did serve in the IDF. About his son, whose bar-mitzvah he came to Israel to celebrate, he says:
His hobby is shooting. Hopefully, he'll come back to Israel and be a sniper for the IDF ... He's a gun freak. Either that or he'll fly the Predators.
There are those who accuse people like Adelson of dual-loyalty or being "Israel-Firsters." But for him, it isn't a question of having divided loyalties, Adelson doesn't believe there's any difference between the interests of Israel and the US. If it's good for Israel, it's good for America (though not necessarily vice versa). For example, he couldn't conceive that attacking Iran's nuclear facilities would be bad for US interests. In Sheldon's eyes, if it's good for Israel's interests, it's good for American interests as well. The notion is preposterous, but a less extreme version of this premise informs all the work of the Israel lobby.
Sheldon Adelson's "romance" with the notion of war against Iran is well-known. Andrew Sullivan wrote that a Romney victory would've meant that Adelson would've bought a war with Iran. A New Yorker profile notes that Adelson despised the Shah's son, Reza Pahlevi, because "he doesn't want to attack Iran."
Sheldon Adelson may be one of the most dangerous corporate titans in America. He is arguably corrupt, intolerant and anti-democratic - with $20 billion in wealth dedicated to advancing his agenda. There is almost nothing standing in his way.
But there is one force standing between Adelson and ultimate power: the American people. Despite nearly $100 million spent flogging his chosen candidates, only one of them won. When offered a choice between Adelson's vision and one advanced by Democrats, most Americans chose the "better angels of our nature."
Sheldon Adelson's interests are aligned with the 1%. And he's not terribly sophisticated or persuasive in conveying them to the 99% - witness the super-PAC ads in the final days before the election. In Netanyahu, he found a perfect vehicle: a skilled politician who knew how to work the levers of a society that was turning rightward. Here in the US, where the canvas is much larger, Adelson will have a harder time buying his way to political victory. If he ever does, then he will become a truly dangerous man.