Sheldon Adelson, Casino Mogul and GOP Power Broker, Dies

January 12, 2021 Updated: January 12, 2021

LAS VEGAS—Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire mogul 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 with two siblings in a Boston tenement, who over the second half of his life became one of the world’s richest men. The chairman and CEO of the Las Vegas Sands Corp. brought singing gondoliers to the Las Vegas Strip and foresaw correctly that Asia would be an even bigger market. In 2018, Forbes ranked him No. 15 in the United States, worth an estimated $35.5 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 and stood apart from most American Jews, who for decades have supported Democrats by wide margins. Adelson was considered the nation’s most influential GOP donor over the final years of his life, at times setting records for individual contributions during a given election cycle.

In 2012, Politico called him “the dominant pioneer of the super PAC era.”

Sands Sheldon
Philanthropist Chief Executive Officer of Las Vegas Sands Sheldon Adelson attends the Israeli American Council National Summit 2019 at the Diplomat Beach Resort in Hollywood, Fla., on Dec. 7, 2019. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

Adelson regularly hosted the party’s top strategists and most ambitious candidates at his modest office, wedged among the casinos on the Strip. Throughout, he helped ensure that support of Israel became a pillar of the GOP platform, never more visibly demonstrated than when the Trump administration relocated the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2018.

More recently, he reportedly purchased the U.S. ambassador’s official residence near Tel Aviv for some $67 million.

When asked at a gambling conference what he hoped his legacy would be, Adelson said it wasn’t his glitzy casinos or hotels, it was his impact in Israel. He donated $25 million, a record sum for a private citizen, to Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. He established a think tank in Jerusalem. He was closely aligned with the conservative Likud party and funded a widely-read free daily newspaper called “Israel Hayom,” or “Israel Today.”

In the United States, 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). He also sponsored “Birthright” trips to Israel for young Jewish adults.

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 neighborhood 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 and a strong supporter of Israel.”

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, who also lost to Obama.

“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.”

President Trump and Sheldon Adelson
President Donald Trump stands alongside Las Vegas Sands Corporation Chief Executive and Republican mega donor Sheldon Adelson before speaking at the Israeli American Council National Summit in Hollywood, Fla., on Dec. 7, 2019. (Patrick Semansky/AP Photo)

Adelson came around slowly to Trump, who during the campaign had said he would be “neutral” in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Trump even ridiculed his initial liking for Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, tweeting in 2015: “Sheldon Adelson is looking to give big dollars to Rubio because he feels he can mold him into his perfect little puppet. I agree!”

Adelson eventually endorsed Trump in 2016. He gave more than $20 million in the final weeks of the campaign after reports that he would contribute $100 million, and was more generous with congressional races.

But after Trump’s surprise victory, the new president spoke often with Adelson and embraced his views on the Middle East. He withdrew from the Obama administration’s nuclear nonproliferation deal with Iran and he also moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.

Adelson 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—and some longtime staffers left in protest.

His wife Miriam Adelson was given a Presidential Medal of Freedom by Trump 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. In a 2012 interview with The Wall Street Journal, he called himself “basically a social liberal,” pro-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.”

He had previously told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow that he remained friends with Adelson despite their political differences.

“Sheldon Adelson and I still meet and have conversations. He has a problem, I try to help him,” Reid said.

Sheldon Adelson (R) and wife Miriam Adelson
U.S. billionaire Sheldon Adelson (R) and wife Miriam Adelson attend the Swarovski show during the Front Row at Shoppes at Parisian in Macau on Sept. 14, 2016. (Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

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. Their honeymoon trip to Venice inspired Adelson to raze the historic Sands hotel-casino, once a favorite hangout for Frank Sinatra among others, and replace them with a pair of massive complexes: The Venetian and The Palazzo, one of the city’s tallest buildings.

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. Adelson would spend millions opposing state efforts to legalize marijuana.

Adelson was born in 1933 in the Dorchester neighborhood 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 businesses, from toiletries to deicing windshields.

Adelson, who said he disdained email, began to amass his fortune with a technology trade show, starting computer convention COMDEX in 1979 with partners 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 began to replicate the Strip in Macao, the only place in China where casino gambling is legal.

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 hit 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. Adelson often clashed with attorneys while appearing on a Clark County courtroom’s witness stand.

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 favor of it exploiting the world’s most vulnerable people.”