Sheldon Adelson: 7 surprising facts about 2012's biggest donor

The conservative casino mogul has dropped at least $35 million into the 2012 election, and is bankrolling a Romney-friendly super PAC. Who is this guy?

Billionaire Sheldon Adelson is honored with a dance in Singapore: Despite owning resort hotel casinos all over the world, Adelson is not much of a gambler.
(Image credit: Charles Pertwee/Corbis)

"Even in a political season marked by unprecedented levels of political spending, Sheldon Adelson stands alone," says Nicholas Confessore in The New York Times. The 78-year-old casino billionaire and his family singlehandedly kept Newt Gingrich in the Republican presidential race, handing the former House speaker's allied super PAC checks totaling $21 million. And Adelson has now given another $10 million to the super PAC supporting Mitt Romney, Gingrich's one-time nemesis. In all, Adelson has thrown at least $35 million at GOP-backing super PACs this election cycle, plus hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of $5,200 checks to individual candidates, making his total known contributions more than twice that of his closest competitor, conservative Texas billionaire Harold Simmons. So just who is Adelson? Here, seven interesting facts about America's biggest political donor:

1. As a poor Boston kid, he was an unusually ambitious newsie

One of four children of a cab-driving Jewish Lithuanian immigrant, Adelson was raised during the Great Depression in the Boston suburb of Dorchester. As a child, he worked in a grocery store, butcher shop, laundromat, and hawking newspapers. His first business breakthrough, he says, came at age 12 when he bought the corner newsstand where he'd been working. Adelson then ran through a series of businesses — candy vendor, mortgage broker, court stenographer — before hitting the jackpot in 1979 with Comdex, an influential computer trade show he launched in Las Vegas.

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2. And now he's one of the country's richest men

After Comdex, Adelson bought the old Sands Hotel — home base of Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack — in 1988, "and enriched himself with a signature strategy of pairing casinos with exhibition centers," says Evan Osnos in The New Yorker. Adelson is now one of the 10 wealthiest people in America, according to Forbes, worth an estimated $26 billion. That makes the tens of millions he's dropping into this campaign something less than a financial hardship. The biggest source of his wealth is the Las Vegas Sands Corp. (LVS), of which he owns 88 percent.

3. He devised his flagship casino on his honeymoon

Adelson met his second (and current) wife, Dr. Miriam Adelson née Ochshorn, on a blind date in 1989. On their honeymoon in Italy two years later, Sheldon Adelson got the idea for The Venetian, the giant $1.5 billion Venice-themed resort-hotel-casino built on the site he cleared by razing the old Sands.

4. Adelson makes most of his income from Macao

His global casino empire is headquartered in Las Vegas, but "these days, Adelson's LVS makes three-quarters of its money from properties in the former Portuguese colony of Macao," says Rolling Stone's Rick Perlstein. This "wildly corrupt" pocket of China is the only place in the nation where you can legally gamble, and it overtook Vegas as the world's biggest casino town in 2006. Macao is lucrative because most of its income comes from high-rollers in special VIP rooms, not slot machines, as in Vegas. But doing business with Macao's shady characters has its downside, Perlstein says: "The man trying to buy himself a president is under three investigations for violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act." (Adelson denies any wrongdoing.)

5. He's a fervent zionist... but wasn't always

Much of Adelson's political and charitable giving goes toward groups and candidates that support a hawkish view of Israel. He even launched a free newspaper in Israel in 2007, Israel Hayom, that stridently supports those views and Adelson friend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But Adelson wasn't terribly involved in Zionism, or even Jewish causes, until his first trip to Israel in 1988, when he was in his mid-50s. It's personal as well as ideological, say Mike McIntire and Michael Luo in The New York Times: Showing "a sentimental streak," on one of his first Israeli trips Adelson "wore the shoes of his late father... who was never able to visit there."

6. He's a mediocre gambler

The casino magnate says he does like to gamble, but just for fun, says Mary Lynn Palenik in Casino Enterprise Management. His favorite game is blackjack, and when he's visiting a place where gambling is legal, he says, he'll "take $500 to $1,000 and go down to the casino and play." He's not very good, he insists, but "I enjoy it, and that's all that matters. Gambling is not to win money.... I'm what they call today a mass-market player. I was never a high roller."

7. And he doesn't use computers

Adelson says he appreciates how technology is improving the casino business, but he doesn't text, email, or even use a computer. "I have a great person who knows the computer and she reads every single thing that I read," he tells Palenik. "She takes dictation from me the old fashioned way, using shorthand, and that's the only way I like to dictate." This might help him legally, too, says The New Yorker's Osnos. In March 2011, when LVS disclosed the Justice Department and SEC investigations into its Macao dealings, Adelson said the feds won't find anything illegal: "They want to get all my emails. I don't have a computer. And I don't use emails. I'm not an email type of person."

Sources: Casino Enterprise Management, CNN, Guardian, New Yorker, New York Times (2), Rolling Stone, Wall Street Journal

Read more political coverage at The Week's 2012 Election Center.

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