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Sheldon Adelson, Republican kingmaker and casino magnate, has died at 87

Sheldon Adelson, the chairman and CEO of Las Vegas Sands and a major donor to Republican politicians, died January 11 following complications related to his cancer treatment, his company said. He was 87.

Posted: Jan 13, 2021 9:00 AM
Updated: Jan 13, 2021 9:00 AM

Sheldon Adelson, the chairman and CEO of Las Vegas Sands and a major donor to Republican politicians, died late Monday following complications related to his cancer treatment, his company said. He was 87.

Adelson took a leave of absence from Sands last week to resume treatment for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, which his aides first disclosed in late February 2019.

He rose from a hardscrabble childhood in Boston to become one of the world's richest men as founder and CEO of Las Vegas Sands Corp He was Sands' first employee, which has since grown to 50,000 employees.

"His impact on the industry will be everlasting," the company said.

Adelson's funeral will be held in Israel, the birthplace of his wife, Dr. Miriam Adelson. Plans for a memorial in Las Vegas, where he ran the Venetian and Palazzo casinos, will be held at a later date.

GOP donor

Adelson spent his fortune -- pegged at $35 billion by Forbes -- to become an influential behind-the-scenes-player in Washington, working to shape US policy toward Israel, help guide Republican Party strategy and lobby against threats posed to his business interests.

He donated hundreds of millions of dollars to medical research and Jewish causes. He owned Israel's largest daily newspaper by circulation; donated to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance center in Jerusalem; and helped underwrite Birthright Israel, which pays for educational trips to Israel for young Jewish adults.

But he was perhaps best known in the United States as a Republican mega-donor whose millions helped shape the course of presidential and congressional elections in the post-Citizens United era.

Adelson and his wife, Miriam, donated hundreds of millions of dollars to Republican-aligned super PACs. They plowed more than $215 million into federal super PACs in the last two years, making them largest publicly disclosed donors of the 2020 elections, according to a tally by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Adelson did not always support the front-runner in GOP intraparty fights.

In the 2012 Republican presidential primary, for instance, Adelson invested heavily in a super PAC that helped extend former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's presidential run.

Gingrich eventually lost the nomination to Mitt Romney, but Adelson's spending underscored his loyalty to Gingrich, with whom he shared a hawkish stance on Israel.

Trump patron

In 2016, Adelson emerged as a powerful voice backing then-candidate Donald Trump at a time when many GOP traditional donors were reluctant to support the brash real estate developer.

In May 2016, as Trump clinched the Republican presidential nomination, Adelson penned a Washington Post opinion piece, urging the party's financial benefactors to unite behind Trump after a bruising primary.

Adelson called Trump a "CEO success story."

"You may not like Trump's style or what he says on Twitter, but this country needs strong executive leadership more today than at almost any point in its history," Adelson wrote.

Later that year, the Adelsons donated $20 million to a super PAC supporting Trump's candidacy. Adelson became the largest individual contributor to the President's inaugural committee, donating $5 million.

The Adelsons were rewarded for their generosity.

They attended Trump's inauguration, dined at the White House and had front-row seats in 2018 as US officials opened a US Embassy in Jerusalem -- a long-standing Adelson objective.

In a White House ceremony in 2018, Trump awarded Israeli-born Miriam Adelson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. The White House cited her work to support medical research and Jewish causes.

Rags to riches

Adelson was born August 4, 1933, in Boston. His father, an immigrant from Lithuania, drove a cab, and his mother, whose family came from Wales, ran a small knitting service. He and his siblings slept on the floor of the family's tenement apartment.

Adelson often touted his rags-to-riches story and his determination to claw his way out of poverty.

At age 12, he was selling newspapers on street corners in Boston. By 16, he had invested in candy machines. After a stint in the Army, he continued to run businesses, selling condominiums, working as a mortgage broker, taking a turn as a venture capitalist.

"Despite being the grandson of a Welsh coal miner and the son of a Boston cab driver, I've had the remarkable experience of being part of almost 50 different businesses in my more than 70-year business career," he wrote in the Washington Post piece touting Trump.

His big break came in the late 1970s, when he launched a computer trade show known as Comdex. He sold it in 1995 for nearly $900 million, parlaying that convention business into a casino empire that comprises the properties in Asia, the upscale Venetian and Palazzo resorts in Las Vegas and Sands Bethelem, a casino hotel in Pennsylvania. His venture became the world's largest casino company.

His properties ranged from the opulent Venetian casino resort in Las Vegas, where visitors can ride in gondolas, to a string of lucrative casinos in the Chinese gambling enclave of Macau.

In person, Adelson was instantly recognizable for his thinning patch of bright red hair and the electric scooter he rode everywhere. He suffered from peripheral neuropathy, a condition that made walking difficult.

He generally shied away from media interviews.

His family's 2015 purchase of one of his hometown newspapers, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, was cloaked in secrecy, forcing journalists at the paper to do their own digging to determine the identity of their new bosses.

During his cancer battle, Adelson had curtailed his office hours at the company he founded, although the company said in a statement that Adelson continued to perform his duties as its chairman and CEO.

Calling his achievements in the hospitality industry "well-documented," the company said that Adelson's vision "transformed the industry, changed the trajectory of the company he founded, and reimagined tourism" in Las Vegas, Macau and Singapore.

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