||New York Times, Sunday, December
A Gambling Impresario Leaves Little to Chance
By BRETT PULLEY
LAS VEGAS -- In a modest office building across the street from the
Deja Vu nude showgirls lounge, 15 workers, most of them elderly, spend
their days in a long, narrow room lined with cubicles, computers and telephones.
The door to the room has a sign that reads "Telephone Operations."
the workers poll voters on coming races, survey the nation on issues
make get-out-the-vote calls for candidates. "I'm going to read you
of some people in our community," a worker repeatedly recited from
in the days before last month's election. "After each, please let me
your impression of them is favorable or unfavorable."
The telephone room does not belong to a political party, a candidate
consulting firm. It belongs to Stephen Wynn, the chief executive of
Resorts, the driving force behind the new $1.9 billion Bellagio casino
here, the man most responsible for reshaping the way the nation perceives
"We're in the political business now," Wynn declared in 1994 after
efforts to expand his company ran afoul of elected officials in Connecticut,
Detroit and Vancouver. And so in Wynn fashion, he has used campaign
contributions, lobbyists and his corporation's own expertise and manpower
assemble one of the most powerful political machines in the nation.
goes about building casino resorts in New Jersey and Mississippi and
enlarging his Las Vegas empire with the extravagant Bellagio, political
muscle is a vital element in his ambitious plan to transform his industry.
"Steve Wynn's control over politicians is
all-encompassing," said Steve Miller, a former Las Vegas City Council member
who has frequently been at odds with Wynn. "It's overwhelming. Either you
work for him or he tries to get you out of office."
Considered by many Nevadans to be the most powerful man in the state,
Wynn gets roadways rerouted, public transportation projects scuttled and
public land deeded over to his company. But he wields his influence not
only to expand his company beyond Las Vegas, where it owns four casinos
plus a half interest in a fifth, but also to advance the public's acceptance
as he builds palaces so lush that they become must-see stops on America's
"There is a change taking place," Wynn said in a recent interview,
whispering intimately for effect. His new casinos will be "more elegant,
more lovely, more complete and fetching than anything done before."
"And it has nothing to do with gambling," he said.
In the past, of course, when a state rejected a Mirage casino but he
urged to build a hotel and entertainment complex anyway, Wynn refused.
gambling, he conceded, will "certainly help us pay for it all."
A Big Contributor to Political Races to help realize his ambitions,
Wynn has made Mirage one of the largest contributors among casino companies
to federal candidates and the Democratic and Republican Parties, even though
competitors like Harrah's and Hilton own more casinos in more states. In
the two years leading into the last election, Mirage gave $464,596, at
that level, and it says it contributed $650,000 more to local and state
In Mississippi, where its $650 million Beau Rivage in Biloxi will employ
4,000 workers, Mirage is already one of the largest contributors to
races. In Biloxi's mayoral race in 1997, campaign finance records show
Mirage was the largest single contributor to the successful re-election
campaign of Mayor A.J. Holloway.
In addition to his deep pockets, Wynn uses his opulent properties to
politicians. A 1995 fund-raiser at Shadow Creek, Mirage's ultra-exclusive
Las Vegas golf resort where caviar is served on the fairway, raised
for the presidential campaign of Bob Dole. The casino operator hedged
bets, attending a $25,000-a-plate fund-raiser for President Clinton
contributing to the Democratic National Committee.
What sets Wynn apart is his polling operation, which enables him to
influence elections and gain the favor of politicians who decide everything
from new roads that lead to Mirage casinos to taxes paid by the entire
Under the guidance of Punam Mathur, Mirage's director of government
community relations, polls are taken on everything from local school
races to gambling initiatives in states where the company might want
The telephone operation also conducts marketing and corporate surveys.
southern Mississippi, for example, where the labor force is very tight,
Mirage conducted telephone surveys of residents to learn what job benefits
would make its casino attractive to potential employees.
The company shares its polling data with preferred candidates.
"It's nice to be able to call a candidate and say, 'Whatever you're
keep it up,' or 'You better start working because your opponent is
you,"' Ms. Mathur said.
From Voter Drives to Voter Guides Wynn also conducts voter registration
drives for his 26,000 employees and their families in Nevada, where Mirage
has its corporate headquarters.
He and his staff personally meet with as many as 350 candidates in
election year before deciding whom Mirage will support. Then, before
Election Day, he issues his employees a voter guide with stars next
names of candidates who have received his "seal of approval."
The Mirage telephone operation pays dividends in many ways. For example,
when Yvonne Atkinson Gates, chairwoman of the Clark County Board of
Supervisors in Nevada, wants to hold a community meeting, she calls
Mirage telephone room to have it place calls to residents.
"They record a telephone message with my voice on it and do the dialing
me," said Ms. Gates, who, as head of the county board that must approve
casino development along the Las Vegas strip, is a vital link to Wynn's
To the envy of many other casino owners, Wynn has gotten what he wants
from the county board, as well as from other local entities. To expand
his Golden Nugget casino, he persuaded city officials to deed him a downtown
street. In developing the Bellagio, he struck a deal with the county board
supervisors that enabled Mirage to build a nine-acre lake with 1,100
fountains in front of the hotel, despite a local ordinance barring
artificial lakes in the desert city.
"We went to the county fathers with a business proposition that would
hard for them to refuse," Wynn recalled with amusement. He offered
water rights attached to his property in exchange for an ordinance
his lake. The ordinance, however, allowed new lakes in terms so specific
that only the Bellagio could benefit from it.
"It was referred to as the Mirage ordinance," Wynn said, laughing.
obvious reasons, it can't be duplicated." And, he noted, "It passed
Along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, with its strange brew of magnolia
antebellum mansions and high-wattage casino lights, Wynn's Beau Rivage
quickly becoming a force in local politics. "These Beau Rivage people,
want to control everything," said one Biloxi city official, who spoke
condition of anonymity. One of Mirage's first moves in Biloxi was to
the same law firm that represents the city on casino matters.
Not only has Mirage built one of the most expensive and dramatic buildings
the region has ever seen, but by contributing campaign money and lobbying
local politicians, the company has been able to include unique features
distinguish its casino from the dozen others here.
For example, Mirage officials vigorously lobbied the state Legislature
enact a law allowing restaurants to feature micro-breweries. As a result,
the Beau Rivage will have Mississippi's first micro-brewery. To get
and free title to the huge waterfront parcel needed to build the casino
hotel, Wynn spent $1.9 million to buy 4,225 acres of coastal wildlife
habitat throughout Mississippi and swapped it for a critical 6.8 acres
were owned by the state.
One powerful Mississippi resident whom Wynn has made a special effort
court is Republican Sen. Trent Lott. The Mirage contributed $10,000
year to Lott's political action committee, according to an analysis
political contributions, and last year Lott, the majority leader, flew
Las Vegas on Wynn's corporate jet to attend fund-raising events sponsored
by the gambling industry.
In Washington, where until a few years ago the industry had only a
presence, Wynn was instrumental in forming the American Gaming Association,
which pays $800,000 a year to Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., a former Republican
National Committee chairman, to lead the industry's lobbying efforts.
"I think Steve is doing what he does best," said John Smith, author
"Running Scared," an unauthorized biography against which Wynn has
defamation lawsuit pending. "He has been most effective at making the
gambling industry a legitimate industry that does things like lobbying
contributing to candidates."
Weeks before Wynn graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in
1963, his father, a gambler and Maryland bingo parlor operator, died of
heart disease at age 46, leaving the family with huge debts from his gambling
Stepping in to take over the bingo parlor, the young Wynn was on his
helping build the country's fledgling casino industry.
He soon moved to Las Vegas, invested in the mob-tainted Frontier casino,
ran a liquor distributing company and entered into a real estate investment
involving Howard Hughes that netted Wynn more than half a million dollars
less than a year.
Charming Wall Street as he now does politicians, Wynn first took control
the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas, and then with the aid of Michael Milken,
junk bond financier, he built the Golden Nugget in Atlantic City in
$140 million. He hated New Jersey's heavy regulation of casinos, though,
sold the casino in 1987 for $440 million, vowing never to return to
As Wynn refined his ability to negotiate with politicians, he reversed
position. After the industry successfully lobbied New Jersey officials
relax casino regulations, Wynn then persuaded them to provide $220
in public money -- in addition to $110 million of Mirage's -- for a
and tunnel that will lead to Le Jardin, a $1 billion casino development
planned by Mirage. Last month, the state broke ground on the roadway.
Assisting Both Sides in a U.S. Senate Race
ew Jersey law prohibits casinos from contributing to local politicians.
in 1996, while Wynn was trying to win acceptance of the roadway and
which was causing an uproar among other casino operators as well as
residents who would be displaced by the project, he pumped $31,000
into the state's U.S. Senate race, according to an analysis of the company's
contributions. He gave $17,000 to the eventual winner, Robert Torricelli,
Democrat, and $14,000 to his Republican opponent, Richard Zimmer.
Meanwhile, he dined at the governor's mansion with Christie Whitman,
directed his largess at community leaders in Atlantic City. To build
support, he flew a group of public housing officials and tenant association
leaders to Las Vegas for a tour of Mirage properties, all accommodations
Not only did Wynn persuade local officials to build the roadway and
but the city also gave him the 170-acre site for his project, in the
district north of the boardwalk, and the New Jersey Legislature passed
bill to repay him up to 75 percent of the money he spends to clean
site, part of which had been a landfill.
"The guy is very smart," said Alan Marcus, a spokesman for Donald Trump's
casinos, which adamantly opposed Wynn's Atlantic City plans. "He's
he took their pants off. He got everything he wanted."
To be sure, Wynn has not pulled it all off alone. He is widely credited
surrounding himself with talented people, and his reputation for treating
his employees well is legendary. He once surprised his 400 managers
executives in Atlantic City with new cars. Last year, Fortune magazine
Mirage as one of America's "most admired" companies, second only to
Yet those who have worked closely with Wynn know there is a mercurial
side. His temper, people who know him say, can erupt as fiercely as the
volcano in front of his flagship casino, the Mirage. During one telephone
call, Miller, the former Las Vegas City Council member, recalled, Wynn
was "breathing hard and calling me names."
During his negotiations with New Jersey officials, Wynn once called
and complained that he was unhappy with the terms she had announced
for the roadway and casino project. Angered by her refusal to change the
terms, Wynn delivered a biting last shot over the governor's speaker phone,
says one of the people who were listening. "This is Steve Wynn," he said.
accept this deal. Good night, ladies and gentleman." And he hung up.
Under Wynn, Mirage has grown into a $1.5 billion-a-year company, its
rising an average of 28 percent a year since he took over the company
years ago. Wynn controls more than 15 percent of the stock, and his
brother also own substantial shares. Wynn and his wife, Elaine, first
married in 1963, had two children, then divorced, then married each
Celebrity Friends; Celebrity Treatment. Wynn, 56, pals around with
celebrities like Michael Jordan, Kenny Rogers and Quincy Jones. And he
is often treated with more reverence than any casino operator could expect.
Last month's groundbreaking for the Atlantic City roadway was attended
by more than 500 people. As guests crowded inside a huge tent and waited
for Wynn to arrive, one man quipped, "There's going to be a mad rush when
God arrives." Afterward, an elderly couple dressed in matching Elvis jackets
clamored for Wynn's autograph.
One day during Bellagio's opening festivities in October, as he finished
lunch and headed off through the resort, Wynn bumped his shin on a
low stone wall. His expression was pained, but he instantly recovered,
only to take two more steps and stumble over the base of a metal pole.
employee accompanying Wynn did not appear to be accustomed to the subtleties
of leading the boss without being obvious: Despite a degenerative eye disease,
he is determined to appear in public as if his vision is fine.
Undeterred, Wynn cautiously walked past the Bellagio's $300 million
gallery, where masterpieces by van Gogh, Renoir and Monet hang on the
walls, and through the hotel's conservatory, with its 50-foot ceiling and
explosion of flowers. On through the lobby he went, with all heads spinning
in his direction.
As he gingerly walked onto the casino floor, he was met by a close
the singer Paul Anka. Throwing his arm around the shoulder of the diminutive
Anka for guidance, Wynn moved quickly now, through the rows of blackjack
tables, past the four-star restaurants with their world-renowned chefs,
beyond the high-roller slot area where gamblers such as Julius Erving,
retired basketball star, were playing slot machines at $100 a spin,
toward the $95 million theater that is home to a new original Cirque
This was just the atmosphere that the Mirage chairman had envisioned
of his new properties, and as customers stared and marveled at him,
beamed with the confidence befitting the unofficial king of this gambling
kingdom. "Smell this place," he said, pursing his lips and squinting
eyes with sheer delight. "Feeeeeel this place."
Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company