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Nevada’s gambling industry raises its presidential ante

Times Staff Writer

Sen. John McCain stopped by Tabu Ultra Lounge, next to the craps and roulette tables on the MGM Grand casino floor, and left with roughly $400,000 for his presidential campaign.

Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani walked away from the Red Rock Casino with $100,000, courtesy of the owners of Station Casinos Inc., whose interests include Nevada and California gambling halls.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York gathered $320,000 in March at the Four Seasons Hotel on the Strip, the same place former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney celebrated his 60th birthday and collected $400,000, mostly from noncasino interests.

With Nevada holding early caucuses in January, such presidential hopefuls are paying unprecedented attention to the Strip. Whereas most tourists leave money here, most candidates leave here with money.

“We’ve had more presidential candidates here in 30 days than we had in 30 years,” said Sig Rogich, a veteran Republican consultant and ad man who helped organize last month’s fundraiser for McCain (R-Ariz.), held to coincide with the Oscar De La Hoya-Floyd Mayweather Jr. championship fight.

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Las Vegas being what it is, the hunt for campaign money has forged unlikely alliances and made for inconvenient bedfellows. It has put casino bosses in highly visible roles. And with casino ownership divided between traditional commercial interests and Native American tribes, some candidates are walking a fine line.

The casino industry has always played politics. But gambling’s campaign role has grown since the 2000 election, as Indian casinos boomed, Wall Street became a big financier for the major casinos, gambling spread to 48 states, and gross U.S. wagering revenue soared to $85 billion annually.

In the 1990s, the industry accounted for $19 million in federal campaign donations. Since the beginning of 2000, the tally is $50 million, says the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks donations.

That includes funds from Indian casinos and the hotel-resort-casino mega-complexes here and elsewhere. It doesn’t count other donors with a stake in gambling: Wall Street, labor unions, developers, strip club owners, restaurateurs, hoteliers and others feeding off the 39 million tourists and conventioneers lured here each year.

For political candidates, that’s good fishing.

“You know these folks -- they hate to miss an opportunity to raise money,” said Brian Greenspun, who oversees his family’s publishing, real estate and casino holdings and helped organize Clinton’s bash. He’s a college friend of her husband. “Nevada and Las Vegas are in the fundraising bull’s-eye.”

The chairman of gambling giant MGM Mirage, Terrence Lanni, is a co-chairman of McCain’s national fundraising team. Though McCain doesn’t accept campaign money from tribal casinos -- because of his role on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee -- two top campaign aides work as consultants to Indian casinos. And Lanni’s company is a partner in a big Indian hotel-casino project in Connecticut.

Republican Romney is Mormon, and his church opposes gambling, though Mormon money helped build modern Las Vegas. Most of Romney’s $400,000 in Nevada came from developers, business owners and church members. Only one check came from a donor who identified himself as a casino company employee.

Romney noted that as governor, he blocked an Indian tribe from opening Massachusetts’ first casino, in part “because of the concern about the additional social costs.” But he counts casino magnate Steve Wynn among his supporters. “I would expect that I’m going to get support from industry members ... although I don’t really have a position on gaming that affects a presidential run,” Romney said in a recent interview.

Nevada’s biggest player to date is Giuliani, also a Republican. In the first 90 days of the year, he raised $526,000 in the state, more than any other candidate. Casino interests accounted for at least $205,000 of the total, including $100,000 from owners, executives and family members of Station Casinos.

Clinton’s $319,000 Nevada haul was the most among Democrats, and included $118,000 from gambling sources. Her main Democratic rivals, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, each raised less than $65,000 in Nevada in the first quarter.

By California or New York standards, Nevada remains a modest source of money. Donors with Nevada addresses gave just $1.5 million of the $112 million raised by major candidates in the first three months of the year. Nevada’s donations in the initial months of the campaign placed it 22nd among the states; Nevada’s population ranks 35th.

For the commercial casinos, the tribal gambling houses and key labor unions, their interests in who becomes president are clear, if often conflicting.

In Washington, the casino industry’s goal is to be left alone, said Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., head of the American Gaming Assn., the nontribal gambling industry’s main Washington lobby arm. The industry created the trade association in 1994, after President Clinton proposed a national gambling tax and then dropped the idea. “We believe gaming should be regulated by state governments,” said Fahrenkopf, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Although states regulate traditional casinos, the federal government has the authority over Indian casinos. It can authorize or reject new Indian casinos, and has some regulatory authority over existing ones.

Tribes have spent little on the presidential race. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) collected the most in the first quarter -- $47,000, most of it from tribes that own large casinos in his home state. But as the recent scandal over lobbyist Jack Abramoff showed, tribal casinos are prepared to spend heavily on federal politics.

“Tribes are watching, examining and waiting. There is no need now to make a decision,” said lobbyist Tom Rodgers, whose clients include the National Indian Gaming Assn.

For a Democrat hoping to win Nevada’s caucus in January, casino money might prove less important than union support, particularly that of the union that represents 60,000 Nevada casino workers.

The union is among groups seeking federal legislation that would grant labor greater rights to organize workers, a measure opposed by casino owners. The union also wants to organize Indian casino workers in other states, particularly California, an effort opposed by most tribes.

“What we’re saying is that workers who produce a lot of that wealth should reap the kind of benefits that we have achieved” for workers in Nevada, said D. Taylor, secretary-treasurer of Culinary Workers Union Local 226, which represents Nevada casino workers.

Among the major candidates, McCain has sometimes rankled the industry -- for example, pushing a ban on college sports betting.

McCain spokesman Matt David said the candidate was not taking tribes’ money, because he believed their money would be better spent on education and healthcare. He took that stand when he was chairman of a Senate committee with oversight of tribes.

But McCain takes donations from commercial casinos, which increasingly have been partnering with tribal groups. Presidential appointees could prove critical to such joint ventures: The tribes and their business partners must gain approval of the Interior Department and the National Indian Gaming Commission; the White House controls appointments to both.

Giuliani booster Station Casinos, owner or co-owner of 16 Las Vegas-area casinos, also operates Thunder Valley, the Indian casino with the most slot machines in California, and is seeking to develop three more Indian casinos in California and one in Michigan.

According to a recent financial statement, Station has invested $183 million in the developments. If the new ventures are structured like the Thunder Valley deal, Station could receive 24% of the casinos’ winnings. Such facilities can earn $500 million a year or more, after paying jackpots. A $100,000 donation might prove modest in comparison.

“You give to the person you think is going to support your self-interest,” said University of San Diego Law School professor Robert C. Fellmeth, a critic of the fundraising system. “A contribution of that degree implies agreement, if not obligation.”

Station and the tribes expect to win approval of the casinos regardless of who is elected president, said Station Executive Vice President Scott Nielson. The company’s principal owners, Lorenzo Fertitta and Frank Fertitta III, “concluded that Giuliani most closely reflects our views on most issues,” Nielson said.

As candidates prospect in Nevada, there are other pitfalls. Photo ops in other states have candidates at county fairs or outside factory gates; Las Vegas, where casinos often double as quasi-civic gathering spots, is not quite so quaint.

“How can you campaign in Nevada without setting foot in a casino? That may be an image that voters elsewhere won’t particularly like,” said Massie Ritsch of the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.

And other activities go on in Las Vegas.

Clinton took $2,300 from Dolores Eliades, an owner of Olympic Garden, a nightspot that describes itself as “one of the world’s largest adult cabarets,” featuring “literally hundreds of the world’s most beautiful ladies (known as the Dreamgirls) in a relaxing and spacious setting.”

“Is it a little more flamboyant because it is Las Vegas? Yes,” said Eliades, who attended the Clinton dinner at the Four Seasons. “Do we do it better than other cities? Yes.... We have taken adult business mainstream. Is it for everybody? No.”

dan.morain@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Nevada money

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Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney gathered the most campaign money from the Nevada contributions during the first three months of the year:

Republicans

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Rudolph W. Giuliani: $526,375

Mitt Romney: $397,235

Sen. John McCain: $99,525

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Democrats

Sen. Hillary Clinton: $319,300

Sen. Barack Obama: $63,530

John Edwards: $45,700

(END TEXT OF INFOBOX)


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