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Alex Beam

Adelson bets big on right-wing politics

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Alex Beam
Globe Columnist / May 31, 2008

I was listening to public radio last week, when I heard a dispatch suggesting that Sheldon Adelson might be capable of financing a Swift Boat-like attack on Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. Elsewhere, Adelson has been called the right-wing version of George Soros, the free-spending sugar daddy behind the excitable anti-George Bush pressure group MoveOn.org.

Whoa! Is that our Shelly Adelson, the guy with the house over on Dudley Road in Newton? The guy whose first business was selling The Boston Globe on a corner stand outside his Dorchester home in 1945? The guy whom a friend describes as "an immensely proud Bostonian who still has a sense of wonderment about this city"?

That's the guy.

Shelly, how could you?

Adelson, who is either incredibly famous or totally unknown, depending on whom you talk to, has come a long way from his humble roots. (He once joked to Business Week that he might have lived a "rags to riches story, but my family was too poor to own rags.") We remember him as a pioneer of the computer trade show COMDEX, which he parlayed into a big-time stake on the Las Vegas strip. Adelson, whose primary residence is now Las Vegas, owns The Venetian, and has huge casino investments in Macau and Singapore. Adelson placed third on Forbes magazine's most recent list of the wealthiest Americans, with an estimated fortune of $26 billion.

A not-very-healthy-looking, 74-year-old Adelson was last seen in these parts in December, leaning on a cane and testifying in favor of gambling in Massachusetts. He returns to Newton almost every fall to celebrate Yom Kippur at Temple Emanuel, where Bob and Myra Kraft also worship. Adelson and his wife, Miriam, have given more than $2 million to Emanuel, says his friend, former Democratic Party chairman Steve Grossman. Adelson is also a high-profile supporter of Israel and medical philanthropies. "He will be known as the most prolific Jewish philanthropist of his generation," Grossman says, "maybe even in recorded history."

So, what's with the right-wing politics?

Last summer Adelson became a key backer of Freedom's Watch, the kind of red-blooded pressure group you might see parodied on "The Colbert Report." The website freedomswatch.org features the predictable, ferocious-looking bald eagle and a map of the United States wrapped in the American flag. Pinkos beware! Until recently Freedom's Watch was embroiled in opera bouffe litigation with Judicial Watch founder Larry Klayman, who has sued Hillary Clinton, Dick Cheney, Osama bin Laden, and many others, and who has used the named "Freedom Watch."

But there is nothing comical about the intentions of Freedom's Watch. Adelson has waged some bitter anti-union battles in Las Vegas, so naturally FW lists "standing up to Big Labor's radical agenda" as one of its core "issue areas that are generational in breadth and scope," whatever that means. Other core concerns: the dangers of radical Islam; stopping the legalization of controlled substances; and "advancing a conservative agenda and market-based solutions to pressing domestic problems."

Last summer, according to The New York Times, FW spent $15 million of Adelson's money "in a nationwide advertising blitz supporting President Bush's troop escalation in Iraq." FW ran ads in two special congressional elections this month, both of which were won by Democrats. (Sample by-the-numbers rhetoric: "When it come to taxes, Travis Childers and Barack Obama think alike. They both want to raise them.") In Mississippi, The Wall Street Journal reported that FW spent $500,000 in the losing effort. Over Memorial Day, FW targeted numerous Democratic congressional districts, including Carol Shea-Porter's in New Hampshire, with computer-generated phone calls featuring an Army veteran criticizing Congress for failing to fund the Iraq war.

Hilariously, FW is a nonprofit organization incorporated under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code, governing "civic leagues, social welfare organizations, and local associations of employees." An FW spokesman said their public tax filing is not yet available. Adelson declined to be interviewed.

Free plug
My friend Wick Sloane has published a fun and informative pamphlet critiquing the financing of higher education, beautifully designed in the exact format of Thomas Paine's "Common Sense," copies of which he found at the Boston Athenaeum. You can download it here, or buy a copy for three dollars at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge. Wick, a former university administrator now teaching at Bunker Hill Community College, is lucky that I have run out of space, or else I would be happy to tell you where his arguments run off the rails. Now you will have to figure that out for yourself.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.

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