Sheldon Adelson, Dorchester is calling
Long before he backed Gingrich, the billionaire got his start in blue-collar Boston
He’s one of the wealthiest men in the world, with a net worth of $25 billion — more than the GDP of over 100 countries. But Sheldon Adelson grew up here, on Erie Street in Dorchester, where an old tire lies in a public park, near a boarded-up church that declares “Jesus Saves.’’
When Adelson was a kid, his cramped apartment lay within the tight embrace of an enclave of Jewish immigrants, the second-largest Jewish community in America. Today’s immigrants hail from Cape Verde and Haiti. But one thing hasn’t changed in this slice of Dorchester: It’s still home of the working class. The little guy. The common man.
Most Americans had never heard of Adelson until he and his wife Miriam gave $10 million to keep Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign afloat. That made the 78-year-old casino mogul a symbol of new campaign-finance rules that give the wealthy hugely disproportionate clout in the political process. Pundits complain that Adelson is single-handedly keeping Gingrich in the race, and using his money to amass still more power and yield far more influence than any ordinary voter.
But the news about Adelson raises a bigger question: How could a poor boy from one of the bluest wards in one of the bluest states become one of the Republican party’s most prolific donors? Had Dorchester lost its hold on its wealthiest son? Or did Adelson take its hardscrabble lessons and turn them upside down?
IN 1933 , the year Adelson was born, Erie Street lay near the thriving center of a Jewish universe. Some 90,000 Jews - many from Russia and Poland - struggled and dreamed inside wooden triple-deckers and aging Victorians around Blue Hill Avenue.
It was a place where Yiddish-speaking horse-cart peddlers hawked bananas and underwear; where families flocked to Franklin Field for the festivities of Rosh Hashanah; where Adelson - short and stout as a fire hydrant - learned to defend himself from attacks by Irish kids on his way to Roxbury Memorial High.
It was a community that taught people to think first of the disadvantaged. So grateful were they for federal help during the Depression that the most popular fish market was named the New Deal. So liberal were they that even socialists - in the form of Yiddish workmen’s circles - held considerable sway.
Republicans were so unpopular that wearing a button supporting one into the G & G Deli was an invitation for old ladies to order you to be ashamed of yourself.
“I understand you are a Republican,’’ implored the grandmother of Jordan Shapiro, Adelson’s former brother-in-law and business partner. “Don’t tell anybody.”
But everybody seemed to have an entrepreneurial side. Little boys looked up to men who started pizza parlors and funeral homes. And soon enough, business became Adelson’s overarching obsession. After graduating high school in 1951, he dropped out of City College of New York to make money. He sold everything from windshield de-icers to mortgages to toiletries boxes for hotels. As the son of a Lithuanian cab driver, it wasn’t easy for him to get credit from big banks, so he figured out creative ways to finance his ventures.
“Because doors were closed to me for a variety of reasons - my religion, my education, my economic status - I had to find a way to open the doors,’’ Adelson told Forbes magazine.
In the 1960s, Adelson and a handful of guys who also grew up in Dorchester invested a few thousand dollars each in a local travel company. Two of the employees were Irwin Chafetz, once a studious boy from Codman Square, and Theodore Cutler, a gregarious musician who played bar mitzvahs and weddings.
The company, which chartered flights to Hawaii, was such a fledgling venture that Cutler kept playing his gigs. One night, during a break in the music, the phone rang. A plane had been marooned on an island.
“He said ‘We got problems,’ ’’ recalled Dan Troderman, a saxophonist. “He was wondering how they were going to get people home.’’
The investment paid off handsomely - at first. American International Travel Service became the largest travel agency in New England. When it went public, stock soared from $10 to $93 per share. Adelson, Chafetz, and Cutler became millionaires. Adelson bought a house in Newton with a bowling alley in it.
“They probably started to fly a little too high,’’ recalled Thomas Eisenstadt, another investor in AITS who grew up with Chafetz in Dorchester. “I used to sit there wide-eyed and say, ‘These guys are crazy.’ They wanted to buy aircraft carriers.’’
But in 1969, when airlines began flying to Hawaii, the charter business could not compete. The stock crashed, and the three friends lost their fortunes. Adelson had to sell his house.
But he didn’t give up. He bought a small trade publication specializing in computers, a hot new trend at the time. Then he invited Chafetz and Cutler to join a new venture: trade shows for computers. The fourth partner was Shapiro, an optometrist whose sister was married to Adelson until their divorce in 1988.
The company, Comdex, became an instant success. Everyone who was anyone in the computer world came, including the young long-haired Bill Gates, who - mythology has it - gave his father’s credit card. They rented convention centers in Las Vegas for a quarter per square foot, and sold the space for $25. They eventually made so much money that they bought the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas so they could have convention space of their own. It became the first privately operated convention center in the country.
But working with Adelson wasn’t easy. He was a hard-driving, micro-manager who fought for his vision with same scrappiness that he summoned to fight off bullies as a teen. Adelson could start a fight in an empty room, a columnist remarked. He once criticized an executive for playing racquetball, asking: “Do you know how much money we are losing in those two hours?’’
But even then, Adelson still cared about the little guy. He fretted about why more African-Americans weren’t applying for jobs at the Needham-based company, according to Jason Chudnofsky, president of Comdex at the time.
During those early years, they would joke that - at bonus time - they’d throw all the money in the air. Whatever God wanted, God took, and the rest they divided fairly between themselves and their employees. When an employee died of cancer, they carried his widow on the payroll for years.
“They watched their fathers do a lot of manual labor in the food markets and the factories, and they said, ‘When we hire people we are never going to allow them to be treated the way our parents were treated,’ ’’ Chudnofsky said.
When they started Comdex in the 1970s, they were all Democrats, except for Shapiro, who had grown up in Brookline, where the Republican Party was popular. During their epic lunches at Chinese restaurants, Shapiro never managed to convince them to join the Republicans.
“We used to joke about it,’’ Shapiro said. “All our friends and neighbors were Democrats. But politics wasn’t that important to us.’’
BY THE time the friends sold Comdex in 1995 for $862 million, Cutler and Adelson had become Republicans. Yet the four partners still remembered the little guy. When they sold the company, they distributed $24 million among several hundred employees, right down to the limo driver.
“All the partners thought we were blessed and had to share not only with our employees but through philanthropy,’’ said Chafetz, who remained a Democrat, “The danger always was that the wealthy wouldn’t take care of those who didn’t get a break.’’
After the sale, Shapiro bought a boat and moved to Florida. Cutler and Chafetz devoted themselves to philanthropy in Boston. Cutler restored the Majestic Theater. Chafetz helped build the Hillel Center at Boston University.
But Adelson - at age 62 - moved to Las Vegas. He set about transforming the Sands Hotel into a $1.6 billion casino: The Venetian, with marble columns imported from Italy.
As he got wealthier, he grew more conservative. But he still gave thousands of dollars to Democrats, including Ted Kennedy, Harry Reid, and Tom Menino throughout the early 1990s. In 1996, he donated $105,000 to the Democratic National Committee.
But in 1997, he starting writing $100,000 checks to the Republican National Committee. He never gave to the DNC again.
So what changed him?
Some think it was falling in love with Israel - and marrying an Israeli, Dr. Miriam Ochshorn, in 1991. But both parties maintained a strong pro-Israel stance, and he married Ochshorn long before he stopped giving to Democrats.
Others say it was taxes. But he could afford the taxes.
Press clippings from Las Vegas in 1996 reveal what his friends say was the real reason: his epic fight with the culinary union at the Sands. Adelson refused to promise that the new hotel would be a union shop, so the union tried to stop him from building the Venetian.
Adelson opposed the union, not because he didn’t want to pay people well, but because he didn’t want someone telling him how to run his hotel, Chudnofsky said. If he saw a waitress who wasn’t doing her job, he wanted to fire her, not go through a union arbitration.
The battle became bitter and personal. Adelson accused the union of wanting to line its own pockets.
“Gone are the days when union bosses were the protectors of working-class Americans,’’ he declared in a speech in 1997.
He eventually won. But from then on, he donated to Republicans who spoke out against unions, including Gingrich.
Today, when he is asked about his gifts to Gingrich’s Super PAC, Adelson retorts that unions give hundreds of millions of dollars to Democrats and no one bats an eyelid.
It is as if Adelson still sees himself – and Gingrich – as underdogs battling the odds.
“The theory was always to defend the little guy,’’ Chudnofsky said. “As he became a billionaire, the ‘little guys’ became the multimillionaires.’’
THE JEWS of Erie Street have moved away. Some hold “Dorchester reunions’’ around the country to reminisce about the good old days. But Adelson — who went on to build even bigger casinos in Asia — tells reporters how he grew up in “the slums.’’
“These are the good old days right now,’’ Shapiro said.
It makes me wonder: How much good could Adelson do in Dorchester now, if he wanted to? His public charitable giving has mostly centered on Israel, medical research, and senior citizen homes in the relatively affluent communities where the Jews of the Boston area live today.
But the children who live on Erie Street today have just as many doors closed to them as they did in Adelson’s time. Their parents find it just as difficult to find good jobs. Their entrepreneurs find it just as hard to obtain credit.
What would happen if — instead of financing Gingrich — Adelson invested $22 million in Boston Public schools to replace the “turn around’’ funds that will disappear next year? That’s less than .01 percent of his net worth.
What would happen if — instead of obsessing about his next casino — he turned his brilliant business brain toward making housing more affordable or small-business loans more available?
What would happen if Adelson walked down Erie Street just one more time and remembered the little guy he used to be?