The Strip Sense: The most powerful man in Nevada

What about Nevada women?

Steve Friess

The matter of the dealers vs. Steve Wynn over tip redistribution is not something that gets me worked up. I know it’s enraged many hard-working people who feel blindsided by a reduction in their incomes, and I can see both why Wynn felt it was a good idea and why his manner of implementing it was disastrous.

Yet it has no tangible impact on tourists, so the national media sees it as inside baseball, and, thus, I don’t read the local coverage closely.

But Benjamin Spillman’s excellent piece in the R-J on January 1 about the anti-Wynn labor complaint contained a fascinating chestnut: Wynn warned 15 angry dealers at a meeting, “I am the most powerful man in Nevada.” Then he made some threat, the document alleges.

I instantly started to wonder: Is it true? Is Steve Wynn the most powerful man in Nevada? Is he even in the Top 3?

My first instinct: No. I mean, Steve Wynn is a towering figure of enormous cultural, historical and financial influence in this state, but is he “powerful” beyond his own self-designed universe, his single casino-resort?

I wasn’t alone. R-J columnist Erin Neff picked Wynn’s arch-nemesis Sheldon Adelson, followed by MGM Mirage CEO Terry Lanni and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. E-mailed Neff: “As much as Wynn would hate it, Adelson wipes him in terms of both money, international cred and political power. You can’t be that big without being big here. Oh yeah, and he owns the governor.”

This, of course, brings us to that even more elusive question: What is power? If it’s the ability to get terrific show tickets or restaurant reservations at the snap of a finger—a good bellwether in some other jurisdictions—then that’s tough because I can think of dozens of people in Nevada with such juice, including some working journalists.

Jon Ralston, the Sun’s uber-pundit, offered a solid answer. “I define it as not just having it—through money, access, contacts and/or public position—but the willingness to use it,” he e-mailed. By that line, Ralston also mentioned Adelson and his efforts to influence Gov. Jim Gibbons, the public debate over taxes, his Jewish-related philanthropy and more.

Ralston didn’t reference Lanni, but his definition seems to point directly to the MGM Mirage boss, too. Lanni and his company are monsters in development, gaming, philanthropy and politics, equally as engaged as Adelson on the debate over taxes. What’s more, Lanni is not nearly as polarizing, as seen by the fact that the Rev. Jesse Jackson told Lanni he should run for president at a corporate diversity presentation a few years ago. Lanni is a staunch Republican, and Jackson is, uh, not.

Speaking of presidents, Vanity Fair scribe Dave Hickey, the famed art critic, was much kinder to Wynn, having spent loads of time with him when his wife, Libby Lumpkin, guided Wynn’s growing art collection in the 1990s. Hickey defined power as the ability to on a dime phone all sorts of influential people—presidents, movie stars, captains of industry—which he has watched Wynn do nonstop during flights aboard Wynn’s private jet. What Hickey is saying, essentially, is that power is not just connections but admiration, fear and fame, all of which Wynn’s got in spades.

There are many other candidates, from political operatives like Sig Rogich and Billy Vassiliadis to other top casino players like Gary Loveman and Kirk Kerkorian.

Kerkorian, in fact, is now second in a poll I’m running on my website until January 14, with Wynn way out in front and Lanni showing up weakly behind Loveman, Adelson, Reid and Mayor Oscar Goodman, too.

I have a view, too, but I fear it will sound self-serving. Still, I believe the chairman of the Greenspun Corporation (owners of the company that publishes Las Vegas Weekly), Brian Greenspun, probably ought to stand atop the list. Greenspun has it all—casinos, real estate, philanthropy, celebrity connections and politics, and even more valuable than the unfathomable gobs of money is a vast, futuristic media empire that includes, probably most importantly, And, yes, he can call up the Clintons whenever he wants.

Pondering this question is obviously a parlor game, without any real answer. But there is a group of people who are clearly not among the most powerful in Nevada: women. As I wrote the poll, not a single one occurred to me to include as a viable candidate for the top tier.

I was chastised for that by a voter who, nonetheless, offered no suggestions of her own. Sure, the state’s House speaker is female, but she’s also a Democrat, and that diminishes her dramatically. And Harrah’s VP Jan Jones is high-profile, but can she really do anything without her bosses directing her to? Jon Ralston suggested Dawn Gibbons, the first lady, and Erin Neff offered up Pat Mulroy, the state’s water czar, for consideration.

Yet the name I come back to is ironic, considering we’ve just deposed her husband: Elaine Wynn. She’s got the money, the star power, the connections and the philanthropic chops. She’s even been regaled by Vanity Fair as Las Vegas’ first lady.

Maybe he ought to have her rough up the dealers, hmm?

Read Steve Friess’ daily blog at and catch his weekly celeb-interview podcast at He can be reached at [email protected].

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