Las Vegas in the '90s
|by Chuck Gardner||
© April 1998
revised slightly 2001
The town that Bugsy built
The town that Bugsy built in the rocky sand between the Grand Canyon and Disneyland, between the cactus and the tumbleweed, is today a hustling and bustling metropolis of one and a quarter million people. It's not what it was, but the more things change, the more they remain the same. The old mob is gone, but the new mob is here to stay.
They haven't filmed it yet, but Casino II will make the characters in Casino I look like juvenile delinquents. Bugsy never had it this good.
In the '60s, John Fitzgerald Kennedy came here to rendezvous with Sam Giancana's girlfriends. In the '90s, William Jefferson Clinton comes here to raise campaign money. The old mob was kids' stuff compared to the Las Vegas plank in the bridge to the 21st century.
Much has been written about this town, but seldom from the inside. Enormous national and international attention has been fawned on this city, but seldom has anyone paid any attention to its politics. It's all been hit-and-run journalism, Las Vegas from a helicopter, or a postcard from the Consumer Electronics Convention.
To dismiss Las Vegas as a freak of nature is to miss the whole point of this place. Las Vegas is the last frontier of the American Dream. It is the culmination of 300 years of westward migration and cultural dissolution. Las Vegas is what happened when the migration bounced off California for one last shot at the gold rush.
Four factors are critical to any analysis of Las Vegas. First, Las Vegas is a company town. Casinos dominate every flavor of activity. Of the 50 largest employers in the State of Nevada, thirty-four are casinos, one is a manufacturer of gambling devices, eleven are governments or their subsidiaries (school districts, police department, post office), three are hospitals, and one is a bank, for a total of 50. At least five are larger than Nevada State government. Of the largest 18 private companies in the state, all 18 are casinos. Of the 50 largest employers in the Las Vegas area (Clark County) again 34 are casinos. Of the remaining 16, 11 are governments or their subsidiaries. The other 5 are the telephone company, a hospital, a bank, a convention service, and a linen supplier, the last two serving the casinos almost exclusively. The concept of pluralism that is critical to the stabilization of democratic systems is foreign to Las Vegas.
The second critical factor is population growth. In the fifteen years between 1970 and 1985 the population of Clark County, i.e., the Las Vegas metropolitan area, doubled from 277,230 to 562,280. It took only 11 years for the population to redouble to 1,115,940 in 1996. Las Vegas is a town of newcomers. By the time a majority figures out what's going on, or are here long enough to care, they're not the majority anymore.
The third factor is the history of organized gambling, with its roots in organized crime. This history is too well known to require explanation here and too involved for the space.
The fourth factor is the nature of organized gambling. No one has ever built a casino out of a desire to improve the lot of humanity..
The days of broken legs and shallow desert graves are over. Those methods were small-time, crude, and not very effective. They were born of weakness, not power.
Respect in the morning
Real power is exercised here today with a phone call and tone of voice. A few years ago, Mirage, Incorporated asked the Clark County Commission for a variance to allow the Treasure Island casino-hotel to be built out to the curb without the required setbacks. The professional planning staff vigorously objected and recommended denial. Without proper setbacks, you lose site distance, you create a tunnel-effect, you end up with a blind corner, and you box yourself in to a position where you can never widen the road again. Besides, without an undue hardship, i.e., proof that you could otherwise not make valuable use of the property, the variance would be clearly illegal. Young Clark County Commissioner Don Schlesinger dared to ask Mirage Chairman of the Board Steve Wynn the tabu question: "What is the legal hardship that would justify this variance under the code, Mr. Wynn?" With restrained father-to-son aggravation in his voice, Chairman Wynn responded: "That's the way I designed it, commissioner." Wynn unanimously received the illegal setback variance. Schlesinger received a setback to his seat on the commission and has never returned to politics.
Nevada State Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa devoted her life to being the first woman governor of Nevada in the year 2000. From junior high school on she has run for office at every turn and moved up the ladder through the usual ranks of university regent to secretary of state to attorney general, the path of most 20th century Nevada governors. When the casino industry decided to back Kenny Guinn instead, a man who had never run for office, del Papa folded. Within months, Guinn had over 2.5 million in campaign funds. Although a Republican, the state's leading democrats folded in behind him. Even though he was relatively unknown, his "campaign" for the governor's office quickly became an anointment".
State Senator Joe Neal recently put it this way in a speech to the Clark County Democratic Convention: "We have individuals in this state who have decided to wed the two parties together under the banner of gaming."
As for Ms. Del Papa, a prominent sister Democrat put it this way: "She laid down for them [the casino owners] so much that they didn't respect her in the morning."
When the Chairman of Mirage, Incorporated, Steve Wynn, wished to control the sidewalks in front of its Las Vegas Strip casinos, he had no trouble convincing the Clark County Commission to let him own it, on the expressed ground that this would eliminate all public rights along the federally funded thoroughfare. They forgot that the State of Nevada, through its Transportation Department, held a recorded air-tight easement dedicating the sidewalk to "free, ample, unrestricted, and unencumbered pedestrian access along Las Vegas Boulevard for public use, as if such access were being provided on public right-of-way."
When Wynn went to court to declare certain undesirables to be trespassers on his sidewalk, attorneys on the other side (including the present author) reminded everyone of the public access easement, as well as the United States Constitution. One day before the court hearing,Wynn's attorneys appeared with a quitclaim deed. On March 20, 1995, Nevada Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa approved a quitclaim revoking the public easement and giving the public's right-of-way to Wynn. Without authorization by the Board of Transportation, as required by law, and without the public hearing required by law, the attorney general, who has the responsibiility to enforce the public hearing laws and protect the rights and property of the public, quitclaimed about $3.5 million worth of property rights to Mirage, Incorporated.
No broken legs. They just didn't respect her in the morning.
As a result, Mirage's new Treasure Island was built all the way to the street without a public sidewalk. On the Las Vegas Boulevard side, the casino constructed an outdoor theater with bleachers backed up to the curb. Hundreds and sometimes thousands of visitors were forced every night to walk in the gutter and battle the busses, taxi cabs, and drunk drivers heading around the blind curve. Tourists pushed their baby carriages past other baby carriages in the gutter to get around the Mirage, Incorporated pirate show. About a year later, after much cajoling by this author about the dangerous situation, a new sidewalk was built on the outside of the bleachers. This has solved little, since the substandard sidewalk narrows the already congested traffic lanes and can't handle the pedestrian traffic, which overflows into the street more than before.
See "In the gutter" for a more detailed account.
Community redevelopment = Casino redevelopment = Ban the bums
In 1986 the City of Las Vegas enacted a "redevelopment plan." Someone came across an old law that allowed cities to funnel tax money into a special "redevelopment" fund if only they had a plan to use the money to redevelop a part of the community. The problem with the city's plan was that there wasn't one. What they "enacted" was a map of the area that would henceforth have its property taxes increases go to the new redevelopment agency. It had the word "plan" on the cover and that's as far as it got. In 1988 the newly formed redevelopment agency used its muscle for the first time to condemn the property of a small downtown business owner to help one of the state's largest law firms to expand its office building. Today this firm is on the city's payroll to defend the city's "redevelopment" activity.
The agency collected money until the new mob discovered the loot. First, the city gave about $30 million to a developer to build a new casino downtown. Next, the city used its power of eminent domain to condemn property for the expansion of another casino, the Stratosphere. The Stratosphere had no use for the blighted portions of the neighborhood, but only wanted the profitable business properties on the Las Vegas Strip and Main Street. The city even attempted to condemn the property of the smaller casino next door for the favored establishment. Finally, another $30 million or so was lavished on the downtown casinos to help them clean up their storefronts and create a light and sound show. The same casino owners had recently committed around $3 billion to new casino construction on the Las Vegas Strip, New Jersey, and Mississippi, and cried to the city council about how all this competition was hurting their downtown operations. The city dutifully handed over to them the last of the property tax money which had been taken from the blighted properties for "community redevelopment."
The plan, if there was one, was to draft an empty "community redevelopment plan," hold useless public hearings on it, sign side contracts with the state's largest campaign contributors, describe it as a form of "trickle-down redevelopment," and hope no one notices. Fortunately, our local judiciary saw through this. The episodes have been exposed in both the local newspapers and in the national press.
The "redevelopment" of Glitter Gulch included three bizarre items. The first is a ban on all leafleting in the new revitalized downtown, except when it's done by the casinos from their doorways. If it weren't for federal intervention, it would be a misdemeanor to stand in front of a Las Vegas casino and hand out literature that says "gambling is bad for the soul" or copies of the New York Times. The second is a ban on solicitation. The third is a provision in the contract between the city and the casinos that allows the casinos to patrol the new downtown with the casinos' own private para-security force. Las Vegas is the only place north of Guatemala with private "security" patrolling public streets. These events, plus the revelation that our local leaders have given $8 million of park and recreation money to the downtown casinos, sparked short-lived '60s-style demonstrations. As soon as the protestors decided to hold a picnic in their new "park," they were surrounded by armed police.
The most revealing moment in all of this is contained in the reply that the casinos and the City of Las Vegas filed in federal court in defense of their downtown scheme. They submitted dozens of questionnaires filled out by tourists, with their names and addresses blanked out. How, when, and under what circumstances the questionnaires were presented and filled out they don't say. They point at the bottom where the tourists are asked to describe what they don't like about the "Fremont Street Experience." The questionnaries selected by the casinos to justify to the federal court what they have done, and seconded by the City of Las Vegas, all say "get rid of the bums," or "too many bums," or similar words. Why are the gamblers and casinos so offended by "bums?" Imagine how it must feel to walk out of a casino having just thrown away hundreds, thousands, or hundreds of thousands of dollars on the most profligate activity known to mankind and run into a homeless person begging for a sandwich!
The casinos' federal court brief is laced with this one argument: "bums" and leafleters are bad for business. They say it forthrightly with no shame. They're used to getting away with this sort of thing in state court where the judges are elected and dependent on the casino industry for their seats on the bench. One of the shops in the Fremont Street Experience sells Nazi memorabilia and "after-market" swastikas, arm-bands, and SS T-shirts to local skin-heads. Although they're protected, the city ordinances and its agreement with the casinos forbid the rest of us from standing on the sidewalk and handing out leaflets protesting the most vicious symbolism the world has ever known. Free speech is bad for business.
Meanwhile, back at the Stratosphere, the Mayor of Las Vegas kept things in the air. After she voted to use the power of eminent domain to help the casino expand, it was revealed that she owned stock in the parent corporation and was scheduled to open a clothes store in the new tower. Then she married the casino president. When the hotel went bankrupt, she voted to create a new city position at $100,000 for her husband's Stratosphere secretary. It's all just a coincidence.
A culture of corruption
A culture of influence and corruption has permeated all walks of political life. Even the most recent examples are too numerous to be exhaustively mentioned here, so I'll describe just a few.
Soon after the Nevada Supreme Court provided the Clark County Commission a definition of "undue hardship," the standard for variances or exceptions from the building code, the casinos convinced the county to pass a special exception for hotels and casinos from the entire code. The new law allows casinos and hotels to be "constructed and maintained without regard to the development and improvement standards required anywhere" in the code, substituting so-called "relaxed standards" requiring essentially that the casino "be designed to enhance the economic strength and aesthetic values of the community." Vague "standards" like this have been declared unconstitutional all over the country when developers appeal their project denials. Here, the idea is that nothing will ever be denied.
A few years ago, the state attorney general, the same Frankie Sue Del Papa who would later quitclaim state sidewalk right-of-way to the casinos, asked the state legislature for a raise for a friend she had hired to run the state's missing children program. The legislature didn't go for it. Immediately after the legislature went home at the end of the session, our highest law enforcement officer switched her friend's salary on the payroll with the higher salary of a different job description. When the misappropriation was revealed, the attorney general decided not to prosecute herself or appoint an independent counsel.
The same Frankie Sue Del Papa was recently asked by the University of Nevada Board of Regents to give the board a legal opinion on how to handle the application process for the position of University Chancellor. Specifically, the board wanted to know if its system of maintaining applicant confidentiality until the last cut was consistent with the state's public records laws. In over her head as attorney general, Frankie Sue thought she might like the Chancellor's job for herself. Two days before she issued her official published opinion of the Nevada Attorney General on how to handle the applications, she put in her own. The Board of Regents found out about it when they read the attorney general's press release in the morning paper. The opinion said that the applications had to be made public from the beginning. A third of the applicants immediately dropped out, but the state's highest law enforcement officer still couldn't convince the board that she was the best person for the job.
When the Clark County Treasurer was recently caught embezzling county funds, the response from the Clark County District Attorney was to the effect that he couldn't get a conviction since the Treasurer promised to pay the money back. The state Ethics Commission finally reprimanded him. It wasn't until the Treasurer embezzled another $20,000 from the Fiscal Officers Association that it was decided that something serious ought to be done. They gave him probation.
In recent months the local press has revealed that county commissioners have been granting favors to their friends. The most revealing excuse was, "hey, everybody does it." Although scores of articles have been written about these episodes, one article and one editorial should suffice.
It has been recently revealed that unfavorable audits of the City of Las Vegas have been kept secret. The audits show that the city has been violating state law by hiring work without public bids, violating city law by entering into contracts without city council approval, illegally seizing property, and squandering money right and left. The city auditor who tried to convince the city manager to allow at least the city council to see the problems was fired, days after being diagnosed with breast cancer.
Casinos vs. parks and schools
Last, but not least, is the Clark County fair and recreation board, aka "The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority." The casinos pay taxes, of course, but their representatives sit on the board that decides how to spend the money. Guess how they spend it? For one person's view of the LVCVA's 1998 budget, see "Subsidizing Casinos." The original idea was to use room taxes for parks and recreation. Later the casinos convinced the legislature to allow "the Authority" to promote tourism. Today, that's no longer a side line, and "the Authority" is unabashed about it.
While tourism is at a record high at over 42 million visitors in 1997 and an 8 per-cent increase in conventions, Clark County has one of the lowest parks to population ratios in the country. While the national average is between 4 and 6 acres per 1,000 people, the ratio in Clark County is 1.5 acres. The ratio in the City of Las Vegas is 1.3, while the poorer North Las Vegas has a ratio of 1.1 per thousand. The county recently appointed a committee to set a goal. The goal it set was 2.5 acres, only half of what it should be. Chosen to chair the committee was a local developer.
Once again, the gambling interests are afraid of providing visibility to the city's homeless. If you don't provide parks, and you ban them from downtown, you push them out into the desert washes, where they can't be seen, except when flash floods wash the bodies ashore. One of the finest parks in the city, that provided shelter and recreation to the homeless and poor in an area badly in need of public facilities, was recently chosen as the site for a new State government building and demolished.
The Clark County ratio of 1.5 acres of parks per 1,000 people is actually skewed by the little town of Boulder City, which has a ratio of 4.75 acres per 1,000 people. Boulder City is the only locality in southern Nevada that outlaws gambling.
The gambling industry recently defeated a proposal to eliminate federal tax deductions for gambling losses. It has also managed to defeat all attempts to raise the state casino tax for the past decade, which is less than half of what the casinos are willing to pay to establish gambling in other states. Meanwhile, the state sales tax gets raised most legislative sessions and carries the burden of state and local public financing. See "Casinos vs. schools" and "those men standing in the back of the room."
Organized crime took the same sort of interest in gambling as it takes in drugs and that it took in alcohol during Prohibition. There is economic opportunity in human waste, addiction and illegality. Meyer Lansky the foresight to send Bugsy to Las Vegas where he could eliminate the illegality. The future of gambling was cast. Organized gambling has come a long way from "Murder, Incorporated" to "Mirage, Incorporated," but has not been reborn as a humanitarian exercise.
The nature of gambling, its history in the United States, the growth and demographics of Las Vegas, and the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of organized gamblers have combined to create a cauldron of corruption that deserves careful study, especially now that "Las Vegas-style" gambling has spread to neighborhoods and suburbs across America.
Las Vegas proves that cities don't need organized crime to corrupt them. Organized gambling will do just fine.