It’s not every day that the Washington, D.C., right-wing message machine takes off after Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev.
But that’s what happened recently, when her constituents were treated to recorded telephone calls accusing Berkley of being insufficiently supportive of the military.
Berkley was among about 30 Democratic representatives targeted by Freedom’s Watch, a national conservative advocacy group, with the “robo-calls.” Those on the list are mostly freshman House members or represent Republican districts, making them potentially vulnerable in November.
But Berkley doesn’t fit.
She’s well loved by her urban Las Vegas congressional district, which sent her back to Washington for a fifth term with 65 percent of the vote in 2006. There are 56,000 more Democrats than Republicans in the district. Seven Republicans are vying to run against her in November, but to call them long shots would be generous.
To Berkley, the answer to the riddle of why she was singled out is obvious: a decade-old political and personal feud with one of Las Vegas’ mightiest casino executives.
“Sheldon Adelson,” she said when asked about the calls. “There’s only one reason this could be happening. There is no way Freedom’s Watch would have picked my congressional district to run robo-calls, unless Sheldon Adelson directed them to do so. It’s as simple as that.”
Adelson is the multibillionaire chairman of Las Vegas Sands Corp., owner of The Venetian.
He’s also a major donor to Republican and conservative causes and is reportedly the driving force behind Freedom’s Watch, a year-old group that’s been running pro-war, anti-tax political ads across the country.
Berkley was Adelson’s vice president of legal and government affairs in the 1990s. Before her first run for Congress in 1998, they had a falling-out; Adelson fired Berkley, then spent lots of money trying to thwart her election campaign. Tactics in the bruising race included the release of tapes of confidential conversations in which Berkley seemed to advocate buying off politicians.
A Freedom’s Watch spokesman flatly denied Berkley’s claim that Adelson ordered the calls in Nevada’s 1st Congressional District.
“The congresswoman, along with dozens of other members of Congress who claim to support the troops, made a bad choice that put troop paychecks in jeopardy,” Ed Patru said. “They have a responsibility to stand up to the liberal leadership in Washington and ensure that the troops receive their funding before Congress goes on vacation.”
Patru wouldn’t say how much money the group gets from Adelson. Freedom’s Watch is not legally required to disclose its donors.
Asked how much input Adelson has in what Freedom’s Watch decides to do, Patru said, “To the extent that he’s a supporter of this organization, he has a voice at the table. He is a voice at the table among others.”
Adelson does not call all the shots, Patru said.
Through a company spokesman, Adelson declined to comment on the matter.
For longtime watchers of Nevada politics, it is hard not to connect the dots, despite the denials from Freedom’s Watch. Adelson’s animosity toward Berkley is no secret.
“I think that it reflects Adelson’s long dislike for Berkley,” said Michael Green, a historian at the College of Southern Nevada and liberal commentator.
Green noted that as Freedom’s Watch has increased its role on the national stage, it has been criticized as ineffective.
“He (Adelson) has as much right to dislike somebody as I do, but it strikes me as a reason this organization has not been that successful,” Green said. “In politics, you cannot personalize these things. If Berkley’s in a safe district, which she is, why waste your time and money? It comes across as petty.”
A flashback to 1998 is instructive.
Determined to fight the influence of the Culinary union, Adelson waded into local politics in a big way, putting hundreds of thousands of dollars into Republican accounts and trying to oust Democratic county commissioners.
Berkley was a former Nevada assemblywoman and two-term university regent when she decided to run for the House seat being vacated by Republican John Ensign, now the state’s junior senator.
According to Berkley, Adelson, with whom she had never seen eye to eye on labor issues, said he would back her run if she would switch parties and oppose unions.
Adelson claims Berkley violated attorney-client privilege, though he did not specify the circumstances. In any case, Berkley was fired.
Berkley’s Republican opponent was former District Judge Don Chairez, but the true dynamic of the race was Berkley vs. Adelson — Shelley vs. Sheldon.
A tape recording emerged that featured Berkley talking about giving Adelson political advice. If he wanted his hotel project approved, she told him, he should do favors for commissioners, like giving jobs to their relatives. In company memos, she urged him to contribute to judges’ campaigns in exchange for favors.
Berkley defended herself, saying she was just explaining the realities of doing business in Las Vegas and didn’t condone the way the system works.
Despite a barrage of ads calling her unethical, she won, getting 49 percent of the vote to Chairez’s 46 percent.
Berkley said what bothers her most about the Freedom’s Watch calls is that they misrepresent her record on war spending and veterans issues.
“Hello, I’m Beverly Perlson calling for Freedom’s Watch,” one of the two calls begins. “My son John just returned from his fourth tour in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I’m tremendously proud of him. But I’m not proud of Congress. Last week, Congress left for vacation without providing our troops the funding they need.
“As a result, Admiral Mike Mullen, our nation’s highest-ranking military officer, warned our troops’ paychecks were in jeopardy. This is one military mom who takes it personally. I’m not just embarrassed by our ungrateful and irresponsible Congress. I’m angry. And no matter your view on the war, you should be, too. Call Congresswoman Shelley Berkley at 702-220-9823. Tell her to wrap up her vacation, get back to work and vote to pay our troops.”
Patru, the Freedom’s Watch spokesman, said the ad is aimed at taking Berkley to task for not demanding that a war funding bill be passed before Congress recessed for Memorial Day.
But Berkley said the ad implies that she is one of the many Democratic representatives who are trying to stop the war by voting to cut off funding for it.
While she respects their position, she isn’t one of them. She has taken heat from antiwar groups for her hawkish stances.
“There is no rational reason for this, and what is being said is an out-and-out lie. It is so far from the truth that it comes around and bites you. I have consistently voted to fund operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Berkley said her office has gotten very few calls as a result of the robo-calls and many of those have been sympathetic.
“I take a back seat to no one on support of our troops and our veterans, and there isn’t a vet in Southern Nevada who doesn’t know it,” said Berkley, a member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
An irony of the Shelley-Sheldon relationship is that both are stalwarts of the Las Vegas Jewish community and both are militantly pro-Israel. The two are said to have mutual friends in local Jewish circles who occasionally find themselves caught in the middle.
“I don’t know what Sheldon’s got on his mind, but there’s not a lot of daylight between our position on Israel,” Berkley said, noting that she also is a close ally of the gaming industry in Congress.
“It is a bit ironic, I would note, that he would single me out for attack. You’d think he would be running commercials for me.”
Contact reporter Molly Ball at mball @reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919.