[The Strip Sense]
Elaine Wynn, embracing change
Barack’s wife, Michele, was the key to the First Lady of Las Vegas’ conversion
Thu, Nov 20, 2008 (midnight)
Photo: Scott Doctor
For the First Lady of Las Vegas, it wasn’t the soaring rhetoric. It wasn’t the dazzling oratory skills. It wasn’t the cheering crowds or the position papers or the list of campaign promises that the nation probably can’t afford to fulfill.
Then what was the secret weapon that won over Elaine Wynn, that so impressed her that she found herself bucking her entire industry and her irate husband and actively working on behalf of a Democratic presidential candidate after a lifetime of voting only for Republicans?
Michelle. The wife. The woman seen by so many pundits as an albatross, as the more radical, more racial half of the soon-to-be First Couple. There came a moment for Elaine after the two women spent some time together way, way back in June 2007 when Wynn recalls saying to her husband, “Any guy who could get this woman to marry him has to be a helluva guy.” Good enough, even, to be president of the United States.
But first, Mrs. Wynn’s evolution began as many did over the past two years, when she took note of how enamored her own children and other young people around her were with Illinois’ freshman senator. She was delighted to see them engaged, so she bought Barack Obama’s two memoirs and “the more I read, the more impressed I got.” By the time she and the city’s ultimate Democratic political operative, Billy Vassiliadis, had their first chat about it, she leapt onto the Obama campaign’s Nevada steering committee.
Still, the deal was hardly sealed until Michelle Obama came a-calling for their first lunch at the Wynn.
“She and I did not have a quick lunch, we had like a two-hour lunch,” Elaine recalls. “She was absolutely fantastic. We didn’t even talk about the men for more than 10 or 15 minutes. We talked about our own lives and our own experiences. I just wanted to hear the story of her life and the journey they’ve been. Women are intuitive, they get a feeling about someone through conversations.”
What may be most surprising is what Mrs. Obama said that day. She related to Elaine how she and Barack had taken lower-paying community jobs instead of high-paying lawyer gigs and that they worried about repaying student loans and providing for their daughters. “You know,” Elaine says, “real-world problems, stuff people who are not in a cocoon have to deal with.”
You wouldn’t think that detailing your hard knocks would be a way to impress someone, but Mrs. Wynn fell in love with Michelle’s candor: “Let’s face it, I’ve met a lot of extraordinary people and she was one of the most impressive people I’d ever met.”
Mrs. Wynn’s conversion wasn’t taken well back at the villa. Like her husband, she is a fiscal conservative and what she calls a “social liberal or a liberal social.” She volunteered at the nominating convention for JFK in 1960 but was underage then and never, until earlier this month, voted for a Democrat for president.
Yet here she was, not just supporting Obama—“I just love the guy,” she says—but switching her party registration so she could participate in Nevada’s presidential caucuses in January. (I spotted Mrs. Wynn that day attempting to be incognito in a baseball cap, pony tail, a white blouse, jeans and, alas, a designer handbag; she told me she wanted to be counted but she didn’t want her employees to feel pressured to support Obama over Hillary Clinton because of her presence. Total class.)
Much to Mr. Wynn’s dismay, Elaine held several fundraisers for Obama, donned an Obama T-shirt to knock on doors and gave the maximum $4,600 to the campaign even as Steve gave the same to John McCain. Campaign workers reported she would constantly be seeking things to do; at least once, they sent her for takeout.
She wasn’t a true-blue Democrat and still isn’t: “I figured, if it’s not Obama, I’ll wind up back in the Republican camp and hopefully those guys would pick somebody I could support.” Her favored candidate on that side was Mitt Romney for his business acumen.
It wasn’t easy for her. At home, there were fireworks. “Steve and I had knock-down, drag-out fights.” Oh, come on. “No! My friends witnessed it!”
What was his problem?
“He was scared,” Elaine explains. “He thought Obama was green, that he was, you know, all the things that everybody was expressing … He thought he was clearly an impressive individual, lots of gray matter, but his opinions scared him. And I just kept saying, ‘Would you stop with this business? He is not going to be a socialist.’”
There was also some concern that Obama, who had opposed legalizing gaming in Illinois as a state senator, could be unfriendly to Vegas interests. Elaine is dismissive, noting the president-elect “recruited the Culinary Union, he sought the Hispanic vote, he knows that these people have jobs in a premier industry in Nevada. There’s never been a scintilla from either [Michelle or Barack Obama] about being anti-gaming. As a matter of fact, Michelle loves our hotel and when it was her birthday she insisted that they spend the night here.”
By the time the campaign was winding down, Steve Wynn had chilled out. Michelle visited their villa at the hotel eight days before the election and Steve, perhaps resigned to McCain’s likely loss, “was much more receptive to Michelle’s message about her husband than he was about the husband’s message about himself.”
Elaine was in a party suite at the Rio on Election Night weeping with her fellow high-powered Obamaites; her husband wasn’t quite so emotive but “he was caught up in all the positive stuff that had happened and enjoyed it. We sponsor Charlie Rose so we watch it every night and in the days after, all these brainy people were on waxing eloquent about Obama. Steve started to listen because he was no longer in a threatened position and I think he was much more open-minded and receptive and impressed.”
Now that it’s over, there’s chatter that Mrs. Wynn could find a position in the Obama administration. That, she says, is “all silly nonsense. All I was was a person that was in Nevada who came forward, probably the only gaming owner, that had the desire to go in the direction opposite what appeared to be the direction of the rest of the industry.”
In return, she says, she expects her friend Michelle to be as supportive as Laura Bush has been of Communities in Schools, the stay-in-school nonprofit of which Elaine Wynn is national chair. She says she hasn’t reached out to the Obamas yet—“there’s too much noise right now”—and she’s not planning to attend the inauguration.
At some point thereafter, though, she’ll be in touch.
“We have not spoken,” Mrs. Wynn says, “but I know we will!”