While Wynn is powerful, he’s no Wingfield

Steve Wynn has a way of making people talk, and his recent threat to move his headquarters to Macau has done just that. He said he would have to consult his staff, but two factors played a role in his comments. One, for Wynn and other operators there, Macau is pronounced “Cash Cow.” Two, Wynn doesn’t like the policies of President Obama, which makes little sense since Wynn supported Bill Clinton, who is about as liberal as Obama is.

Making Wynn’s threat even more interesting is the political history behind it that has nothing—and everything—to do with him.

Consider Wynn’s reference to his staff. Another important figure in Nevada history had similar ideas. In the 1950s, Howard Hughes, who shares Wynn’s history of wielding a lot of influence in these parts, acquired land here and planned to move his aircraft company. His engineers said no way, and Hughes relied on them so much that he had to back down. Later, that chunk of land became Summerlin, but the idea that someone would tell Hughes no is almost as striking as the idea of telling Wynn no.

The better comparison in Wynn’s case is not with Hughes—you’ll never read “the reclusive Steve Wynn”—but with someone most Nevadans likely have never heard of.

Early in the 20th century, George Wingfield owned most of Nevada’s major mines when mining was the state’s economy, Reno’s biggest hotels when that town was Nevada’s tourist destination, and the bank in almost every major Nevada town. No individual had so dominated the state before, and none has since.

His coming-out party as Nevada’s boss came in 1907, when he asked Gov. John Sparks to request federal troops to break up a strike in Goldfield. Since he had lent money to Sparks, he got his way, although the troops were as necessary as a bunion. Later, two elected officials tied to Wingfield embezzled more than $500,000 in state money when that amount actually was worth something. His solution was to tell the governor to call a special session to raise taxes and make up most of the difference. The governor and Legislature did as they were told.

In 1928, Republican Herbert Hoover ran for president against Democrat Al Smith. Wingfield suggested that if Hoover lost, plans to expand Wingfield’s hotels would go on the backburner, and the economic downturn a Democratic administration would cause would make expansion unnecessary anyway.

Some Nevadans and outside observers took that as a threat: Vote for Hoover or I leave. Hoover won Nevada and the nation. Wingfield expanded his empire, which crumbled because of the Great Depression, and Nevada voters blamed Hoover for the economic downturn. It wasn’t entirely coincidental that in 1932, when Nevadans backed Franklin Roosevelt over Hoover, they also ousted two-term U.S. Sen. Tasker Oddie, a Wingfield ally, and replaced him with Democrat Pat McCarran, perhaps Wingfield’s biggest critic in Nevada.

Even at his most powerful in Nevada, Wynn is no Wingfield, and so much the better. They have similarities: A fascinating life story, shrewdness, great business success and political influence. Wingfield lacked Wynn’s education, aesthetic sensibility and creativity, but Wingfield had a more varied background—he made a living as a cowboy and professional gambler, and still got his hands dirty in mining and ranching even as he amassed great wealth—which also may have given him a better sense of what the average guy was thinking. Wynn says the key to economic recovery is job formation, and he’s right, but he isn’t exactly at the unemployment office himself.

Both men also fit into Nevada tradition. The dominant economic factor is always the dominant political factor, and it’s usually limited to one industry—mining in the past, gaming and tourism in the present. But those powers don’t always amount to as much on the national stage, which has frustrated lesser men than these two.

Thus the irony: Wynn may criticize Obama, but he has been a major political player for a long time, and the people he has supported in Nevada have done far too little to diversify the economy he now criticizes. Wingfield could call legislators. Wynn no doubt can use e-mail, and wherever he’s making contact from, the smart money says he won’t wind up in the spam folder.

Michael Green is a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada and author of several books and articles on Nevada history and politics.

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