Terry Lanni has been justly recalled as one of the most significant figures in modern Las Vegas, developing two major gaming companies, Caesars World (now part of Caesars Entertainment) and MGM Resorts International. What has been less discussed is the political role he played in the Valley.
Lanni came to Las Vegas from the business world to be an executive for gaming corporations, not a “gaming executive”—and the distinction is important. Not being from inside the city or the casino industry, he looked at Las Vegas in a fresh light. Lanni’s support for new shopping and spaces on the Strip redefined Las Vegas as an entertainment destination, and might provide lessons for Las Vegas as a place to live. He certainly hoped so.
Lanni thought beyond the Strip. In an industry that had been slow to desegregate its clientele and slower to integrate its staff, he pushed harder and more seriously for diversity than any other resort executive. He emphasized the importance of Nevada’s educational system when other executives seemed more interested in profits or programs directly related to their businesses. He dared to call for higher taxes and pulled MGM out of the
Chamber of Commerce over its anti-tax policies.
Yet Lanni was also a devoted Republican. In 2006, at an election-night party, one Democrat pointed at the MGM and complained that “one man could choose the governor.” That overstated matters, and Lanni wouldn’t have been the first with that sort of power, but he threw his weight behind Republican Jim Gibbons, who ran on a platform of opposing taxes and cutting government—the opposite of what Lanni supposedly believed. Gibbons then kept his promises, and Lanni never wavered.
Thus the irony. More than any other casino executive in memory, when it came to politics, Lanni spoke passionately about issues (and even acted on them) rather than profits. But he supported candidates who bowed toward corporations like the one he ran so well.
He embodied Las Vegas’s great potential—and its contradictions.
– Michael Green
Mothballing the mob
A host of Terry Lanni’s accomplishments have been celebrated since his July 14 death: his chairmanship of MGM Resorts from 1995 to 2008; his key role in launching that company’s diversity initiative; and his pivotal service on the National Gambling Impact Study Commission from 1997 to 1999.
But his earliest work in the industry might have been his most important.
When Caesars World president Bill McElnea brought him aboard in 1977, most casino executives had come up through the ranks, often starting in illegal gambling halls. This gave them a head for running a casino but not skills to talk to Wall Street or institutional investors. If the industry was to outgrow its marriage to the mob, it was going to need serious capital.
Lanni was one of the first to come into the casino world from business school. Within a year of his arrival at Caesars, the company received a $60 million loan from Aetna Life Insurance. This was the first time a mainstream institutional lender had invested in a Nevada casino operation, and it set a pattern for the future. Lanni was pivotal in securing the loan and in building a bridge between the Las Vegas Boulevard and Wall Street.
In the late 1970s, Caesars World ran into trouble in its efforts to be licensed in New Jersey. High-ranking corporate officials were accused of too-cozy dealings with Alvin Malnik and Sam Cohen, who were reputedly linked to underworld financier Meyer Lansky. This sort of thing had been tolerated in Nevada, but Garden State regulators, holding the keys to the world’s breakout gaming market, took a different stance.
In the licensing hearings before the Casino Control Commission, Lanni was consciously kept at a distance; he was being actively groomed to take over the company should the commission refuse to license its principals. And that’s exactly what he did, becoming president of a newly licensed Caesars World in 1981. The industry kept moving into the financial mainstream and hasn’t looked back since.
“Terry was a significant factor in taking the industry from its mob-related past into a more reputable,” says Casino Control Commission spokesman Dan Heneghan, who knew Lanni since his arrival in Atlantic City.
Without that base, none of his later accomplishments—or much of what we see along the Strip today—would have been possible.
– David G. Schwartz