Sin City Senator
In laissez-faire Nevada, anything goes: except sexual hypocrisy and casino-tainted politicians. The problem for John Ensign, writes Sally Denton, is that he has violated both taboos.
The old adage that Democratic scandals are about sex and Republican scandals are about money is proving true as Republican Senator John Ensign’s extramarital affair and coverup unfolds.
Called a “hot sex/hush money/cronyism scandal” by Las Vegas journalist Hugh Jackson, the hypocrisy of the born-again Nevada Christian coveting the wife of his top aide (and his own wife’s best friend) would have been damaging enough. But by providing jobs to his mistress, her husband, and their son—and then firing them all when the affair ended—Ensign has opened himself to numerous charges ranging from sexual harassment to Senate ethics violations. The affair with his campaign treasurer has already cost Ensign his high-level position in the Senate Republican leadership. Whether the fallout will lead to his resignation remains unclear, but regardless of the turn of events, Ensign’s sudden fall from grace has radically altered the political landscape in Nevada, where his approval rating has plummeted to 39 percent.
Ensign’s sex scandal has broken through the veneer of the born-again puritan to reveal the lounge act beneath.
John Ensign is not just another holy roller—he’s a high roller, born and bred in Las Vegas. The stepson of one of the Strip’s biggest casino kings, a former manager of the Gold Strike casino himself, Ensign’s sex scandal has broken through the veneer of the born-again puritan to reveal the lounge act beneath.
With all the drama of a daytime soap opera, the saga began on June 16, when a rigidly coiffed but shaken Ensign held a hurriedly scheduled Las Vegas press conference to admit his affair with 46-year-old Cynthia Hampton. Apparently tipped off by Fox News, which had received a tell-all letter from his mistress’ husband, Ensign preempted Hampton and turned the tables on the aggrieved cuckold, accusing him of extortion. “Within the past month, Doug Hampton’s legal counsel made exorbitant demands for cash and other financial benefits on behalf of his client,” an Ensign spokesman told the media.
In a letter dated June 11 and addressed to Fox anchorwoman Megyn Kelly, Hampton portrayed Ensign as a “heinous” stalker whose “relentless pursuit of my wife” left the Hamptons in emotional and financial shambles. Describing the two families as “lifelong friends” whose children attended the same schools and who lived as neighbors, Hampton claimed that while Ensign’s political star was rising, the Hamptons were “completely ruined and left to deal with the aftermath of very evil and completely unjustifiable acts by one of our countries [sic] top leaders.” (News hound Kelly somehow managed to misplace the letter, and Fox News—surprise!—never did a story.)
Until the affair ended, the Hamptons had benefited greatly from their relationship with Ensign. As administrative assistant, Doug received a $13,000 monthly salary beginning in 2006, and during his last month on the payroll, in May 2008, he received a payment for $19,679. Cindy’s $1,385-a-month salary as treasurer of Ensign’s personal campaign committee and his Battle Born PAC doubled to $2,771 once her affair with Ensign began. Ensign also hired their 19-year-old son, Brandon, for “research policy consulting,” according to Federal Election Commission filings. When the affair ended, they all lost their government jobs and reportedly had difficulty making the mortgage payments on their $1.2 million Las Vegas home.
Meanwhile, Ensign’s charge of blackmail failed to take hold, as neither the FBI nor the Las Vegas Metro police have initiated an investigation. Instead Ensign has used a taxpayer-funded leave of absence to avoid answering questions from the media. His behavior has revived speculation that his disappearance from the Senate in 2002 was the result of being caught in affair with a staffer. Nevadans are famously accepting of clay-footed politicians, and would doubtless forgive Ensign a sexual transgression if not for the enormity of the hypocrisy.
A Pentecostal, Ensign has been an avid member of Promise Keepers—a Christian men’s group devoted to marital fidelity. When in Washington, he shares a Capitol Hill townhouse they call “the church” with several like-minded cohorts, including Senators Tom Coburn and Jim DeMint, and Reps. Zach Wamp and Bart Stupak.
“The problem is, he’s another one of those Bible-thumping Republicans,” a Republican operative told the Las Vegas Sun. “When you take the social conservative banner, there’s a higher level of scrutiny on these kinds of things.”
The conventional wisdom in Nevada suggests he can survive the sex scandal, but charges of shakedowns and payoffs are risky business. “After all, having sex with a mistress is not a crime,” said Michael Green, professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada. “Even having sex with 5,000 women, as Wilt Chamberlain’s autobiography boasted years ago, is not a crime. But extortion, bribery, and obstruction of justice really are crimes.”
Ensign is historically unique in getting elected to the Senate from Nevada as a social conservative. Since the legalization of gambling in 1931, Nevada’s senators—from both sides of the aisle—have run on old libertarian ideals embodied in the slogan of “live and let live.” As the first casino baby to ascend to the Senate—he is not only the stepson of one of the state’s leading gambling figures but he’s also been in the gambling business most of his life and served as general manager of his family’s casinos—his Bible-thumping moralizing is enigmatic.
While he’s gone to great lengths to distance himself from his deep and enduring gambling roots, and has sanitized his official biography to hide his involvement, his candidacies have always been swimming in casino money. His stepfather, billionaire casino executive Mike Ensign, was CEO and chairman of the board of Mandalay Resort Group, one of the largest hotel-casino companies in America. Mandalay’s provenance began with the scandal-ridden Circus Circus—the brainchild of Jay Sarno, who built it with organized crime and Teamsters Pension Fund money.
Under Ensign Sr.’s direction, the empire grew to include the Mandalay, Luxor, Excalibur, Circus Circus, Monte Carlo, and Four Seasons hotels on the Las Vegas Strip, as well as casinos in the Nevada towns of Reno, Laughlin, Jean, and Henderson, the Gold Strike in Tunica, Miss., a riverboat gambling operation in Illinois, and a casino in Detroit. On behalf of Mandalay’s shareholders, Ensign negotiated the landmark sale of the company to MGM Mirage—creating the largest gambling firm in the world. The sale made multimillionaires of the entire Ensign family, including the senator. And the owner of MGM Mirage, Kirk Kerkorian, is among Ensign’s biggest donors. (Ensign Sr. is part of a group trying to build a $225 million casino in Kansas.)
“The irony is that he owes his wealth and political fortunes to that old libertarianism that allowed casino gambling,” Green said of Sen. Ensign. “Yet he ran as a social conservative that opposes all things sinful. One wonders: Does that include gambling?”
Other Nevada senators—Howard Cannon and Paul Laxalt—got a piece of the action during their political careers, but John Ensign is the first to have been raised in the “joints.”
Nevada legalized gambling in order to stave off statewide destitution and depression, but for eight decades it has posed a unique dilemma for the state’s political figures. Calling it a “rotten bargain,” the thunderously powerful Senator Pat McCarran publicly defended the industry while harboring personal misgivings during its early days in the 1940s. Privately, he called gamblers “tinhorns” and confided that he felt “like a Nevada whore” defending them while other senators, their own states riddled with corruption, hypocritically condemned and ridiculed.
For nearly 80 years, there has been an unspoken rule in Nevada: Its congressional delegation would protect the industry from the ever-present specter of federal taxation and regulation; in exchange, the gamblers would remain in the background and practice discretion. As the first casino owner/operator to cross the line in search of official political power, John Ensign violated the tacit and historic quid pro quo arrangement, which he imagined he could cover with born-again unctuousness. While his political rise was a fluke, if casino morality guided his actions in the Hampton matter, his fall might be more predictable.
Sally Denton is a writer based in Santa Fe and author of six books, including The Money and the Power: The Making of Las Vegas and Its Hold on America and the forthcoming The Pink Lady: The Many Lives of Helen Gahagan Douglas (Bloomsbury Press).