When Sam McMullen said he wanted to spend more time with his family, he meant it

When Sam McMullen said he wanted to spend more time with his family, he meant it

  • Ken Adams, CDC Gaming Reports
June 12, 2022 6:10 PM
  • Ken Adams, CDC Gaming Reports

Sam McMullen wanted to spend more time with his family, so he did.

Sam McMullen died on May 30 in Las Vegas.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported, “Lobbyist and lawyer Sam McMullen, a staple at the Nevada Legislature for more than 40 years, died Monday. He was 72. McMullen worked in the legislature since 1973, starting as a student lobbyist while attending the University of Nevada, Reno. He later attended Georgetown Law School. A fourth-generation Nevada native, he grew up in Elko and lived in Las Vegas.”

“He goes back to the days where a deal could get done with a handshake,” his wife of 48 years, Mary-Ellen McMullen, said. “People knew that when Sam McMullen walked in the door, they were getting a straight shooter, they were getting the truth, and he always cared ultimately about how it would impact Nevada.”

The article contains a great deal of praise for Sam, most of the quotes coming from his wife and daughter. That is not surprising; he prided himself on being a family man. Before he was a lobbyist in Las Vegas, Sam was a senior VP for Harrah’s. In the 1980s, Harrah’s was headquartered in Reno. McMullen left Harrah’s in 1990 to return to Las Vegas and begin a career as a lobbyist. His job with Harrah’s required being in Reno and Atlantic City, as well as Australia, to build a Harrah’s in Sydney. Sam was young and his future looked bright with Harrah’s, except it did not fit into his value system.

McMullen left Harrah’s to move full-time to Vegas. He used the time-honored explanation, “I’m leaving to spend more time with my family.” The statement often covers a contentious parting of the ways and is meant to protect both parties. That was not the case for Sam. He wanted and did spend more time with his family. Sam meant it.

When Sam worked at Harrah’s, I was employed by the Comstock. We had occasion to meet. Reno is a small town and casinos are forced to work together on numerous projects; for Sam and me, that included lobbying on local issues and promoting special events. Hot August Nights and Festival Reno were among those events that brought us together. It was a very long time ago, in another century and another Reno.

Reno was trying to reinvent itself as the national’s special-events capital. Any event that would draw from a national or even regional audience was worthy of a place on Reno’s calendar. Sam had a nationwide set of contacts and the right legal background to help us negotiate the political and business landscapes. He brought the power of the Harrah’s brand and his own reputation for integrity to every negotiation.

The Comstock was a small locals casino with a local ownership group. We aspired to bigger things, but lacked the skills and finances to be more than a minor Reno operation. The Comstock had built its business around in-house special events, tournaments, Super Bowl parties, unique invitation-only entertainment, and holiday parties. At the peak of that business model, the Comstock had nearly one major special event a week. It seemed natural to encourage the city to develop more events in which all of the casinos could cooperate using their own customer bases. It took many meetings and lots of lobbying to sell other casino operators on that vision. To be effective, the efforts at persuasion needed people like Sam McMullen. Sam had the skills, the experience, and the respect of his peers. Whenever I called, Sam took my call and helped.

Many others worked to create Reno’s menu of special events in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. Reno as a special events capital was a successful strategy for a while, until the full scope and impact of Indian gaming hit the market. But by that time, I was gone from the Comstock and working as a consultant in Indian Country. Sam, as well, had moved off to Las Vegas and lobbying. We usually met and talked for a few minutes at the annual gaming show, the predecessor of G2E. Without a company behind me, I often felt lost on a battlefield that was too big for me. At one of our meetings, I asked Sam if he ever felt intimidated when he walked into a room filled with corporate lawyers.

“No,” he replied. “It’s just more challenging. It raises the bar and makes the game more exciting.”

That was reassuring and gave me confidence to fight another day. Thanks, Sam.