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Democratic Donors Spreading the Cash Around

Democratic Donors Spreading the Cash Around

By HOWARD FINE

Staff Reporter

Richard Gephardt has been in politics long enough to know that when campaigning in Hollywood, it pays to put on a show.

A May 28 fundraiser at the home of movie producer Lawrence Bender (“Pulp Fiction,” “Good Will Hunting”) included not only the usual stump speeches and finger food, but a performance by longtime Democratic supporter Tony Bennett. And for $2,000 the maximum individual contribution allowed invitees got included in a VIP reception prior to the show featuring the Gephardts and the legendary crooner.

The guest list would have been entertaining even without the concert: Oil mogul Marvin Davis, actors Michael Douglas and Forest Whitaker, and power attorneys Bill Wardlaw and Ken Ziffren, to name a few.

It’s checkbook time in Tinseltown as a half dozen major contenders for the Democratic nomination seek the backing of L.A.’s well-heeled party faithful. At this stage, the objective is not just only the $2,000 contribution per individual, but the chance to generate a critical mass of impassioned celebrities and other local power brokers who could spread the word and perhaps later become actively involved as surrogate campaigners.

There’s another factor at play: the formidable reelection machinery of President Bush, which is in the midst of major fundraising efforts that could put the campaign on course to double the $100 million collected during 2000. Some of this is likely to be generated in L.A. among the likes of GOP stalwarts like Arnold Scharzenegger (himself considering a run for governor) and Bruce Willis.

Lining up endorsements

New campaign finance laws that limit soft-money contributions have forced candidates to rely more on individual donors.

“That makes getting Hollywood endorsements all the more vital, since these folks in Hollywood have a great ability to network and get even more contributions for their candidates,” said Steven Weiss, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics.

Ever carefully, allegiances are starting to form.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean scored the early endorsement of Rob Reiner, which led to a fundraiser at the director’s home last month. “I’m on the phone with people all the time,” Reiner told the Washington Post. “People ask me, could he win? Well, he can’t win if you don’t support him.”

Dean spokeswoman Courtney O’Donnell acknowledged, “there is most certainly a boost that public figures give to a campaign.”

This is especially true for the primary contests that are front-loaded next February and March. “Once you come out of New Hampshire,” she explained, “you in effect have to conduct an intense national campaign for a month. Candidates will be having three or four events on the same evening in different states. That’s when high-profile people will become really important. They can draw the big crowds.”

Already, several of the major candidates can claim their share of celebrity endorsers. Besides Gephardt and Dean, Sen. John Kerry has received support from Paramount Pictures’ Sherry Lansing, along with music producer Quincy Jones and actor Dennis Hopper. Rep. Dennis Kucinich has actors Elliott Gould, Peter Coyote and Ed Asner in his camp.

But with no clear frontrunner emerging among the Democratic presidential candidates for 2004, prominent L.A. contributors generally are hedging their bets, with many giving time and money to multiple candidates.

Entertainment industry executives like Haim Saban, Alan Horn and talent agent Ariel Emanuel have each given thousands of dollars to at least three candidates, according to campaign documents filed with the Federal Election Commission and analyzed for the Business Journal by the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group.

Other Democrats, Bender and cable industry executive Marc Nathanson, have co-chaired fundraisers for more than one candidate.

Bender, for example, is also hosting a fundraiser at his Holmby Hills home at the end of this month for Sen. John Kerry. “It’s a big event for young Hollywood, which consists of the up-and-coming movers and shakers in Hollywood,” said Chris Hill, an aide to Bender.

At this stage, it’s not an unusual scenario, said Joe Cerrell, a long-time local Democratic political consultant. “They are all good Democrats, so they can help more than one candidate and still maintain the trust of the party,” he said.

Sorting out contest

Nevertheless, such spreading of the wealth hasn’t been seen since 1991, when many prominent Democrat candidates, including Gephardt and New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, passed on the opportunity to run, figuring that President George H.W. Bush was not beatable. After a stormy early primary, the door and the wallets opened for Bill Clinton. (In the last two Democratic presidential primary campaigns, there was one frontrunner Clinton in 1996 and former Vice President Al Gore in 2000.)

“None of them want to make the same mistake that the presumed frontrunners made in 1991, of passing up their chance at the presidency,” Cerrell said.

The crowded field may be keeping some local Democratic supporters on the sidelines as they wait for the field to sort itself out. That, combined with the slow economy, is putting a crimp in contributions.

“It’s definitely harder to get money now,” said screenwriter and liberal Democratic activist Lila Garrett, who co-chairs Kucinich’s Southern California campaign.

While the Ohio congressman has made several campaign swings to the area, he has not netted as much as several of his rivals. But he still ranks ahead of Sen. Carol Mosley-Braun of Illinois and the Rev. Al Sharpton, who have raised very little money in L.A., according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Kucinich is also ahead of Sen. Bob Graham of Florida only started his campaign in earnest in April, so his second quarter fundraising totals won’t be available until next month.

“I don’t remember this happening before with all the multiple supporters,” said Garrett. “We have a lot of good people running, with a lot more variety of political viewpoints.”

Tug of war

The L.A. barnstorming is not just concentrated on celebrities.

Sen. John Edwards, who is a trial lawyer, has taken in tens of thousands of dollars from area law firms. Among the biggest contributions: Girardi & Keese ($54,975); Green Broillet, et al ($22,000); and O’Donnell & Shaeffer ($18,000).

Edwards, Graham, Kerry and Sen. Joseph Lieberman are considered in the centrist or conservative wing of the party, represented by the same moderate Democratic Leadership Council that generated Clinton’s candidacy. Three others Dean, Mosley-Braun and Kucinich are firmly in the liberal wing of the party, while Gephardt is somewhere in between the two wings.

There is a tug of war among the various sides. The liberal wing, personified by Dean and Kucinich, vehemently opposed the war in Iraq and has been harshly critical of Bush. The centrist and conservative candidates tended to support the war and have only recently begun to broaden their attack on Bush.

But, Cerrell cautions, it’s still too early to make much of these divisions.

“Some of these candidates will find in coming months that they will not get the level of support they need to continue and will drop out,” he said. “That will narrow the field considerably.”

Cerrell said he expects support for candidates to firm up by the fall, when the candidates begin to form their delegations that will travel to the Democratic National Convention.

“I’m hearing of people saying, ‘Come back to me in the fall, I’ll make my choice then,'” he said.

Playing the Field

Selected L.A. area supporters of Democratic presidential candidates

Rep. Richard Gephardt (Missouri)

Lawrence Bender (producer), Michael Douglas, Aaron Sorkin, Natalie Cole, Marvin Davis, Russell Goldsmith, Richard Gordon, Judith Light, Peter Lowy, George Mihlsten, Marc Nathanson, Forest Whitaker, Tom Unterman, Bill Wardlaw, Ken Ziffren

Former Gov. Howard Dean (Vermont)

Martin Sheen, Lara Bergthold, David Bohnett, Michael Flemming, State Sen. Sheila Keuhl, Will Mesdag (Senior Advisor, Davis Co.), Rick Jacobs (Financial Advisor), Ron and Jane Olson, Will Mesdag, Rick Jacobs, L.A. City Councilman Eric Garcetti, Rob and Michelle Reiner

Sen. John Kerry (Massachusetts)

Sherry Lansing and John Dolgen (Paramount Pictures), Peter Morton, Richard Ziman, Arn Tellem, Dennis Hopper (and spouse Victoria), Lawrence Bender (producer), Quincy Jones, Clarence Avant (music producer), Tom Soto

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio)

Ed Asner, Aris Anagnos (businessman, peace activist), David Clennon, James Cromwell, Peter Coyote, Hector Elizondo, Elliott Gould, Mimi Kennedy, Eric Roberts (actors), Paul Schrade (former union leader), Haskell Wexler (cinematographer)

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (Connecticut)

Mel Levine (former Congressman), Brett Messing, Joel Mandel, Jonathan Axelrod, Joe Kornwasser, Steve Fogel, Jason Moskowitz, Bruce Wessel, Patty Glasser, Larry Bond

Sources: Candidates’ respective campaigns.




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