A recent campaign fundraiser for Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) at the home of composer Marilyn Bergman drew a healthy mix of producers, writers and entertainers.
The crowd was familiar: Many had been members of the Hollywood Women’s Political Committee.
But as the midterm elections approach, Boxer may be one of the few candidates to receive significant amounts of money from veterans of the starry liberal political organization.
It has been just over six months since the HWPC announced that it would dissolve, in a highly publicized protest against the frenzy of political fundraising. Former members of the group seem no less jaded with the system.
Taking a break
“They need a breather from it,” says Marge Tabankin, the group’s former executive director who now runs Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation and the Streisand Foundation.
Says Barbara Corday, one of the group’s founders: “A lot of us need a break from political fundraising and the frustration of electoral politics. You have to take a break and reassess what you are doing.”
In fact, what followed their April announcement has been even more embarrassment in Washington over the excessive fundraising in 1996: Lists of those who used the Lincoln bedroom, revelations of kaffee klatches at the White House, congressional hearings on fundraising practices.
Instead, HWPC members are talking about forming a new group — this one perhaps geared to specific issues rather than candidates. Other members have looked to expand their participation in charities and public-interest organizations, such as People for the American Way and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Others do plan to contribute once the 1998 campaigns are in full swing, but doubt that they will be writing checks to as many politicos.
“Saying we are getting out of the kitchen doesn’t mean we won’t march, vote or hold educationals,” Tabankin says.
Some veterans credit the organization with spurring political activism among Hollywood women, with its monthly meetings where issues were debated and consensus was reached. Through the years the organization rallied industry players on liberal causes such as abortion rights, cutting aid to the contras in Nicaragua and ending the proliferation of nuclear arms.
“What it gave me was a wonderful sense of the power and commitment of the creative women in Hollywood,” says TV producer Meryl Marshall, recently installed as head of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. “That was very valuable.”
Few of Hollywood’s political organizations have had the influence — or the fundraising muscle — of the HWPC.
Formed in 1984 as a liberal entertainment industry counterpoint to the Reagan administration, HWPC rallied industry players to causes from abortion rights to environmental protection, especially by mustering political donations for candidates who supported their causes.
Criticized at times as politically naive — some politicians bristled at what seemed to be the group’s litmus test of liberal causes — it was hard to ignore its fundraising abilities.
In 1986, the group raised $1.5 million at a lavish and long-remembered fundraiser at the home of Barbra Streisand. In the election weeks later, the Democrats took back control of the Senate.
The group grew in its 13 years from initial membership of about 70 to more than 270, with names like Streisand, Jane Fonda, producer Paula Weinstein and Bergman on its roster.
The group had become an important source of money for hundreds of candidates and backers of ballot measures, raising nearly $7 million in its history through dozens of star-studded fetes. Even more money was raised through jointly sponsored events.
But by 1994 members of the group had grown frustrated by the sea of money flowing into campaigns, particularly “soft money” party donations that have no limits. The pace of raising money only worsened in 1996, according to some members.
The fundraising “has become a StairMaster out of control,” Tabankin said shortly after the group dissolved. “You just go, go, go, and never get anywhere.”
Says entertainment attorney Susan Grode, a founding member of HWPC, “It was hard to look at the statistics and really be comfortable. The community was really worn out, in every area.”
In recent election campaigns, some 60 to 70 candidates made their way to HWPC events. “It was hard to go to all of the fundraisers,” Marshall says. “But even harder was getting people to go. How many times can you ask? There’s got to be a better way.”
And in an age of Democrats masquerading as Republicans, it seemed tougher just to find candidates they could count on to mesh with their laundry list of liberal causes once they were elected. A prime example: The candidates who went on to back the welfare reform bill, to the dismay of many members of the group.
Their solution: disband. “We will no longer collaborate with a system that promotes buying and selling of political office,” their statement said.
The announcement drew dozens of newspaper and magazine articles. A CNN pundit declared the Democrats had lost a major part of its political backing. “This has to be the first time anyone in Hollywood has pulled out of anything because it was over budget,” Maureen Dowd mused in the New York Times.
Members of the group, however, vowed not to fade from the political scene, even if they are backing away from electoral races.
“A lot of us are looking for another way other than electoral politics,” Grode says. “There’s an enormous amount of talent in Hollywood, and the way you stay active is not necessarily through a checkbook.”
The net effect has been more time spent on charities and public-interest organizations. Grode has worked with groups such as Girls Inc., the Women’s Law Center and the Los Angeles Music Center, while Corday says she has been working for the Los Angeles Free Clinic, among other activities.
“I would rather write a check for $200 and in a second be able to feed 25 people than give to some congressional candidate I am not too excited about,” Corday says.
If a new group is formed, it is expected that it would tackle a series of issues such as the environment, children’s causes or campaign finance reform.
“Let’s put it this way: Many organizations come and go, just like individuals,” says veteran political consultant Joe Cerrell. “Somebody somewhere will fill the gap. It’s a loss and I don’t want to minimize it, but (candidates) will get by.”
Other groups like the Environmental Media Assn. and the Creative Coalition have remained in the Hollywood political limelight.
To be sure, no one doubts that the money will still flow, especially among corporate chieftains and media tycoons, some of whom are notorious for giving large contributions to both parties.
And even in the creative community, some HWPC members are talking about contributing on an individual basis to certain campaigns. Among the names mentioned for next year: U.S. Representatives George Miller (D-Calif.) and Jim McGovern (D-Mass). Even the possible 2000 presidential campaign of liberal Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) is generating talk. But for these politicos, seeking Hollywood money is expected to be more complex in the face of the void left by the end of the HWPC.
“Hollywood has always contributed, but in the last decade it was always in an organized fashion,” says Donna Bojarsky, public policy consultant to actor Richard Dreyfuss. “Some of that energy, focus and organization will be lost.”
Says Marshall: “I’m not sure if anything needs to fill the void. … The fundraising effort had been so massive and continuous, but the issues are more important than ever.”