Hollywood stars and industry moguls greeted Barack Obama on Tuesday at an event that raised much-needed millions and provided initial indications that some of entertainment’s strident Hillary Clinton supporters are falling in line behind his candidacy.
Before a crowd of about 700 people at the Los Angeles Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Obama praised his one-time rival and the groundbreaking nature of her campaign.
“Because of her campaign my daughters can take for granted that a woman can be president,” Obama said at the event, marking his first visit to Los Angeles since becoming the presumptive Democratic nominee.
He noted that the bruising primaries caused “some heartburn and some aggravation,” but “Hillary Clinton and I agree on 99% of the issues. … We may have had different styles in terms of how we want to move the party, but we were allies then and we are allies now.”
Guests paid $2,300 per person for tickets, and the more well-heeled donors shelled out $28,500 per couple for a pre-reception dinner. Several organizers said the event was expected to raise about $5 million.
Obama capitalized on the entertainment industry’s avid interest in environmental causes by taking aim at John McCain’s energy policy, including his support of a gas tax and of coastal oil drilling.
“I know that John McCain thinks having oil rigs along the California coast is a good idea,” Obama said of his rival, who appeared in Santa Barbara earlier on Tuesday to unveil his own energy agenda.
The mix of celebrity and politics at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion drew more interest than normal from the political and entertainment press, some lined up in front of the venue as if there were a red carpet.
Among those attending the dinner for about 220 people were Will.i.am (wearing Nikes with Obama’s image), Dennis Quaid, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, Kal Penn, Steven Bochco, Sugar Ray Leonard and Zooey Deschanel, as well as industry names like Barry Meyer, Jim Wiatt, J.J. Abrams, Jay Roach, Tom Rothman, Michael Lynton, Amy Pascal, Lawerence Bender, Mike and Irena Medavoy, Hank Steinberg, Ted Field, Chris Silbermann, Paula Weinstein, Eric Paquette, Jamie Denenberg and Obama’s Southern California finance co-chairs, Nicole Avant and Charles Rivkin. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, once a relentless Clinton supporter, also attended the dinner.
Even with the notable names, the event was of a lower key than might be expected. Instead of going into the venue’s concert hall, guests stood around a makeshift stage in the venue’s second-floor reception area, an elegant room of chandelier and columns covered in gold mosaic. Penn, Quaid and Cheadle delivered brief remarks before Seal took the stage and sang two songs, including Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” to near perfection.
Given Hollywood’s affinity for Democratic causes, few doubt Obama will be able to draw Clinton’s supporters, even as McCain makes a play for some of her top donors and fund raisers. For instance, music industry legends Berry Gordy and Clarence Avant, who had co-hosted a fund-raiser for Clinton in September, were on the guest list for Obama’s event.
The question, however, is to what level of enthusiasm her donors will work for Obama, whether through fund-raising or out on the campaign trail.
John Emerson, the chairman of the Los Angeles Music Center, who was one of Clinton’s chief fund-raisers in Los Angeles, has been raising money for Obama, whom he and his wife Kimberly hosted at their home for a book party before he began his presidential bid.
Another big Clinton backer, Rob Reiner, who stumped for her in a handful of primary states, visited Obama’s Chicago headquarters over the weekend to meet with some of his policy advisers. Reiner was on a family vacation and could not attend Obama’s event, but his political consultant, Chad Griffin, was there, as was another Clinton fund raiser and political consultant, Noah Mamet.
And Steven Spielberg, who had endorsed Clinton, is planning to host a fund-raiser for Obama later this year along with his partners in DreamWorks, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg.
Others have expressed a desire to decompress after Clinton’s loss, or are waiting to speak or meet with Obama one-on-one. Some are perhaps waiting for more cues from Clinton herself.
On a conference call Tuesday, Obama asked some of his fund-raisers across the country to help retire her campaign debt. On Thursday, Clinton and Obama are scheduled to appear in Washington to meet with some of her top fundraisers, before campaigning in New Hampshire on Friday.
One of her top money men, Haim Saban, was not present at the Los Angeles fund-raiser, and did not plan to attend the Thursday gathering. Sources, however, cautioned not to read too much into it, citing a scheduling conflict, and hinted that he would end up supporting the Democratic candidate.
With a huge fund-raising advantage in the industry over McCain, there is little doubt Obama will dominate. At the end of April, when he was still competing for dollars with Hillary Clinton, he had raised more than $4 million, compared with just $636,000 for the Arizona senator, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Nevertheless, the GOP made note of Obama’s high-profile event, tying it to his decision to opt out of general election public financing.
Republican National Committee spokesman Alex Conant said in a statement, “Barack Obama broke his promise to the public so that he could raise millions from Hollywood’s rich and famous. He may have a few good lines, but Obama is a typical politician straight from central casting.”
Obama’s fund-raiser was slightly less star-studded than a fete that John Kerry hosted at the Music Center in June, 2004. For that event, a splashy display of comic acts and performances by the likes of Billy Crystal and Barbra Streisand, Kerry eventually came under criticism from Republicans for being too associated with the entertainment community.
But others have suggested that there is a different reason that Obama is trying to keep it cool when it comes to celebrity: He is a star himself, and thus doesn’t need a host of famous names to inspire donors to write checks. The amount raised seemed to prove the point.