When Oprah Winfrey hosted her giant fund-raiser for presidential candidate Barack Obama, the assumption was that her endorsement and financial heft would pose a challenge to Hillary Clinton’s support among women.
Based on polls, that hasn’t happened — at least not yet. But Winfrey’s endorsement did underscore a subtlety of the 2008 presidential race.
To the surprise of even Clinton loyalists, Hollywood women didn’t automatically gravitate to her campaign. The early flirtation with Obama was driven by his call for a new kind of politics as well as doubts over Clinton’s electability.
Even though many support Clinton — among those who have helped to raise money for her are Cheryl Saban, Carol Biondi and Megan Chernin — the list of women backers and donors still runs the gamut of candidates this election cycle.
In fact, on a recent trip in which Obama sought to reassure donors dispirited by his lagging poll numbers, he attended three fund-raisers co-hosted by prominent women in Hollywood: Kelly Meyer, a noted environmentalist and wife of Ron Meyer; Irena Medavoy, wife of producer Mike Medavoy; and the Gotham Group’s Ellen Goldsmith-Vein, who hosted her event with her husband, Jon. Obama’s campaign finance co-chair in California is music executive Nicole Avant, whose father, Clarence, is backing Clinton.
“I think that Hillary is an incredibly strong candidate,” Goldsmith-Vein says. But she adds she decided to support Obama because of “the things that he stands for: change, hope and the future of this country.”
John Edwards, meanwhile, has drawn supporters such as actresses Jean Smart and Madeleine Stowe. Those who have also co-hosted events for him are such industry figures as Heather Thomas Brittenham, and Laurie David, who have also given to other candidates.
Among the industry’s top studio executives, DreamWorks’ Stacey Snider has given to Clinton and Edwards, and Sony’s Amy Pascal has given to Obama.
Why the dispersed allegiances?
Part of it could be generational: The idea of a woman president isn’t so far-fetched if you are in your 20s and 30s. Older women, on the other hand, who might have broken the industry’s glass ceiling themselves, would likely have a stronger appreciation of the precedent-setting prospect of Hillary Clinton as president.
“As is true in the entire country, how you react to the idea of a woman president depends on your age,” Bojarsky says. “If you are 30, your environment has been much different than if you are 55.”
Among Clinton backers, political consultant Lara Bergthold notes, “I don’t know if the fact that she is a woman is even in the top five reasons they are supporting her.”
“There are multiple candidates this time,” says political consultant Donna Bojarsky. “More people are getting involved.
“Nobody has real animosity for the other team,” she adds. “That hasn’t always been true, and people do have their favorites. But I think people have a lot of respect for the whole field.”
Legacy of the HWPC
What’s more, women in Hollywood no longer have a central group through which to channel their energies and financial support.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the Hollywood Women’s Political Caucus wielded considerable influence, as it mustered donations for candidates who supported its causes. Among other things, its members helped campaign and raise money for the Democrats’ takeover of the Senate in 1986.
Many in the caucus threw their weight behind Bill Clinton after Dawn Steel hosted a fund-raiser in December 1991.
“They were able to channel all of their focus into the Clinton campaign,” Bojarsky says.
But after raising some $7 million for various candidates at star-studded fund-raisers, the group disbanded in 1997– frustrated at the political system’s over-emphasis on raising money. A series of fund-raising scandals and embarrassments came to light at the time, like the use of the Lincoln bedroom, that even led to congressional hearings.
“We will no longer collaborate with a system that promotes buying and selling of political office,” their statement said at the time.
As such, members of the group took to channeling their involvement into various individual causes, like the environment and poverty. Groups and causes like the Environmental Media Assn. and the Natural Resources Defense Council boast prominent Hollywood women in their ranks, and salons such as Brittenham’s Regime Change Cafe have been the centers of debate.
While such frequent industry fund-raisers as Ron Burkle, Haim Saban and Steve Bing draw much of the attention, the slate of so-called “bundlers” to candidates is actually more diverse this year than perhaps in years past.
The Pelosi factor
Undoubtedly, the 2008 presidential campaign has reignited Hollywood’s political involvement in general, in part because it constitutes an open seat and because the industry’s Democrats sense a real possibility of winning. Their hopes were boosted by the party’s gaining control of Congress last year and certainly Nancy Pelosi’s elevation as speaker of the House.
But lately the excitement over Obama’s campaign has diminished somewhat, while Clinton has taken commanding leads in polls in California and nationwide.
And Clinton’s campaign has tried to make the most of her image as an inspirational figure — especially to women in their 20s and 30s who are new to the political process — as a way to buffer notions that she is merely the establishment candidate. Clinton fund-raiser Christina Martin, 29, of Equity Strategic Relations, says that she was drawn to the “importance that we have our first woman president.”
The campaign has hosted events for young Hollywood, and, in October, sent out campaign surrogates to California to highlight Clinton’s experience on such issues as health care and gender equality.
“I have seen her win over the skeptics,” says Judy Lichtman, a senior adviser to the Clinton campaign who is regarded as the architect of the Family and Medical Leave Act. “And she does it because she is very real. What you see is what you get.”
Despite the polls, Goldsmith-Vein says it wasn’t difficult for her to find women to contribute to Obama for her fund-raiser; the difficulty was more in finding donors who hadn’t already given the maximum amount to a candidate.
“We’ll turn it around,” she says. “We’ve got plenty of time.”