Obama courts Latino Hollywood

Fundraising targets prominent leaders

President Obama is courting a growing showbiz power base: Latinos.

He’ll need them not just for their money, but for their visibility.

In what his reelection campaign says is the first official Latino fundraiser for Obama’s candidacy, the President is scheduled to be at an event Oct. 24 hosted by Eva Longoria and a team that includes TV personality Giselle Fernandez, Puerto Rican attorney Andres W. Lopez, Texas designer and architect Henry R. Munoz and Illinois attorney Manuel “Manny” Sanchez. With tickets starting at $5,000 per person, according to the invite, the event is aimed at supporters nationwide, but it undoubtedly will have a showbiz flair: It’s at the Hancock Park-area home of Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas.

The campaign’s finance team was optimistic enough to add another event: a $35,800-per-person dinner at the home of producer James Lassiter and his wife Mai, with his business partner Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith among the co-hosts.

The fundraising focus on Latinos mirrors what the campaign did in 2008: expand the base of showbiz donors to include young professionals and African Americans, among others, in the industry.

While these events will undoubtedly boost campaign coffers, the role of showbiz inevitably will come down to one of enthusiasm. Latino and Hispanic voters proved critical for Obama’s election victory, with roughly two-thirds of that voting bloc going to the president. Latinos made the difference for Democrats in the 2010 victories of Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Harry Reid (D-Nev.) during a Republican juggernaut.

Yet polls indicate that support for Obama among Hispanics has dropped – a Gallup Tracking Poll from September showed his approval rating in the demographic at 48%, down from 75% at the start of his term. Some Latino and immigration rights groups have been vocal in their disappointment at the failure to pass an immigration reform law that would allow for a legal path to citizenship – and are calling on the White House to take bolder action.

What Obama has done is try to engage prominent Latinos, including Hollywood celebrities, in showing that he is still focused on crafting a way to pass immigration reform, and supportive of bills like the Dream Act, but that pressure has to be on Republicans in Congress. In April, Obama met at the White House with a group that included Longoria, America Ferrera, radio host Eddie (Piolin) Sotelo, “Sabado Gigante” host Don Francisco and Voto Latino executive director Maria Teresa Kumar. Earlier this month, Obama named the singer Shakira to an education commission. At the very least the hope is that their visibility will help “reframe” the debate, and prove potent in getting out the vote.

Kumar tells Variety that Voto Latino, which is nonpartisan, plans to deploy celebrities in ever-more sophisticated ways in the coming cycle, having enlisted co-founder Rosario Dawson, Jessica Alba, Jennifer Lopez, Common and Wilmer Valderrama in get-out-the-vote efforts and other initiatives in recent campaign cycles. The plan is to assign celebrities to different regions of the country, with a focus on issues like jobs and education as a way to engage potential voters via appearances on morning radio and TV talkshows. What they bring is a way to cut through the caustic political landscape, Kumar says. “As long as they communicate in an authentic way, (voters) respond,” she adds. “That is why we are so excited to use celebrities. They can make it personal. They can talk about their own experiences.”

The challenges, Kumar says, will not just be in the passage of new restrictions on voter registration in more than a dozen states following Republican gains in statehouses last year, but in making a compelling case to give voters a reason to get to the polls. The message will be nuanced. Since Obama came to office, about 1.1 million immigrants have been deported, she notes.

“How do I convince a first-time voter in 2008 to go back and vote if they have had a loved one deported?” she asks.

The campaign said Longoria would not be available for interviews, but after her White House visit she told reporters, “We like to blame Obama for the inaction, but he can’t just disobey the law that’s written.”

The criticism of Obama still may be more of a pressure point than a sign of turning away. By focusing on the economy, Republicans are anxious to peel away at significant Latino support going to Democrats, but the hardline illegal immigration stances on display in debates have some have party strategists fretting how realistic that is.

Given the names involved in the Oct. 24 event, some prominent Latinos are still inspired by Obama’s outreach, what his presidency represents and are ready to go to work again for him even if some signature initiatives are incomplete. Comedian George Lopez went on Fox News recently and called Obama “our first Latino president.” Despite a few one-liners that went with it, it wasn’t just a joke.

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