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How Pete Buttigieg Became a Fundraising Star in Hollywood

Pete Buttigieg Fundraising
CJ GUNTHER/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Pete Buttigieg is not quite a top-tier candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. But in Hollywood, the 37-year-old gay mayor of South Bend, Ind., has already become the campaign’s breakout star.

Buttigieg raised $24.8 million in the second quarter, leading the Democratic field. Among his contributors were David Geffen, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Aniston and Barbra Streisand.

He will return to Los Angeles on July 25 for a series of fundraisers, including a lunch hosted by former Ambassador Nicole Avant, wife of Netflix content chief Ted Sarandos. In the evening, he’ll be at the home of NBCUniversal international chairman Kevin MacLellan, along with co-hosts Ellen DeGeneres, Sean Hayes and Chelsea Handler.

The Buttigieg campaign has made Hollywood a priority, working closely with consultant John Gile and publicist Simon Halls to make inroads. As the first credible gay candidate for president, he has been able to tap into a network of gay donors, many of whom see his candidacy as a major milestone on the march to LGBTQ equality.

According to a Los Angeles Times analysis, Buttigieg raised $402,000 from the entertainment community in the second quarter, ahead of both California Sen. Kamala Harris, at $280,000, and former Vice President Joe Biden, who entered the race in late April and has raised $170,000 in Hollywood. 

Supporters say the affinity goes deeper than Buttigieg’s identity.

“He has hit a nerve,” says Rick Jacobs, a veteran Los Angeles political adviser. “You don’t raise that kind of money if something isn’t resonating.”

His supporters sometimes compare him to Barack Obama, seeing a reasonable, polished communicator who speaks of uniting a divided country. Buttigieg also comes to the campaign with a relatively light résumé, which many see as a virtue.

“What Buttigieg does is thoughtful — it feels fresh and authentic,” says Lena Kennedy, a fundraiser who bundled contributions for Obama and Hillary Clinton. “It feels that he has the capacity to pull our country to a place of healing.”

Hope Warschaw, another Clinton and Obama bundler, attended a Buttigieg fundraiser in May at the home of Brian Goldsmith.

“We all think he deserved money to keep his campaign going,” she says. “He’s one of the smartest people in the race, and the freshest face.”

Rival campaigns have not really taken aim at Buttigieg. In private, they compliment his talents and suggest he will become an important leader — in a few more years.

Many of his supporters are hedging their bets, giving to Biden, Harris, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and other campaigns as well.

“People are taking a wait-and-see attitude,” says casting director Tammy Billik, who is co-hosting a Buttigieg fundraiser at the home of Ease Entertainment Services partners Mike Rose and Ruben Rodriguez, also on July 25. “Whether it’s Biden or Kamala or Warren or Pete, everybody wants to see who rises up there. Everybody is going to get behind that person.”

For now, though, Billik is urging her friends to give to Buttigieg. She notes his military experience in Afghanistan, and says he does not seem “too far left” to be elected. “He appeals to people both straight and gay and feels like somebody we could see in the White House, whether it’s 2020 or 2028,” she says.

The LGBTQ community is used to giving money to straight candidates who support their causes. Seeing a viable gay candidate is a watershed.

“It’s an affirmation of a lot of work that a lot of people did,” says Howard Bragman, founder of LaBrea Media. “He’s got a huge career. He’s going to make a lot of money speaking, doing public appearances, books.  … I think Pete has won already.

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