Just a couple of years ago, the studios lobbied for a lower corporate tax rate. Now a number of their top executives are backing a 2020 presidential candidate, Kamala Harris, who wants to raise it.
Many high net worth individuals make up the industry’s big-dollar donor class, yet they are supporting Democratic contenders who say that the rich need to cough up more for Uncle Sam. As Hollywood donors, fundraisers and bundlers size up the emerging field of contenders, short-term self-interest so far has given way to a desire to remove Donald Trump from the White House. Any concerns that Democrats will go too far to the left in anti-corporate rhetoric or in making grand promises are secondary to finding the right candidate to take on the president in 2020.
“The issue isn’t corporate taxes, individual income taxes or Medicare for All,” says Mathew Littman, a political consultant and former speechwriter for Joe Biden. “The issue is Donald Trump. The No. 1 issue people talk about at all these events is ‘How can we get rid of Donald Trump? The second issue is ‘How do we get rid of Donald Trump?’”
This year Universal Filmed Entertainment Group chairman Jeff Shell hosted the first major industry fundraiser, for Harris, who has proposed not only a middle-class tax cut but also a plan to repeal most of the Trump tax reform law, including its dramatic drop in the corporate rate from 35% to 21%. By contrast, Comcast, the parent company of NBC-Universal, was a leading industry proponent for reducing the corporate rate in 2017.
“I don’t feel like the discourse now is granular to specific policies and issues,” says Ken Solomon, the president of the Tennis Channel and a longtime Democratic fundraiser and donor. Instead, he says, the focus has been on personal connections. “One of the big questions that folks out here are wrestling with is ‘Do I jump in now and support a candidate who I have supported in the past, or do I wait and see the process and who the right candidate might be?’”
Hollywood progressive donors have taken some pride in being “traitors” to their class, by backing candidates who want the wealthy to pay more or for corporations to bear more of the burden. When he ran for president, Barack Obama campaigned against the George W. Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, yet that hardly hurt him when it came to industry support. Fundraisers who worked on that campaign say donors rarely raised the issue.
The 2016 rivalry between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton was different. It highlighted fissures among Hollywood activists, who divided along the lines of populist versus pragmatist. Sanders supporters protested Clinton as she attended a high-dollar show biz fundraiser at the home of George Clooney.
Sanders himself took aim at The Walt Disney Co., contrasting the company’s corporate profits with the pay of its workers at Disney-land. Eventually, CEO Bob Iger, a longtime Democratic donor who backed Clinton, had enough of it. “To Bernie Sanders: We created 11,000 new jobs at Disneyland in the past decade and our company has created 18,000 in the U.S. in the last five years,” he wrote on Facebook. “How many jobs have you created? What have you contributed to the U.S. economy?”
This cycle, it’s not just Sanders but Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who is targeting individual corporations for demanding hefty incentives. In a tweet, she criticized Amazon for its decision to abandon plans to build a headquarters in Brooklyn, “all because some elected officials in New York aren’t sucking up to them enough. How long will we allow giant corporations to hold our democracy hostage?”
That populist rhetoric may not be music to the ears of entertainment executives, but it has resonance with the party’s base.
Lara Bergthold, principal partner at the political communications firm Rally, notes the shift by candidates to raising more money online from low-dollar contributors, as in the case of Sanders and Harris, who reaped millions from aggressive outreach in the first day of their campaigns. Those dollars tend to come from younger and more progressive contributors, Bergthold says, and candidates are mindful of appealing to those supporters.
“I don’t think it is out of step from where the party base is, and I don’t think the [high-dollar] donors are going to revolt against it,” she says.
Director-writer Adam McKay, who backed Sanders in the 2016 primary, sees taxing the rich and corporations as a solution to income inequality. He says he supports a proposal from Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, who wants a tax bracket as high as 70% for those who make more than $10 million.
“Clearly income inequality is out of control in the USA, and raising taxes and closing loopholes makes perfect sense,” he says.
Others believe that eventually, donors will pay greater attention to what is politically possible and what is a pipe dream. As more candidates enter the race, they will try to magnify the differences in their style, speeches and policies.
There are signs that it is already happening.
On March 20, the same night that Harris is headlining a fundraiser at the home of J.J. Abrams and Katie McGrath, UTA’s Jay Sures will host an event for another candidate, Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. She has established herself as a moderate in the race, if only because she has declined to go all in on such grand plans as Medicare for All and free college tuition.
“She’s giving realistic, honest answers to these very tough issues,” Sures says. “I think that’s what people are responding to. She’s offering solutions that are brutally honest and achievable and not pie in the sky. That’s why people believe she’s got a chance.”
Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.