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Hollywood Democrats Will Turn Out for Biden, But Few Are Ready to Commit to a Candidate

When Joe Biden made one of his first treks to Hollywood for his last presidential race, in 2007, his fundraising had been paltry, he was having trouble getting donors’ attention, and much of showbiz was siding either with the presumed front runner, Hillary Clinton, or the historic upstart, Barack Obama. 

“I haven’t asked for anything in 20 years, and I am coming into this at a moment when the klieg lights are on, and instead of seeing Batman and Superman up there, it is Hillary and Barack,” Biden told Variety back then. “So it is going to take a little time.”

On Wednesday, the showbiz spotlight finally will be on Biden as a presidential candidate when he holds his first Hollywood-centric fundraisers since getting into the 2020 race. As early and recent polls show him leading all other candidates, it’ll be a much different scenario than 12 years ago. 

A who’s who of Hollywood’s longtime Democratic political class has signed on for an evening reception at the home of James Costos, a former HBO executive and U.S. Ambassador to Spain, and Michael Smith, the designer, with tickets priced at $2,800 per person and 200 guests expected. Earlier in the day, Biden will be at a lunchtime event at the home of Joe Waz and Cynthia Telles, and he will attend a public event later in the afternoon with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. Other fundraising meetings were said to be in the works. 

Biden’s campaign is tapping a network of donors and fundraisers who raised millions for the Obama-Biden ticket. They include Costos and Smith, Jeffrey Katzenberg and his wife Marilyn, producer Ellen Goldsmith-Vein and Jon Vein, producers Bradley Bell and Colleen Bell, former U.S. Ambassador to Hungary; producer-manager Eric Ortner and Tennis Channel president Ken Solomon. Rufus Gifford, who was finance director of the Obama reelection in 2012 and later U.S. Ambassador to Denmark, also is a co-host along with his husband, Stephen DeVincent.

The one difference is that this year, showbiz figures are taking their time to commit to one candidate. Jeffrey Katzenberg, who hosted Biden for an event for his political action committee last October, has co-hosted for Kamala Harris and will do so for Cory Booker, who has a fundraiser planned for May 29. Even the hosts of Biden’s big event, James Costos and Michael Smith, also are hosts of the Booker event.

A lot has to do with longtime personal relationships that donors have with individual candidates that extend back to prior congressional campaigns or, in Booker’s case, his days as the prominent mayor of Newark. But the sheer number of candidates — 23 and counting — also has made potential donors a bit more hesitant to commit, at least until the contours of the race are clearer. A number of donors say that they are looking to the first Democratic debate for clarity. 

“The lines have been somewhat clear in past primaries. With fewer candidates, everyone’s favorite parlor game was seeing which Hollywood mogul or business titan lined up with whom,” said Solomon. “It was not exactly a brain teaser. Now everyone is dying to see the psychology dynamics in motion.”

He added, “It’s wide open, and in our little but loud world, where every move is being watched, the buzz is growing louder by the day, some just one, but many spreading their bets. All do agree on one thing: This is a must-win election, no matter the eventual candidate.” 

Donna Bojarsky, the Los Angeles-based political consultant, said that “people are still narrowing down their choices,” and she too hasn’t committed to backing one candidate. Since he announced, though,“Biden is coming into sharper relief. More people are talking about Biden. People were waiting to see how he came in.” 

She said that Biden has a “reservoir of good will” built through his years as Vice President and before that as one of the longest serving members of the Senate. At one of a number of events he headlined in L.A. during the Obama presidency, at the home of HBO executive Michael Lombardo and his partner, architect Sonny Ward, in 2012, Biden privately revealed that he favored same-sex marriage. He recalled the meeting several weeks later on “Meet the Press.” That sent Obama’s team scrambling, and the president revealed his own support days later.

On the business side, Biden also was involved in two key issues for the industry — copyright infringement and trade. He held several White House events to address the problems of online piracy, especially with the suspicion that the administration was too pro-Google. On trade, Biden led negotiations in 2012 with Xi Jinping, then vice president of China, to increase China’s film quota. The move helped soothe industry anger at the Obama administration after it had refused to support a major piece of anti-piracy legislation, the Stop Online Piracy Act, earlier that year.

As big of a show as Biden has made in the early weeks of his campaign, other candidates are still enjoying healthy support from Hollywood. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who collected more from showbiz than any other candidate in the first quarter, before Biden was in the race, is planning a number of events later this month, including one co-hosted by Peter Chernin. 

If there is an emerging split in showbiz, it’s between backers of Biden or other Democratic contenders, and those of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has shunned the splashy fundraising scene. Biden’s backers believe he’s a heavyweight who can “land the plane,” as one supporter described it, after the tumult of Trump. Some of Sanders showbiz supporters doubt Biden’s chances, and dismiss him as not the kind of figure of change the moment needs.

“Free slogan for Joe Biden’s campaign: ‘You’ve heard my name before,’” writer-director Adam McKay wrote on Twitter. But like other donors, he’s also backing other contenders, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

Others wonder if the 2020 race calls for a generational shift, and no other candidate who fits that bill is getting more attention at the moment than Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana. He has been meeting with studio moguls and celebrity figures such as Oprah Winfrey, and the recent buzz around his candidacy has helped jump start a fundraising blitz. 

He has four events planned on Thursday, including one at the home of Gwyneth Paltrow and writer-producer Brad Falchuk, and another at West Hollywood nightspot The Abbey. He, too, will hold a public event with Garcetti, at SEIU Local 99, to support a ballot measure to raise the parcel tax for Los Angeles schools. Buttigieg also is planning another trip to L.A. in June, with another series of fundraisers, including one at the home of Ryan Murphy and David Miller. 

Skip Paul, senior adviser at Centerview Partners and a pioneer in the video game business, said that there is a stark difference to this cycle versus previous ones, as donors scrutinize the field carefully, weighing who can take on Trump.

“It feels very different because the stakes are so much higher. None of us has had this experience before. We have looked into the abyss, and what stares back has orange hair….This is what happens when people aren’t motivated to vote in large numbers.”

Paul supports Biden, Harris and Buttigieg, and he probably will give to other candidates as well.

“People are really interested in the field,” he said. “They are really interested in producing a candidate out of this process who has the highest possibility of defeating Trump.” 

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