Hollywood's Next Political Crush
After eight years of Bush, the stars came out for Obama. But will they stay engaged—and financially active—in the next campaign? California’s top Democrats are about to find out.
President Barack Obama’s numbers have plummeted in the national polls, and Democrats in many parts of the country are increasingly wary about his approach to Afghanistan and whether he can clear the health-care hurdles. But if there’s one place where Democrats are still warmly embracing him, it’s Hollywood—whose liberal leaders, despondent after eight years of the Bush administration, found in Obama a reason to care about national politics again.
With the president safely ensconced on Pennsylvania Ave., Tinseltown’s creative community is looking for new outlets for its political energy—and considerable stores of campaign cash. They’ve found an early favorite in San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who’s running for California’s governorship in 2010. But Hollywood’s loyalties will soon be tested, as another Democratic heavyweight—former Governor and current Attorney General Jerry Brown—took a big step closer to entering the race.
Newsom, a 41-year-old Twitter-crazy pol (he recently tweeted his wife's childbirth) blessed with a chiseled jawline and head of impossibly thick and glossy hair, has a head start in winning hearts and minds in Hollywood; he became the national poster boy for gay marriage when, in 2004, he unilaterally decided to authorize city officials to perform marriages for same-sex couples and grant them legal status. His decision helped drive the debate that resulted in the state passing Proposition 8, which restricted the definition of marriage to men and women. The decision, a defeat for Newsom and the gay community, did have a galvanizing effect, though—keeping the issue, and Newsom’s leadership on it, very much alive. He is “one of the LGBT heroes right now,” says producer Bruce Cohen, a Newsom supporter, who met the mayor on the set of Milk, Cohen’s Oscar-winning film about famed gay-rights activist and San Francisco pol Harvey Milk. “He let us use City Hall, he offered to let us shoot in his office,” said Cohen. “It was a great experience, and, through that, I got to know him, and it increased by admiration for him.”
Lately, Newsom’s been reminding Hollywood honchos of his work on gay marriage, as he’s made the rounds at all the major talent agencies and at dinners hosted by entertainment machers such as attorney Craig Jacobson and Ben Silverman, the former co-chairman of NBC, whose production company is based at IAC/Interactive Corp. (which owns The Daily Beast). On Oct. 5, Newsom will be appearing with former President Clinton at an event at the Biltmore Hotel. The only thing it seems Newsom hasn’t done during his L.A. tour is make a cameo appearance on Entourage.
Along the way, he’s picked up supporters such as Ari Emanuel (brother of Obama’s White House chief of staff, Rahm), co-CEO of William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, and ICM president Chris Silbermann. CAA partner Kevin Huvane is also a supporter, as is Michael Kives, a young, politically minded agent at CAA (he worked on the staffs of both Clintons before coming to Hollywood), who raised more than $300,000 for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 bid for the presidency; now, Kives is tapping his Rolodex on behalf of Newsom.
Newsom does have some blemishes that could hurt him among some in the industry. There’s the affair he had with his former campaign manager’s wife. There is the stint he did in rehab for alcohol abuse. And for some, there may be a question of gravitas; is a tweet-happy guy who likes to hang with the cool kids—Silverman has introduced Newsom to his pals Ryan Seacrest, Chelsea Handler, and The Soup host Joel McHale—what’s really needed, in a state that’s teetering on the brink of bankruptcy?
Those questions give Brown an opening in courting Hollywood’s brass. His bond with the community is strong, deep, and long-lived, built during the1970s, when his relationship with singer Linda Ronstadt, early environmentalism, and staunch support for the arts helped earn him the nickname “Governor Moonbeam.” Brown was beating Newsom in the polls and among donors even before he filed papers to explore a bid for governor this week. Considering that much of the Hollywood old guard are expected to endorse him (blockbuster donors David Geffen, Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg already have), Newsom needs to work fast.
Hence, Newsom is “hustling, he’s trying to raise money, in order to be taken seriously as a candidate,” said Donna Bojarsky, a political consultant who works with actor Richard Dreyfuss. “And if you’re from San Francisco, which is smaller than L.A., you have to show that you’ve got statewide support. L.A. is where most of the money is.”
Whatever success Newsom is having, however, Bojarsky isn’t sure it will ultimately be enough, given the Brown factor. “I think there’ll be a Gavin boomlet,” she said. “I think there’s some activity around him right now, but when Jerry Brown starts campaigning, he’ll be formidable.”
There’s another candidate who has been busy wooing Hollywood this season: Kamala Harris, the San Francisco district attorney, who’s campaigning to be the state’s attorney general. The city’s first black D.A., she’s sometimes referred to as “the female Barack Obama”—which might help spark happy memories of last fall among donors.
“She, I think, will, and should win,” Universal Studios President and COO Ron Meyer said recently, explaining that he first became acquainted with Harris, a law-and-order liberal, when he heard her speak at a political lunch organized at Universal. Meyer said he went out of courtesy, but by the end, he “thought she was just the real deal” and went up to her and said: “How can I help you?” Last month, Meyer co-hosted a fundraiser for Harris at his Malibu home, something, he noted, that he only done for one other politician: Barack Obama.
Harris’ ties to Obama are not incidental, however. She was a top state organizer for Obama (the two became friends through law circles), and her brother-in-law, Tony West, was co-chairman of Obama’s fundraising campaign, raising $65 million in California for the president-elect. Oh, and her niece, Meena Harris—also active in the O campaign—worked at Facebook before recently enrolling in graduate school at Harvard. Unsurprisingly, Harris is a major presence on the social-networking site (she has 15,000-plus supporters).
Will Hollywood’s royalty open their purses and wallets as avidly this season as they did when Obama himself was on the ballot? According to Silverman, not everyone’s dying to contribute to new campaigns coming so closely on the heels of the last one. “I think there’s a hangover effect,” he said. “A lot of people are like, ‘I already gave at the door.’ It’s actually hard to engage everyone because they were so Barack-focused… It’s hard to get people to focus on anything but Barack when it comes to politics, because he’s the biggest star in the world.”
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.