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Apolitical Fund-Raisers : Primary in L.A. Is Race for Money

June 18, 1987|JOHN BALZAR | Times Political Writer

Irving Azoff, president of MCA music, recently held a fund-raiser at his Beverly Hills home and donated the legal maximum $1,000 to the presidential campaign of Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del). It was hardly unusual for Azoff, who in the past has given thousands of dollars to other Democrats nationally, in California and locally.

But by his own reckoning, Azoff's connection to politics is just casual. He is not even registered to vote.

Developer Albert H. Gersten Jr. also belongs to the Beverly Hills political aristocracy so intensely courted by money-hungry candidates. When he agreed to help bankroll Gary Hart's now-abandoned presidential campaign, Gersten turned to people who were there to please Al Gersten, never mind Hart--Gersten's family, Gersten's employees, his driver and his jet pilot, and business associates all the way down to his travel agent.

Different Type of Party

Money and the curious world of privilege from which it comes are the consuming truths these days of presidential politics in Los Angeles. Here, political party does not mean Democrat or Republican, but caviar and champagne. Here, the most important names on invitations are not the candidates'.

Never mind the teeming modern-day immigrant melting pot Los Angeles. Candidates for national office almost never venture near it. And never mind Los Angeles the gateway to the fabled Pacific Rim. Candidates have no time for this either. The wealthy donors have come to completely dominate the process in California to the exclusion of old-fashioned campaigning.

For California's 12.1 million voters, the presidential primary is still a year away. But there is another full-blown primary under way right now--the race for the money on the Westside of Los Angeles.

Relatively Few Big Donors

The city's top professional fund- raisers agree that truly important donors in Los Angeles number as few as 5,000--including Hollywood (heavily Democratic), the international business and finance center (heavily Republican) and developers (both parties). Combined, they may produce up to 20% or maybe even 25% of the individual contributions for presidential primary campaigns and major U.S. Senate elections, according to various estimates.

For all the high stakes, however, the world of the big-money donor is often surprisingly remote from the give-and-take of electioneering.

"Contributors in this state have almost no relationship whatsoever with practical politics," says Assembly Speaker Willie Brown.

To be sure, there are important bankrollers seeking, in time-honored fashion, to protect their special interests, whether U.S. support to Israel or entertainment royalties from television reruns. And there are the high-minded ideologues who view politics in parlor globalisms of left versus right.

But just as often, the brotherhood of donors includes screenwriters trying to sidle up to producers, philanthropists repaying friends who helped in some charity cause and society climbers who can pay $500 or $1,000 and get named in the Political Registry even if they cannot make the Social Registry.

"Half the people at a given event come for the candidate or the cause, the other half to schmooze--because their business partner told them to come or their agent told them it would be a good idea to be seen there," says Tom Hayden, the Democratic assemblyman from Santa Monica who has a unique window on the Westside/Hollywood fund-raising scene, thanks to his marriage to Jane Fonda.

'Makes the Event'

"It's clearly who is doing the asking that makes the event," agrees Robert L. Burkett, political assistant to multimillionaire movie and TV producer Ted Field, a major contributor to Biden. "It's clear to me that, if I call someone up and say it's important to Ted and me, they will come through, where some staff person for Joe Biden could make the same call and they wouldn't get through, and if they did they couldn't sell it."

No one is more aware of the blase political detachment of donors than the donors themselves.

When Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) arrived in Los Angeles last February for his estimated $250,000 fund-raiser, it alarmed a high-riding liberal activist group, the Hollywood Women's Political Committee. The group, made up mostly of entertainers, entertainment executives and lawyers who raised $2 million for Democratic Senate candidates in six states in the last election, purchased a full-page ad in Variety warning Bradley donors, presumably otherwise oblivious to the senator's record, that Bradley voted last year to provide financial assistance to the Nicaraguan contras .

Clout of Hosts

But the pressure to contribute was tremendous because of the clout of the dinner sponsors--Disney studio chairman Michael Eisner and talent agency chief Michael Ovitz, two of the most important movie-package deal makers in town.

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