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Truce Flag Out as Hollywood Takes Role in '96 Elections

Politics: Potshots at entertainment industry take a back seat to political realities as candidates plan L.A. fund-raisers. Studios and networks often hedge bets with donations.

February 05, 1996|ELAINE DUTKA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Washington-Hollywood axis was strained in the past year, with more potshots directed at the entertainment industry than at any time since the blacklist era. But with the California Primary less than two months away, those battles have taken a back seat to election-year realities.

Democrats are in the fund-raising mode, organizing large-scale events to reelect President Clinton and "Take Back the House." Producing star-studded public service announcements promoting voter registration, they're also going high-tech on "fax networks" and the Internet.

Republicans acknowledge that they face considerable hurdles penetrating a traditionally Democratic bastion. But with the passage of the telecommunications bill and Clinton's embrace of the controversial V-chip in his State of the Union address, they expect to make inroads of their own.

"There's no shortage of candidates, Democratic or Republican, coming here every day with their hands out," says Andy Spahn, a political consultant to the DreamWorks SKG trio of David Geffen, Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg--each of whom donated more than $100,000 to the Democratic National Committee in 1994-1995. "Public posturing is very different from the reality."

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Money holds the key to victory, and in that department Hollywood reigns supreme. The Los Angeles area--bolstered by the entertainment industry-laden West Side--is generally No. 1 or 2 in the nation when it comes to political fund-raising. In September, a $1,000-a-plate Century Plaza fund-raiser hosted by Tom Hanks funneled more than $1 million to the Clinton campaign.

Like the rest of corporate America, studios and networks often hedge their bets when it comes to political contributions, donating to candidates on both sides of the aisle. Self-interest, rather than ideology, predominates.

In 1995, when Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) took his digs at Hollywood, the Walt Disney Co. Employees' Political Action Committee contributed $4,000 to his reelection campaign. Like PACs at Time Warner and Columbia Pictures, the studio also gave liberally to the campaign of Sen. Larry Pressler (R-South Dakota), chairman of the strategically important telecommunications conference committee.

Individually, political preference comes more into play--though here, too, some interesting dichotomies arise. In 1994, News Corp. Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch gave to super-liberal Ted Kennedy as well as to right-wing California Senatorial aspirant Michael Huffington. Ten days after Spielberg donated $100,000 to the gubernatorial campaign of Kathleen Brown, he gave $50,000 to her opponent, Gov. Pete Wilson, who was present at the DreamWorks Playa Vista news conference this past December.

Geffen, regarded as Clinton's point person when it comes to raising Hollywood money, contends that the President is stronger than in the '92 campaign.

"The Republican rhetoric makes it easier this year since the message is out and the differences are clear," says the mogul, who co-hosted a $2-million fund-raiser at Spielberg's home last April and is considering another this year. "Though the President targeted Hollywood, there's no Clinton backlash in the industry ranks. People realize that anyone calling for more responsibility in the records, movies and TV we turn out is on the side of the angels."

Though segments of the liberal establishment found fault with some parts of the President's record, the 1994 midterm Republican victory served as a wake-up call, says Lara Bergthold, executive director of the high-profile Hollywood Women's Political Committee, which is planning two fund-raisers this year.

"In the early days, some hoped to go further with a Democratic President and a Democratic Congress," she acknowledges. "But the grumbling stopped after the '94 election demonstrated the nastiness of the Republican agenda. Feeling disenchanted is a waste of time when the alternative is so ugly."

The "alternative" has been distorted by the outbursts of a few, counters California Rep. Sonny Bono (R-La Quinta).

"Dole's blatant anti-Hollywood statements have created a big separation between the party and the community that will take a long time to undo," says Bono, whose Entertainment Task Force is trying to bridge that gap. "If Dole hits any harder, we lose California. Clinton is a natural campaigner--a performer, a used car salesman--while Dole is monotonous. That plus the party perception makes it an uphill battle."

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Charlton Heston introduced Phil Gramm at last February's Dallas fund-raiser kicking off the senator's Presidential bid--an effort to which Kevin Costner donated $1,000 the month before, according to Federal Election Commission records. Still, according to Republican insiders, none of the GOP candidates has managed to establish a firm Hollywood base.

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