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COVER STORY

Is There a Chill in the Air?

The Democrats' obsession with fund-raising pushed the Hollywood Women's Political Committee over the edge. What does its demise say about the entertainment industry's relationship with politics?

June 22, 1997|Robert W. Welkos | Robert W. Welkos is a Times staff writer

As a result of the pressure, the cheapest ticket prices were boosted to $2,500 and the top price was $25,000 per couple for those wishing to be included at a smaller dinner with the Clintons.

The event raised more than $4 million for the DNC, but it left a bitter taste for some participants.

A split developed within the women's committee when some members questioned how the group could in good conscience hand over $4 million after Clinton had signed the controversial welfare reform bill. But what could they do? others replied. The invitations had already gone out printed with the committee's name.

"You wanted to make a statement about it, but how do you make a statement when you say, 'Here, Mr. President. Here's $4 million, but we're mad at you because of this welfare reform thing," Bergthold said.

"The attendance wasn't 1,200 [as hoped for], it was 800, but we made a lot more money," she added. "It was the largest Democratic fund-raiser in Los Angeles history, but there were a lot of people who we would have liked to have been there who didn't go."

Bergthold said the committee didn't see fund-raisers as simple vehicles for collecting money, but a method of building political capital by energizing the Hollywood community to vote, support other candidates and become engaged on issues.

A few committee members even refused to buy tickets to their own gala. Entertainment attorney Susan Grode declined to state her reasons for not attending except to say, "I chose not to."

Reflecting on the influence of money in politics today, Grode said: "The things that we prize most about democracy no longer have become accessible to average citizens."

Party defenders say that the DNC had no alternative but to raise vast sums of "soft money" to avert losing the White House, a very real prospect after the GOP swept to power in Congress in 1994. This "soft money" can only be used for party-building activities such as voter registration drives. There is no limit on the amount of soft money individuals can give, but they can donate no more than $1,000 to a candidate each election.

The money raised by candidates in the 1995-96 cycle was staggering. The Federal Election Commission recently concluded that congressional candidates alone raised $790.5 million and spent $765.3 million, a 20% increase in receipts and 12% increase in expenditures from the presidential cycle of 1991-92.

In a computer study conducted last year by the Campaign Study Group of Springfield, Va., The Times found that the Southern California-based entertainment industry contributed at least $23.5 million to the major political parties, political action committees and candidates running for federal office from 1991 to mid-1996.

A sizable portion of Hollywood's PAC money comes from multinational corporations that run today's movie, TV and recording empires. This business side of Hollywood, as opposed to the predominantly liberal creative side, concentrates on pocketbook issues such as trade, regulation and copyrights and contributes to both Democrats and Republicans.

Hollywood has come under increasing attack from politicians of both parties for allegedly poisoning the nation's culture with high doses of violence and sex in films, TV shows and rap recordings. Congress has mandated that TVs come with "V-chips" so parents can prevent their children from seeing violent shows, pressured broadcasters to institute a ratings system and called for a TV "family hour."

Ironically, this bipartisan criticism comes at a time when the creative community feels it is being constantly hit on by politicians for campaign donations.

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A major factor in the Hollywood Women's Committee's decision to disband was finding candidates it could enthusiastically support. A case in point was Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), whom some members heartily endorsed while others regarded as barely a Democrat.

"There were a lot of reasons not to love her," one member said, "but we supported her because of [her stand on] choice."

Few politicians have feasted on Hollywood's largess as has Feinstein, whose various campaigns received nearly $600,000 between 1991 and mid-1996. But Feinstein often took independent stands (she supports the death penalty) that were at odds with some on the political left.

At the same time, candidates that the committee truly loved such as Sens. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), did not accept PAC money.

So, on Saturday morning, April 12, in the backyard garden of songwriter Marilyn Bergman's Beverly Hills home, the leaders of the Hollywood Women's Political Committee made the decision to disband. Ironically, it was the same setting where the group was born 13 years before.

As tears flowed, it was decided that they should immediately telephone Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). The committee had always supported Boxer, who faces a tough reelection battle in 1998.

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