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California and the West

Clinton Fund-Raiser to Focus on Regaining House

Politics: Impeachment battle kindled Hollywood's interest in aiding Democrats as they try to win control of Congress.

May 14, 1999|MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

When President Clinton comes calling this weekend, the Hollywood scene will be as familiar as a favorite old movie: same plot, same cast and same opulent set.

The difference is at the box office: All the money raised will go toward Democratic efforts to win back control of Congress.

Hollywood has long been a regular fund-raising stop for White House hopefuls, the place where star makers and office seekers converge at the intersection of celebrity and self-interest. Now, after the bitterly partisan fight over impeachment, some of the entertainment industry's leading luminaries have for the first time set their sights on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, on Capitol Hill, where Republicans cling to a shaky five-vote margin in the House of Representatives.

The estimated $2 million that Democrats expect to raise Saturday night in Beverly Hills is just a sneak preview of what promises to be a major and unprecedented Hollywood investment in congressional contests nationwide. Already, the line of would-be benefactors snakes around the block.

"I think you're going to see shuttle flights to the West Coast from Washington over the next year," said Jim Margolis, a Democratic campaign strategist. "This is where an awful lot of the money is that's going to fund House races and challenges to Republicans across the country."

The presidential scolding delivered earlier this week at a White House summit on youth violence has seemingly done little to dampen Hollywood's enthusiasm for the Saturday night social, with its admission price of $25,000 to $100,000 per couple. More than 100 guests have already committed, including Meg Ryan, Dennis Quaid, Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Whoopi Goldberg and Ed Burns.

If anything, Clinton is seen as a friendly intermediary, standing between his backers in the entertainment field and more antagonistic elements in Washington.

"He has a track record of working with the industry," said Donna Bojarsky, a Democratic activist with long-standing Hollywood ties. "I think people perceive him as a potential partner to work with on these issues, not someone exploiting them for short-term political gain."

Aside from a famous senator here or favored House member there, congressional candidates have rarely drawn the sort of celebrity attention lavished on presidential hopefuls. (As a mogul on the move, wouldn't you rather schmooze in the Lincoln bedroom than schlep around the Longworth House Office Building?)

"Most of the big donors and celebrity types . . . they were only interested in rubbing shoulders with senators and with presidential candidates," said Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy of Rhode Island, who heads the Democrats' congressional campaign arm and helped organize Saturday's swank fund-raiser at Beverly Hills' Greystone Estate. "It was a whole lot sexier."

Impeachment changed all that.

For many activists in left-leaning Hollywood, the Republicans' anti-Clinton crusade was a revelation. For Democratic congressional candidates, it was a godsend.

"It really showed what having a majority in the Congress means," said Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist with close ties to Hollywood and Capitol Hill. "When people saw the speaker of the House has this enormous power . . . to say what gets up for a vote and what doesn't, they were blown away. As a consequence, they're very much interested in seeing the House go back to the Democrats."

Andy Spahn, a spokesman for DreamWorks SKG, agreed that impeachment "produced a wave of energy" in Hollywood that built on momentum coming off November, when Democrats defied historic trends by gaining five House seats in the midterm elections. DreamWorks' principals--David Geffen, Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg--are co-hosting the Saturday night bash, their first major foray into congressional fund-raising.

"People generally wait until election years before they focus on this stuff," Spahn said. "But a lot of people were scared by what they saw. . . . They were shaken by the extremely partisan nature of the attacks" on Clinton.

Some would challenge that characterization of efforts to remove the president, who admittedly lied about his affair with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky. But the Democrats' financial windfall has been indisputable. The party's congressional fund-raising committee collected a record $6.8 million in the first three months of the year, compared with $3 million in a comparable period two years ago, according to spokesman Eric Smith. The Democrats' senatorial campaign committee reported $5.6 million in first-quarter receipts, compared with $4.5 million in 1997, the last "off year."

"Typically after any big election, like 1998, you see a slump in donor activity, what we call 'donor fatigue,' " Smith said. "But this time there's been no letup."

The Republicans, in contrast, report no significant surge in giving, although the party's congressional committees have delayed some of their major fund-raising activities until summer.

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