Democrats' $7-Million Superhero


WASHINGTON — An entertainment industry tycoon from Los Angeles gave the Democratic National Committee $7 million last month to help build a new headquarters, a record-breaking gift for the party, a Democratic spokeswoman said Thursday.

The gift from Haim Saban, who made his fortune from the "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" and other children's television shows, may be the largest that either major national party has received in modern times. And it could turn out to be among the last of its kind.

The disclosure from the Democrats came one day after Congress cleared a landmark bill to overhaul campaign finance law for the first time in nearly 30 years.

Under the legislation, which President Bush says he will sign, national political parties would be prohibited after this fall's elections from raising such huge sums from a single source. Instead, a national party committee would be able to collect only $25,000 per year from an individual donor.

Democratic officials disclosed the existence of the gift earlier this week in an interview with The Times, saying it was the cornerstone of a $32-million fund drive to help build a new headquarters by the end of next year. But they had declined until Thursday to name the source or specify the amount.

"It's historic. It's a record-breaking contribution," said party spokeswoman Maria Cardona. DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe, she said, "is very grateful and appreciative of Mr. Saban's generosity and leadership."

Cardona said the previous largest donation to the national Democratic Party was a $1.5-million gift in 1985 from a Maryland woman.

The largest single political donation to either Republicans or Democrats reported in the last 11 years was $1.7 million in 1994 to a GOP committee from the Amway Corp., according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, which tracks political giving. Political pros said this week they could not recall any gift larger than that to either party.

Tracking financial records of the two parties is difficult. Many electronic databases of donations to federal parties or candidates cover only donations made from the 1990s onward. And larger gifts could have been made before the post-Watergate reforms of the 1970s ushered in the modern practice of disclosure.

Still, by any measure, Saban's gift is huge. During the 2000 campaign, for instance, the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees--a labor union that is a major political player--was the largest donor of the unlimited funds to political parties known as soft money. The union gave $5.9 million, and that was a cumulative total of contributions spaced over two years.

Republicans criticize the Democratic fund drive for the headquarters, saying it is at odds with the position of most congressional Democrats who voted to ban soft money. A GOP spokesman, Kevin Sheridan, called the Democratic big-money raising "hypocritical" this week.

In an interview, the 57-year-old Saban said there was no secret motive behind his gift. "I don't have anything to hide. I don't have anything to worry about. The most someone can say is, 'Look at this guy, he's a staunch Democrat.' I have no agenda outside of I think the Democratic Party is better for America than the Republican Party."

Saban took a long road from Israeli music promoter to Hollywood mogul to Democratic mega-donor.

He was a music promoter in Israel until the 1973 Yom Kippur War dashed profits. He and a partner moved to Paris and invited a child to perform a theme song for a Japanese cartoon. The cartoon became a hit.

Saban took the profits from his musical ventures, moved to Los Angeles and began buying obscure Japanese cartoons. When he repackaged one of them as the "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers," he had a hit on his hands.

Late last year, Saban banked nearly $1.5 billion as his share of the sale of Fox Family Worldwide Inc.

On the social front, Saban began hosting political fund-raisers that were soon among the most well-attended in Hollywood.

Saban is also a major donor to California Democratic causes, giving nearly $400,000 to Gov. Gray Davis since 1998 and other non-cash aid through fund-raisers he has hosted. Davis recently named him to the UC Board of Regents.

He also has cultivated relationships with national Democratic Party figures like McAuliffe.

Months after McAuliffe became chairman in 2001, he approached Saban about the party's need to build a new headquarters. The current one on South Capitol Street, party officials say, is cramped and outdated. Democrats wanted a new building outfitted with the latest radio and television gear and high-tech equipment to help the party compete with Republicans. So was born a $32-million campaign, a fund drive that Saban is chairing.

In October, Saban hosted a luncheon in Los Angeles attended by former President Clinton and other major Democratic figures. It generated substantial support for the fund drive. Party officials say they have raised or obtained commitments for most of the money they need.

"If you look at the Republicans' infrastructure, from television studios to direct mail to their ability to connect with their constituencies in a very, very efficient and rapid way and compare that to the Democrats, the Democrats are like in the Stone Ages," Saban said. "Unless the Democrats put together an infrastructure for the 21st century, they will be forever a minority party."

To accomplish that goal, Saban said he would be pursuing donations from other prominent, wealthy Democrats. "We will be following up with these people over the next few weeks," he said. "You pick a Democratic donor in L.A. of significance, and we will be talking to them."


Times staff writer Anne-Marie O'Connor contributed to this report.

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