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CAMPAIGN '08: THE CELEBRITY FACTOR

In L.A., the stars line up for Obama

His battle with Clinton split A-listers, but at a gala that raises $5 million, they signal they've come together.

June 25, 2008|Tina Daunt and Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writers

Sen. Barack Obama's bid for Hollywood's financial support was officially cinched Tuesday night at -- where else? -- a gala attended by celebrities, studio executives, producers, directors and other well-moneyed people.

British recording artist Seal sang Sam Cooke's R&B song "A Change Is Gonna Come" for 900 people gathered at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles to toast the senator from Illinois. It was Obama's first trip to Los Angeles since New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton conceded defeat early this month in the battle for the Democratic nomination.

Although Obama's staff declined to give exact numbers, organizers estimated that the event raised more than $5 million, which will be divided between the Democratic National Committee and his presidential campaign. (The money included about 200 seats at a VIP dinner that cost $28,500 per couple. An additional 700 people paid as much as $2,300 each to attend the reception.)

Many in the Hollywood crowd -- which had been deeply split between Obama and Clinton during the primaries and caucuses -- said they hoped to send a strong message: that the industry A-listers, even those who had sided with Clinton during the primary, were standing firm with Obama.

"In the primary, you fight hard and then you have to come together," said producer Lawrence Bender, one of Obama's early Hollywood supporters. "This was a real unifying event."

As for Arizona Sen. John McCain's Republican presidential bid? He apparently would have a better chance starring in Steven Spielberg's next film than securing much support in Hollywood at this point.

"The Hillary supporters may have blustered a little, but they're not going to vote for McCain," said actress and writer Heather Thomas, who attended the event with her husband, entertainment lawyer Skip Brittenham. "There's no way."

Political strategist Chad Griffin, a Clinton fundraiser, said: "There were many people in the room tonight who supported other candidates in the primary. But everyone was unified with the goal of defeating John McCain."

Obama spoke shortly before 7 p.m. from a stage set up in the pavilion's mezzanine. Most people stood just in front of the stage; a couple hundred watched from behind glass railings on two upper balconies. Among the celebrities in attendance were actors Dennis Quaid, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, retired boxer Sugar Ray Leonard and Jennifer Beals. Also there were former Paramount Pictures chief Sherry Lansing and her husband, director William Friedkin; "Lost" producer J.J. Abrams and his wife, Katie McGrath; producer Mike Medavoy and his wife, Irena, an early Obama supporter; and Motown greats Berry Gordy and Clarence Avant, both former Clinton supporters. Quaid introduced Seal. "He's here tonight to sing for the superman for everyone -- Barack Obama," Quaid told the crowd.

Seal, dressed in a black suit, sang two songs. The first was his ballad "Kiss From a Rose." The second was "A Change Is Gonna Come." (He and David Foster have recorded the song, which they hope Obama will use in the campaign.)

In remarks introducing "A Change Is Gonna Come," Seal recalled growing up in England and learning about America by watching Elvis Presley films and "Happy Days." After 18 years in America, Seal said, the U.S. is still "the greatest country in the world." But in some ways, the country is holding on by a thread, he said.

"At last, someone has come along that is restoring my faith," Seal told the crowd.

Obama was introduced by California Assembly Speaker Karen Bass.

Donors sipped wine and bottled water. Waiters wearing black vests, white shirts and black ties served hors d'oeuvres: endive spears of brie, toasted almonds and truffle oil; tuna tartare with passion fruit ponzu and macadamia nut on wonton crisp; beef short rib skewers with Asian flavors.

Mingling in the crowd were Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and L.A. City Councilmen Herb J. Wesson Jr., Bernard Parks, Eric Garcetti and Richard Alarcon.

California Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown told reporters outside that Obama had spoken earlier to about 300 people, including some prominent Clinton supporters.

Among them, Brown said, were Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who led Clinton's efforts to court Latino voters, and John Emerson, a White House aide to President Clinton and one of Hillary Clinton's biggest California fundraisers.

Cheadle, who was watching from the balcony, said of Obama: "He's my candidate, and I think you have to put your money where your mouth is."

Also watching from the balcony was will.i.am, producer of the popular online "Yes We Can" video tribute to Obama. He was dressed in a white suit.

Obama, he said, made it "over the hill" by winning the Democratic nomination. "Now we're in a valley, and we got a bigger hill to climb."

For his part, Obama recognized that the gathering included many Clinton supporters. The months of primaries and caucuses, he said, "I know caused some heartburn and some frustration." Obama added that he and Clinton "were allies then and we're allies now."

"Because of her campaign, my daughters take for granted that a woman can be president," he said.

At times the crowd listened quietly. But not when Obama criticized McCain about his recent decision to support offshore drilling. He suggested that McCain thought installing "a bunch of oil rigs along the California coast was a good idea," and the crowd showed its disdain for McCain by booing.

--

tina.daunt@latimes.com

michael.finnegan@ latimes.com

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