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CAUSE CELEBRE

Aspiring state attorney general Kamala Harris finds friends in L.A.

July 03, 2009|TINA DAUNT

Hollywood's Democratic activists may still be uncertain about which way to jump in California's gubernatorial race, but many of the industry's heavy political hitters already are lining up behind San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris in her run for state attorney general.

On Tuesday evening, authors Lisa Jones Johnson and Jarone Johnson, along with actor-businessman Brent Bolthouse, director Brett Ratner, and Eric Dane ("Grey's Anatomy"), hosted a cocktail party to celebrate Harris' candidacy with a crowd of guests who paid as much as $5,000 to meet the young prosecutor at the Johnsons' elegant Los Angeles home. A little more than a week ago, Harris was the guest of honor at a luncheon hosted by former studio head and longtime Democratic stalwart Sherry Lansing. Guests, including Cheryl Saban, Elizabeth Wiatt and Judge Diane Wayne, listened to Harris speak -- and, afterward, several pulled out their datebooks to schedule fundraisers of their own.

Actually, the Hollywood buzz surrounding the 44-year-old Harris began even before she decided to run for AG. As an early Barack Obama supporter, she was one of the first on the campaign trail and was almost immediately recognized in the entertainment circles as a rising star.

By spring, she was a frequent visitor at the estates of Beverly Park and Brentwood, this time campaigning on behalf of her own candidacy. Everywhere she went, the crowds were wowed. She's articulate and beautiful, sort of like a political version of Halle Berry.

"If we learned one thing from Hollywood's early and active support of Barack Obama," says Harris' campaign manager, Brian Brokaw, "it's that the entertainment community has an eye for new leadership and innovative ideas. Kamala Harris' 'smart on crime' approach as district attorney has produced incredible results in San Francisco, resulting in the highest conviction rates in nearly 15 years while also striving to prevent crime before it happens.

"She is also a trailblazer as the first woman to serve as district attorney of San Francisco and the first African American D.A. in California. I believe her life story and vision for reforming California's criminal justice system resonates with not only Hollywood but also with Californians from all walks of life."

It's likely that Harris will face a crowded field during next year's primary. Other Democrats on record as possible contenders include former Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, Facebook executive Chris Kelly, and Assemblymen Ted Lieu, Pedro Nava and Alberto Torrico.

There could be support for these candidates in other parts of the state, but from La Brea to Malibu, Harris already has signed up an A-list roster of supporters, including Steven and Dayna Bochco (who hosted one of the earliest fundraisers), James Brooks, Laurie David, Antoine and Lela Fuqua (who've already hosted a fundraiser), Ron and Shelly Gillyard, Hill Harper (another early fundraiser), Norman Lear, Chuck Lorre (another early fundraiser host) Michael Lynton, J.J. Abrams and wife Katie (also money-raisers), Ron and Kelley Meyer, Holly Robinson Peete, Charles Rivkin, Andy Spahn, Dana M. Walden, Laura Wasserman (who hosted a fundraiser of her own this week), Sean Penn, Clarence Avant, Reggie Hudlin and Lisa Ling.

Harris' appeal is similar in many ways to Obama's; she has a compelling life story and trails innovative ideas the way some women do perfume -- two qualities over which the industry swoons. Both her parents are immigrants -- her mother an Indo-American oncologist specializing in breast cancer and her father a Jamaican native who went on to teach economics at Stanford. Kamala (pronounced comma-la) grew up in the Bay Area's intellectual and social ferment, then went on to do her undergraduate work at the elite, historically black Howard University and to study law at Hastings.

A prosecutor since 1990, she first was elected district attorney of San Francisco by winning 56% of the vote in a runoff, despite her promise never to seek the death penalty, which she opposes on moral and philosophical grounds. Two years ago, she won reelection without opposition.

Recently, one of her signature crime prevention efforts became the subject of controversy after The Times reported that an undocumented immigrant enrolled in a rehabilitation program for nonviolent drug offenders had committed a felony while his participation allowed him to avoid deportation.

Her critics have labeled the program "catch and release," but Harris has replied that it was a mistake to let illegal immigrants into the project. She called it a "flaw in the design" that since has been corrected.

That sort of forthrightness in the face of criticism -- also reminiscent of Obama to many -- has made Harris particularly attractive to many of Hollywood's leading Democratic strategists and activists.

"She's smart, charismatic and an experienced prosecutor who has successfully balanced prosecution with prevention," said Spahn, who said he'll be doing significant fundraising on her behalf.

Producer Lawrence Bender enthused that "I think she has a great shot. She has a great following here."

Longtime Dem strategist Noah Mamet, who's seen more candidates than an Iowa caucus, was unequivocal: "She's great. I'm a big fan. The traditional Westside Democratic donors are taken by her. She's also personal friends with Obama, which doesn't hurt. He'll help her with the general election, I assume."

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tina.daunt@latimes.com

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