As mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa built relationships in Hollywood: He sought the counsel of studio heads, fought for state tax credits to keep film and television production in the city and mingled with celebrities on the red carpet at glitzy film premieres and HBO parties.
In return, members of the entertainment industry backed his political ambitions — a rare show of support at the time from Hollywood for a local politician.
But as Villaraigosa runs for governor — potentially the final chapter of his political career — Hollywood is divided. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Villaraigosa’s chief rival, has raised nearly twice as much from donors tied to entertainment and the arts.
Villaraigosa brought in about $887,000 from donors tied to the arts and entertainment sectors, a respectable haul, but far less than the $1.7 million Newsom has raised from the same group, according to a Times analysis of financial disclosure reports filed with the state through the end of July.
“It’s a bit surprising,” said Donna Bojarsky, a veteran entertainment industry political consultant, noting Villaraigosa’s ties to Hollywood predate his two terms as mayor. “Antonio was the first modern mayoral candidate that really reached out and got Hollywood support.”
The entertainment and arts donations reflect the overall fundraising race. Newsom leads the pack across most sectors, including technology, finance, cannabis, legal and labor, raising nearly $16 million. Villaraigosa lags behind with $5.1 million. But the entertainment and arts contributions make up a greater proportion of Villaraigosa’s total fundraising, 17%, compared with nearly 11% of Newsom’s haul.
The other candidates in the race have been largely ignored by these donors. State Treasurer John Chiang has raised $182,000 from the entertainment industry and art world. The remaining three top candidates — Democrat Delaine Eastin and Republicans Travis Allen and John Cox — received few donations from these donors.
Most of these contributions were made by people in movies and television, such as studio executives, talent agents, celebrities, producers and directors. The group also includes donations from musicians, artists, fashion designers, video-gaming executives and entertainment attorneys.
In February 2015, Newsom was the first candidate to enter the 2018 gubernatorial race, which has partly driven his fundraising edge — he has raised up to $58,400 per donor since then. Villaraigosa entered the contest 18 months later, two days after the November 2016 presidential election.
“Antonio just got into the race, and Gavin’s been running for a long time,” said Rick Jacobs, a Hollywood fundraiser who is an advisor to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. “If you’re raising money statewide and have been in the race a long time, you would be remiss if you weren’t raising money in Hollywood.”
The Democratic-leaning entertainment industry has historically been a wellspring for political donations. Last year, it spent nearly $24 million backing Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful presidential bid, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The industry has not been as consistently involved in state and local races, though Gov. Jerry Brown, former Sen. Barbara Boxer and Garcetti were strongly backed by some in Hollywood.
Many of the industry’s policy concerns, such as intellectual property issues, are decided at the federal level. But many of the contributions, whether at the federal, state or local level, are driven by donors’ existing relationships with candidates — and by ideology.
Newsom and Villaraigosa are “left-of-center Democrats,” said Rick Rosen, head of television for William Morris Endeavor Entertainment. “I don’t think there’s an enormous amount of policy differences between the two of them.”
But Rosen decided to back Villaraigosa because of his long-standing relationship with the former Los Angeles mayor.
“I’ve seen Antonio do the hard work of getting things done,” Rosen said, pointing to Villaraigosa’s controversial effort to reform the city’s schools. Rosen sits on the board of a Lincoln Heights charter school and recalled Villaraigosa speaking in English and Spanish at its graduation ceremony, and sticking around for pictures with students and families afterward.
“He’s not afraid of rolling up his sleeves, banging heads together and taking on difficult positions with teachers unions, with other unions in fact,” he said.
Rosen has contributed $5,000 to Villaraigosa, but more notably co-hosted a June fundraiser for him — the biggest in Hollywood for a gubernatorial candidate this cycle — at the home of studio and media executive Peter Chernin and his wife, Megan. Other co-hosts included Paramount Pictures Chief Jim Gianopulos, Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings, comedian George Lopez, former Sony Chief Executive Michael Lynton, NBCUniversal Vice Chairman Ron Meyer and producer Rob Reiner.
Other notable Villaraigosa donors include radio and television personality Ryan Seacrest, music producer Quincy Jones, adult entertainment mogul Larry Flynt, television producer Norman Lear and William Morris Endeavor co-CEO Ari Emanuel.
Many of these relationships date back to Villaraigosa’s eight-year tenure as mayor, which ended in 2013. He was viewed as an elected official who didn’t just show up to be photographed at high-profile events, but sought to be a member of the community.
But at the same time, Villaraigosa developed a reputation for seeking the limelight.
“I sense a fatigue. He has burned some bridges because he did ask for a lot during that time,” said a former studio executive who has backed Villaraigosa’s previous electoral efforts and asked for anonymity to speak candidly.
Villaraigosa’s presence at Hollywood events also caused him problems. Questions were raised about his attending the city’s many award shows, film premieres and sporting events for free, and when he was pictured socializing with actor Charlie Sheen in Mexico as he was reportedly under consideration for a cabinet appointment by the Obama administration.
Newsom, who was born and raised in the Bay Area, moves comfortably in Hollywood circles. His wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, is an actress and documentarian whose films premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011 and 2015.
As mayor of San Francisco, Newsom sought city tax rebates to boost entertainment production in the city. The move raised eyebrows when NBC television show “Trauma,” which benefited from the tax breaks, cast Newsom’s wife in its debut episode.
Newsom makes frequent appearances on television. In addition to being a regular guest on news programs, he hosted a weekly talk show on Current TV for nearly a year, often appears on “Real Time with Bill Maher” and has turned up on shows including “Chelsea,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and “The Simpsons 20th Anniversary Special.”
Earlier this year, Newsom spoke at a pre-Oscar rally outside the United Talent Agency’s Beverly Hills headquarters alongside Jodie Foster, Michael J. Fox and Reza Aslan where he protested President Trump’s travel ban targeting refugees and visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Industry observers say Newsom’s popularity in the industry is driven by his history of progressive activism.
“There’s a lot of good old Hollywood lefty money that’s probably going to go to Gavin. He’s a darling of the left,” said Howard Bragman, a Hollywood publicist who noted that Newsom issued same-sex marriage licenses in 2004 when he was mayor of San Francisco. “He went out on a limb — and he went out alone. The gay community in Hollywood has a lot of respect for him.”
Newsom’s support of gay marriage — many years before Democrats including former President Obama and Hillary Clinton backed it — as well as his leading role championing ballot measures in 2016 to legalize recreational marijuana and enact the nation’s toughest gun control laws are frequently raised by his Hollywood supporters.
“To be able to take on tough issues way ahead of their time, that’s appealing to me,” said Jay Sures, managing director of United Talent Agency, who has contributed $10,000 to Newsom’s campaign. “I do think it truly boils down to substance.”
Newsom has won the support of other big-name entertainment industry figures, including Creative Artists Agency agent Jim Toth, Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, model Cindy Crawford, singer Barbra Streisand, actor Balthazar Getty and Maher.
But a question remains in consolidating Hollywood support over the next 15 months: Will Garcetti jump into the race? The Los Angeles mayor represented Hollywood when he was a city councilman and has strong ties to the most prominent names in the entertainment industry.
“It would be a scramble for those of us who love him and always want to support Eric,” said Dayna Bochco, who serves on the California Coastal Commission with Newsom and has, along with husband Steven Bochco, producer of “Hill Street Blues” and “NYPD Blue,” donated $12,500 to Newsom’s bid. “Let’s say I hope it doesn’t happen.”
Some industry leaders, including DreamWorks Chief Jeffrey Katzenberg, Sony Pictures Chairman Tom Rothman and retired Paramount CEO Sherry Lansing, are putting off a decision by donating to both Newsom and Villaraigosa at a time when many of the predominantly Democratic donors in Hollywood are focused on the midterm elections and opposition to President Trump.
“People give ‘go-away money,’” said Andy Spahn, the president of Gonring, Spahn & Associates, a political firm that advises Katzenberg and director Steven Spielberg. “Here’s a check, leave me alone. Call me next year once the race gets some oxygen.”
Times staff writer Ryan Menezes contributed to this report. Campaign contributions were drawn from the California Civic Data Coalition's archive of data collected by California’s secretary of state.