Apolitical Fund-Raisers : Primary in L.A. Is Race for Money

Times Political Writer

Irving Azoff, president of MCA music, recently held a fund-raiser at his Beverly Hills home and donated the legal maximum $1,000 to the presidential campaign of Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del). It was hardly unusual for Azoff, who in the past has given thousands of dollars to other Democrats nationally, in California and locally.

But by his own reckoning, Azoff's connection to politics is just casual. He is not even registered to vote.

Developer Albert H. Gersten Jr. also belongs to the Beverly Hills political aristocracy so intensely courted by money-hungry candidates. When he agreed to help bankroll Gary Hart's now-abandoned presidential campaign, Gersten turned to people who were there to please Al Gersten, never mind Hart--Gersten's family, Gersten's employees, his driver and his jet pilot, and business associates all the way down to his travel agent.

Different Type of Party

Money and the curious world of privilege from which it comes are the consuming truths these days of presidential politics in Los Angeles. Here, political party does not mean Democrat or Republican, but caviar and champagne. Here, the most important names on invitations are not the candidates'.

Never mind the teeming modern-day immigrant melting pot Los Angeles. Candidates for national office almost never venture near it. And never mind Los Angeles the gateway to the fabled Pacific Rim. Candidates have no time for this either. The wealthy donors have come to completely dominate the process in California to the exclusion of old-fashioned campaigning.

For California's 12.1 million voters, the presidential primary is still a year away. But there is another full-blown primary under way right now--the race for the money on the Westside of Los Angeles.

Relatively Few Big Donors

The city's top professional fund- raisers agree that truly important donors in Los Angeles number as few as 5,000--including Hollywood (heavily Democratic), the international business and finance center (heavily Republican) and developers (both parties). Combined, they may produce up to 20% or maybe even 25% of the individual contributions for presidential primary campaigns and major U.S. Senate elections, according to various estimates.

For all the high stakes, however, the world of the big-money donor is often surprisingly remote from the give-and-take of electioneering.

"Contributors in this state have almost no relationship whatsoever with practical politics," says Assembly Speaker Willie Brown.

To be sure, there are important bankrollers seeking, in time-honored fashion, to protect their special interests, whether U.S. support to Israel or entertainment royalties from television reruns. And there are the high-minded ideologues who view politics in parlor globalisms of left versus right.

But just as often, the brotherhood of donors includes screenwriters trying to sidle up to producers, philanthropists repaying friends who helped in some charity cause and society climbers who can pay $500 or $1,000 and get named in the Political Registry even if they cannot make the Social Registry.

"Half the people at a given event come for the candidate or the cause, the other half to schmooze--because their business partner told them to come or their agent told them it would be a good idea to be seen there," says Tom Hayden, the Democratic assemblyman from Santa Monica who has a unique window on the Westside/Hollywood fund-raising scene, thanks to his marriage to Jane Fonda.

'Makes the Event'

"It's clearly who is doing the asking that makes the event," agrees Robert L. Burkett, political assistant to multimillionaire movie and TV producer Ted Field, a major contributor to Biden. "It's clear to me that, if I call someone up and say it's important to Ted and me, they will come through, where some staff person for Joe Biden could make the same call and they wouldn't get through, and if they did they couldn't sell it."

No one is more aware of the blase political detachment of donors than the donors themselves.

When Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) arrived in Los Angeles last February for his estimated $250,000 fund-raiser, it alarmed a high-riding liberal activist group, the Hollywood Women's Political Committee. The group, made up mostly of entertainers, entertainment executives and lawyers who raised $2 million for Democratic Senate candidates in six states in the last election, purchased a full-page ad in Variety warning Bradley donors, presumably otherwise oblivious to the senator's record, that Bradley voted last year to provide financial assistance to the Nicaraguan contras .

Clout of Hosts

But the pressure to contribute was tremendous because of the clout of the dinner sponsors--Disney studio chairman Michael Eisner and talent agency chief Michael Ovitz, two of the most important movie-package deal makers in town.

Even a leader in the Hollywood Women's Political Committee, movie producer Paula Weinstein, quietly contributed to the Bradley dinner even as she helped to denounce the senator in the advertisement.

Knowledgeable sources suggested that Weinstein was paying the price, however awkward, of surviving in Hollywood. She denied business motives for making the contribution, however. She said she and her husband bought tickets in hopes of being able to go to the dinner and debate Bradley face to face about the contras. "When I found it was a larger event and I wouldn't have that opportunity, we didn't go," she said. Nor did she ask for their $1,500-per-couple contribution back.

Extreme Aloofness

The Bradley dinner was closed to the press, and Eisner declined to discuss it. But one important community leader was critical of what he said was the event's atmosphere of political aloofness, extreme even for Hollywood.

"Every reaction I heard was how poor of a speaker Bradley was. I was discouraged that was all the attendees had to say. Here is a man considered one of the most intelligent and capable men in the Senate, and they didn't have the patience to wade through the poor speaking to listen to what he had to say," said Stanley K. Sheinbaum, one of the deans of Los Angeles liberal fund raising.

For many, though, buying a ticket to a political fund-raiser is simply a business expense.

"I think a lot of people contribute because they see it as a cost of doing business with whoever is asking for the contribution," says Conway Collis, a member of the state Board of Equalization and a former fund-raising chairman of the national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

"That's why you want to find the developer or the movie producer--because they can turn around and get people to come to your event as a matter of business," Collis said.

Business Ties

"Absolutely. You call first the person who you do business with, always," agreed developer and property manager Gersten.

Gersten, also a key backer of state Controller Gray Davis, said donors at fund-raisers are two-thirds business connections and one-third die-hards for the candidate.

For last April's $6.5-million "President's Dinner," an annual event for the Republican Party, President Reagan called on Lodwrick M. Cook, chairman of Atlantic Richfield Co., to organize West Coast contributors. On dinner night, sure enough, at least a dozen ARCO executives were in attendance and the company purchased tickets for two full tables at $30,000.

Actress Morgan Fairchild, a political activist and member of the Hollywood Women's Political Committee, said this "networking" that goes on at Westside political events should surprise no one. She tells of stone sober screenwriters enrolling in Alcoholics Anonymous "because there are so many producers in town trying to dry out from drugs or alcohol."

Few Strings Attached

This air of detachment of many givers makes the political money of Los Angeles all the more prized to candidates. Fewer strings are attached to contributions than from political action committees and other special-interest donors, who often have very specific and demanding lists of what they want.

"From a politician's point of view, it is the best of all the sources of funds," Brown says. ". . . When it comes from sources of this nature you will not be held up to paying a debt, no matter how you act. To that end, it is a major plus--both in self-perception as well as in public image."

At a more personal level, Brown says candidly: "I would say I prefer this kind of campaign resource because it frees me of the tyranny of investigations."

Just how aloof do some of these givers want to be?

Listen to wealthy and publicity-shy investor Carl M. Rheuban. He is a leader in the Westside Jewish community, through the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and is one of the top dozen or so Los Angeles fund-raisers for Democrats as well as select Republicans.

'Never Discussed Politics'

AIPAC is concerned about Israel, but beyond that, Rheuban says flatly of his conversations with political candidates: "I've never discussed politics with any of them."

Field can pull together more money for Biden than anyone else in town. But, assistant Burkett said: "Ted would never, never attempt to influence Biden tactically or in any other way, shape or form about his campaign or policy. Ted looked over the whole package and bought it."

Field also gave $1,000 to Hart, a package he did not like. Burkett said this was simply because Hart had a huge debt, and Field felt that all the Democratic candidates "should play on a level field."

But split loyalties are commonplace in Los Angeles. Movie mogul Jerry Weintraub is a Democrat and a contributor to California Democratic candidates, including at least $10,000 in the past to former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. He is also one of the most visible and important backers of Vice President George Bush. Lew Wasserman is a longtime Democrat who is now helping industry favorite Sen. Pete Wilson of California, a Republican. Gersten was all for Hart but now said he would just as soon see Republican White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr. become President.

One thing missing in the high-rolling Westside fund-raising world is an entry level for people who are not yet well-heeled, a place where the politically minded can learn and participate in the process from the ground up. This, in turn, has spawned criticism.

"A politician no longer has anybody in the streets. He finds out what people think from polls and he talks to them via 30-second spots," grouses Sheinbaum.

Hayden warns against fund-raisers taking themselves so seriously. "There is a danger of cliquishness and arrogance that comes with being successful, and an assumption that skills developed in building a fortune can be translated into picking the next President of the United States," he says.

Not only is this a world of the rich and often remote, but also it is a world of the white.

Speaking to a crowd at a $425,000 fund-raiser in Beverly Hills not long ago, Biden said growing up around segregation pushed him into politics. His audience, at the opulent mansion of Field, was almost exclusively white. Likewise at exclusive candidate dinners hosted by Sheinbaum and producer Norman Lear, both of whom are renowned civil rights activists.

'Only Two Black People'

At the Bradley fund-raiser hosted by Eisner and Ovitz, comedian Whoopi Goldberg was called on to headline the evening's entertainment. But she reportedly embarrassed some in the glamorous liberal-leaning audience with the unpleasant revelation: "I see there are only two black people here--the waiter and me, and we're both working."

"The thing I want my candidates to do is go ahead to the (member-only Westside) Regency Club but to go to South-Central L.A. too," Sheinbaum insisted in a recent interview. "At the Regency Club candidates are rubbing elbows with one mind-set. All they hear is how bad taxes are on business and how bad regulations are."

But the candidates say they are too busy raising money and going to dinners with the likes of Sheinbaum. So, Sheinbaum is asked, why not invite leaders from black or Latino or labor or other working communities to his dinners so the candidates can meet them?

Sheinbaum pauses. "That," he says finally, "is a hell of a good point. We don't have enough of them involved."

Event for Rank and File

Elitism shows in other ways as well. A recent low-budget $50-per-person fund-raiser was arranged at The Palace in Hollywood for Hart's rank-and-file supporters, those who could not afford the swanky events. Some celebrities were invited to spice up the crowd and attract media attention, and were admitted free.

As the event turned out, the celebrities and Hart spent most of their time together at a restricted VIP lounge. Those who paid were excluded and watched later as Hart spoke to them from a stage.

The Hollywood Women's Political Committee has not committed to raising money for a presidential candidate yet, and may never. But because of the proximity of money around committee members, it is a stop on every Democrat's agenda. The group asks for a full three hours of a candidate's day in Los Angeles.

At the same time, however, the organization freely admits that the system of big-money fund raising takes too much of a candidate's time and must be reformed. Representatives of the organization have gone to Washington and testified on behalf of finance reform legislation.

'Bunch of Rich Broads'

"We agree candidates shouldn't have to come out here and deal with a bunch of rich broads like us," Fairchild says.

For all the glamour and attention, many of the participants in the Westside fund-raising world say it is becoming less enjoyable and ever more time-consuming.

"People in Hollywood are getting jaded about all this fund raising. If I accepted every invitation I get, I'd be out three nights a week," says Donna Bojarsky, a fund-raiser well connected to young Hollywood.

To keep the attention of donors, Democrats and Republicans turn to candy coating political events.

A fund-raiser for Wilson last month was built around the whimsical modern art collection at the Holmby Hills home of host Frederick R. Weisman. Contributors received only the shortest of speeches from Wilson to make time for professionally guided tours of Weisman's house and art.

Different Dinners

Republicans also have no hesitation in employing high-level Administration and party officials for fund-raising come-ons. When tickets for Reagan's "President's Dinner" were sold, the most elite group of organizers was invited to Santa Barbara for dinner with Baker. Others at various locations who agreed to sell blocs of tickets were invited to lunch with Rep. Guy Vander Jagt (R-Mich.), or the executive director of the GOP Congressional Committee or a Department of Interior official.

Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City) promises no political speeches for his autumn political fund-raiser. Dionne Warwick will perform. Barbra Streisand sang last year in public for the first time in years, and it brought in $1.5 million for Democratic Senate candidates.

Sometimes all you need to add pizazz is to have a star walk through the door. When Fairchild accepted an invitation to a Hart event, she arrived in a backless, revealingly thin dress. The paparazzi shouted out: "Vamp it up, Morgan." As she faced the cameras and shook her shoulders, eyeballs popped along with flash guns.

"When I'm invited I'll be sure to be there looking like they expect me to look," she laughs.

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