Nicole Avant grew up in the family business -- music and politics.
There were always politicians at the house. Her parents -- recording industry mogul Clarence Avant, onetime head of Motown Records, and wife Jackie -- enjoyed political fundraising as much as they loved listening to rhythm and blues.
Nicole Avant remembers President Jimmy Carter and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley working the crowds in the family's living room. Gray Davis, just starting his own political career, had a small office in the '70s at her father's record company. Gov. Jerry Brown was a frequent visitor at the family's Beverly Hills estate. Now there's a generational split in the family for the 2008 presidential race; Nicole is a major fundraiser for Sen. Barack Obama; her dad supports Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. But Clarence Avant told his daughter to do what she thought was right.
"His attitude was, 'You're a grown woman. You can make your own decision,' " Nicole Avant recalls. " 'Don't worry about me or your mother. But once you get on board with someone, stick with them. You don't flip-flop.' "
The Avants became influential political players in Hollywood's increasingly important African American community. And the Clintons -- both Bill and Hillary -- became close personal friends.
At age 39, Nicole Avant has taken up the family's political mantle. She manages her father's music publishing company, and when it comes to not only African American artists and executives but also young Hollywood, she's become the Democratic Party's go-to fundraiser in Los Angeles. Determined, funny and movie-star chic, she's figured out how to connect politicians to high-achieving young professionals. (Tip: It's charm mixed with smarts.)
"I remember my dad supporting everyone on the local and national level," Avant said. "I was pretty much born into it. I saw the importance of politics firsthand. It gave you a chance to be at the table."
Culture Cabinet member
Along with a number of other African American entertainment industry executives, Avant helped establish a political group, the Culture Cabinet, last year. Single-handedly, she helped raise tens of thousands of dollars for Rep. Harold Ford Jr.'s Senate campaign in Tennessee.
"I've known him for a long time, and I believed he was one of the best politicians around," Avant said. "I jumped into that 100% and learned so much." (She was heartbroken when he lost.)
Now she's taking a leadership position in bringing in funds for Obama, even though her parents are avid supporters of Clinton. Two weeks ago, the Obama campaign named Avant one of its Southern California finance chairs, along with writer-director Charley Rivkin.
"I can tell you, Nicole has really made this whole Barack thing happen," said longtime political consultant Kermin Maddox. "She's tenacious, she's smart, she's savvy. She never gives up, and she's as cool as the other side of the pillow."
Avant has a mind of her own, something her father respects.
"I love the Clintons; they're good friends," Nicole Avant said. "I have a relationship with John Edwards too. My father knew this wasn't a personal thing. My heart was just with Obama."
She's busy organizing gatherings for Obama, who returns to Los Angeles for a series of fundraisers next week.
She's a key player behind an April 28 fundraiser at the Hollywood nightclub Boulevard 3. It's aimed at bringing out a younger crowd than normally contributes to Democratic candidates at industry events. The tickets are going for just $500 per person, compared with the usual rate of $2,300. (It's an east of Doheny rather than Holmby Hills price.)
Some of the others on the host committee include actress Jessica Biel and "Pulp Fiction" producer Lawrence Bender.
"I want to reach out to people who are not normally courted," Avant said. "A lot of people feel they are not represented as they should be. I don't want everyone walking into our fundraisers seeing the usual suspects.
"I'm out there talking to everyone. My days are filled with breakfast, lunches, dinner and drinks."
'She has great spirit'
Clinton's reps tried very hard to recruit Avant, with all her valuable connections, for their campaign. At a recent gathering at media mogul Haim Saban's house, Clinton's campaign chairman and former Democratic National Committee head, Terry McAuliffe, teased Avant: "How are you ever going to get the Paris ambassadorship? Get on board."
This week, McAuliffe, mindful of Avant's importance to their party, was in a mood to cut her some slack on her loyalty to Obama. "I've known her family for years," he said in a telephone interview Thursday. "They're all activists. Clarence and Nicole are always there with political advice.
"She has great spirit. Great passion. She's a character. And there's not enough of those in politics."
Besides, he says, "Barack Obama is great for us. He's going to energize a lot of people. And those people will all be with us in the general election."
And if Clinton loses?
"We'll be with them."
But what about that Paris ambassadorship?
"I think Nicole ought to be pope," McAuliffe said. "I think she ought to be whatever she wants."
He laughs: "That would drive Cardinal Mahony crazy."