The LOS ANGELES mayoral election is a year away, but Hollywood politicos are already coming out in force to raise funds for their favorite local politician, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
And maybe it's just in the nick of time.
It turns out that shopping mall magnate and Republican moneyman Rick Caruso is considering running against the incumbent, which would turn the next citywide campaign into the best-dressed and perhaps most expensive mayoral race in history.
In an interview this week, Caruso -- the man who brought you the Grove and the newly opened Americana at Brand in Glendale -- said: "I've been approached to run by a number of people. I'm considering it. We need some changes in the city and some strong leadership." If he decides not to run, he says, "I would be happy to support anyone who would move the city forward."
With Democrat Villaraigosa keenly aware of the impending competition, director Rob Reiner called an evening strategy session with the mayor and his top entertainment industry backers at his home in Brentwood last month. The gathering, held in Reiner's screening room, looked a lot like a reunion of Hollywood for Hillary veterans, complete with the attendance of NBA great and all-around power player Magic Johnson.
"What Antonio wants to do is get out in front and show his strength to other candidates," Reiner said by phone between meetings Wednesday. "I don't think he'll have any problem."
If anything, the mayor's support of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential bid, which included long stints out on the campaign trail, has widened and solidified his own circle of entertainment industry support.
There are a lot of friends of Bill and Hillary, among them Reiner, who have strongly made it known that they're also Antonio's amigos, no matter what his personal problems may have been. (He was the center of scandal last year after the very public breakup of his marriage.)
"He talked very candidly about all the issues he went through," Reiner said. "I think his personal stuff is pretty much behind him. He's focusing on the work he needs to do for the city."
Among the two dozen or so people at Reiner's house that night were entrepreneur Casey Wasserman (grandson of the legendary Lew Wasserman), Disney CEO Robert Iger, HBO Films President Colin Callender, Hillary fundraiser/businessman Sim Farar and media mogul Haim Saban.
When asked about Villaraigosa by e-mail, Saban reacted with the same enthusiasm he shows for his longtime friends the Clintons.
"Antonio is the man," he wrote. "[Wife] Cheryl and I love him and think he's doing a terrific job. We're lucky to have him as our mayor!"
At Reiner's house, the bigwigs received their marching orders: Raise money. Fast.
The invitations have gone out in rapid-fire succession. Chris Albrecht, the former HBO chief who now heads IMG's global media business, helped kick off the fundraising extravaganza at his house on May 9.
Attendees included 20th Century Fox Chairman Jim Gianopulos; director-producer Jerry Zucker and his wife, Janet; syndicated television mogul Michael King (the "Oprah" creator) and wife Jena; writer/TV producers Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and Harry Thomason; and superagent Patrick Whitesell and wife Lauren.
Last week, Saban co-hosted a party that netted $250,000 at his vast Beverly Park manse. (DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, William Morris head Jim Wiatt and News Corp. President Peter Chernin also co-hosted.) By the end of June, more than a dozen campaign events -- with almost every studio head in town signed up to attend -- will have been held.
Events next week will include one hosted by cable company guru Marc Nathanson and City National Bank CEO Russell Goldsmith and another hosted by investment manager John Emerson and wife Kimberly. (John Emerson served as deputy assistant to Bill Clinton during his presidency.)
In addition to the execs, fundraisers and Hillary supporters Chad Griffin and Ari Swiller have been busy working the phones and helping organize events. Others signing on to support the mayor include Chandler family consigliere Tom Unterman and NBC-Universal head Ron Meyer.
Even by Hollywood standards, the quick outpouring for Villaraigosa is considered remarkable.
"I don't know anyone in town who is not supporting Antonio," said Hollywood political consultant Andy Spahn, who helped organize the Saban fundraiser. "He has tremendous support here. Early money in politics is very important. The more money you raise early sometimes means the less money you need later in scaring off potential opponents."
Usually it does, but not always. Caruso, for example, could probably finance a mayoral campaign out of his checking account.
The guy who built the Grove with the blessing of his political mentor, John Ferraro, faced off half of Glendale to construct the Americana and is attempting to build a mega shopping complex (complete with lake) alongside the Santa Anita race track in Arcadia, brings a star quality of his own. Plus, he has the ability to pull donors in from Republican business circles. (After all, he raised a cool $1 million in his Brentwood backyard for Mitt Romney's presidential bid last year.)
Besides, like all successful developers, Caruso relishes a good fight. (He has one of former L.A. Mayor James Hahn's deputies, Matt Middlebrook, on his staff to run the sort of political campaigns that large-scale developments now require.)
One of the wild cards in a Villaraigosa-Caruso face-off would be Police Chief Bill Bratton.
The popular chief is loyal to the mayor but also a close friend to Caruso, who gave Bratton a lavish party at his estate the night the chief was reappointed.
If Caruso decides not to run, it won't be because he's intimidated by Hollywood's largesse.
He said confidently this week: "It wouldn't impact my decision."