Politicians, though lured by the glitter, reap few rewards from Hollywood ties

LOS ANGELES — Southern California is just reaching the peak of wildfire season, but politicians have been blazing a path to Hollywood for months, lighting fundraising fires under the entertainment industry’s fattest wallets.

And the Talent is still giving, undaunted by getting no bang for its bucks in 2004.

Of all the recent fundraisers, the one that razzled like Oscar night was the April dinner and concert for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) hosted by billionaire Ron Burkle at his Green Acres estate, aptly named given the amount of money the event poured into the senator’s reelection coffers. Former President Bill Clinton, Billy Crystal and Jennifer Lopez all attended, and John Fogerty provided the music. More than $1 million was raised.

Equally star-studded was a fundraiser for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) in early June at the home of megaproducer Gale Anne Hurd (“Hulk,” “Armageddon” the Terminator movies) and her director/screenwriter husband Jonathan Hensleigh (“The Punisher”). Hollywood actors and directors including Maria Bello (“A History of Violence”), Sharon Stone, John Lithgow and director Paul Haggis (“Crash”) were there.

“There’s a lot of interest in the upcoming elections, and a lot of energy and fundraising,” says Donna Bojarsky, a public-policy consultant who has worked with the entertainment industry. “This year there’s talk of a potential shift in control, [so] there’s even more interest.”

While Hollywood Democrats have always donated nationally, a review of Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings indicates that this election cycle the biggest celebrities are focusing much of their money on tight congressional races in the Midwest.

Barbra Streisand has given to the campaigns of Democrats Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Tammy Duckworth and Melissa Bean in Illinois, and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.). Director Rob Reiner and producer Norman Lear have backed Rep. Harold Ford Jr.’s Senate campaign in Tennessee, as have comedian Larry David and his wife, environmental activist and “Inconvenient Truth” producer Laurie David. Streisand and the Davids, with actors Michael Douglas and Paul Newman, have also made significant donations to the DCCC.

Duckworth’s campaign did not realize but was pleased to hear that Streisand was a backer. Calls or e-mails to the Stabenow, Klobuchar and Ford campaigns, and to the DCCC, were not returned.

The affair between Hollywood and the Democrats is conducted privately and denied, denied, denied as though it were illicit.

When the liaison comes to light, it results in such campaign jeers as the “Fancy Ford” website run by the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The site characterizes Ford as a fast-living, big-spending Beltway playboy, divorced in taste and lifestyle from his Tennessee constituents. It jabs at Ford for accepting checks from Reiner and Magic Johnson, and for his appearance in March at a New York City fundraiser hosted by “Sex and The City” actress Sarah Jessica Parker.

Longtime observers take a nuanced view of Hollywood’s influence on national politics. Marty Kaplan, a liberal pundit and associate dean at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School, dismisses the Hollywood-Washington axis as “good copy, but zero difference.”

“I don’t doubt that an endorsement by Leonardo DiCaprio or Warren Beatty, or the It Boy or It Girl, would turn into feature articles and headlines,” says Kaplan, who also wrote and executive produced the Eddie Murphy flick “The Distinguished Gentleman,” “But it does not translate into serious money or serious impact on a serious candidate’s turnout on Election Day.”

“Ineffective,” concurs Los Angeles-based political analyst Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican tartly dismissive of “the Hollywood crowd.”

“They’re turned on by how someone looks, how they part their hair,” he says. “They don’t have the sophistication to know whether they’re putting their money into winnable races.”

Of course Republicans have been more than prepared to work the red carpet when needed. While the Clinton fundraiser was the most chichi event on the town’s political calendar, the most successful Hollywood fundraiser of the year in dollars was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s April bash at the Beverly Hilton.

Headlined by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the event was attended by a who’s who of media executives and celebrities such as “Terminator” director James Cameron. It pulled in more than $2.5 million for the governor’s reelection campaign and the state GOP.

But while there are plenty of Hollywood executives prepared to dish out for Schwarzenegger, an FEC search found little evidence that reputed Hollywood celebrity conservatives such as Drew Carey, Robert Duvall or Bruce Willis have given to Republican causes.

Republicans can, however, count on Robert Davi, the actor who played the ?reepy drug baron Franz Sanchez in the James Bond film “License To Kill.” He is one of Los Angeles’s most outspoken conservatives, a fact that he says has cost him work.

“If you’re a conservative in Hollywood, it hurts,” Davi says, denying that his career difficulties might be due to other causes. “I’m a pretty commanding presence and voice, and I have a strong intellect,” Davi says.

He is preparing to stump for Republican causes this fall, including unspecified work for the re-election campaign of Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). Whether Davi can mellow his menacing screen persona — he has also played a Palestinian terrorist and a pimp — to bring voters out for Santorum in Amish country remains to be seen.

“People in the red states have a love-hate relationship with Hollywood,” admits Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), who represents large swaths of Los Angeles and part of the entertainment community. “The only reason there is a Hollywood is that people in Illinois and Tennessee buy the tickets.”

While out-of-state politicians are feted and romanced by the industry, Sherman finds himself in a paradox peculiar to being the representative for so many celebrities. His current and past supporters include actors Ed Begley Jr., Gregory Peck and Nancy Cartwright (the voice of Bart Simpson), but Sherman doesn’t get much face time with the industry’s beautiful people.

“Brad Sherman town halls aren’t star-studded,” says the congressman, adding, “If you get Bill Clinton, several actors will be there. If we’re doing a regular Brad Sherman fundraiser, no way.

“Who would you rather see on a magazine cover? I’d rather see Morgan Fairchild than balding Brad Sherman.”