'Not a happy election': Why this star-studded Hollywood fundraiser is so crucial for Biden

Former president Barack Obama, president Joe Biden, George Clooney and Julia Roberts. (Associated Press Photos)
President Biden's high-dollar fundraiser Saturday at the Peacock Theater in Hollywood will feature headliners including former President Obama, Julia Roberts and George Clooney. (Associated Press)

In what is likely one of President Biden’s last major Hollywood fundraisers before the November election, the Democrat will sweep into town Saturday for a star-studded event in downtown Los Angeles that is expected to raise at least $28 million — the largest one-night Democratic haul in history.

The state, the city and the entertainment industry have long been the financial backbone for Democratic candidates across the nation. But Saturday’s gathering, which will include appearances by former President Obama and actors George Clooney and Julia Roberts, is taking place at a fraught time for the incumbent.

The war between Israel and Hamas is front of mind in a city that is home to the nation’s second-largest Jewish community, though it is not monolithic about the ongoing violence in the Gaza Strip. The latest conflict was ignited by Hamas’ brutal attack on Israel on Oct. 7, which killed about 1,200 and prompted a relentless Israeli bombardment that has killed more than 37,000 Palestinians in Gaza.

And while statistics about unemployment, inflation and job creation show that the nation’s economy is steadily improving, voters are still feeling pain at the grocery store and the gas pump.

So a glittery event where the top-ticket package costs $500,000 creates a double-edged sword for Biden, said Jessica Levinson, an election law professor at Loyola Law School.

“The concern is that he looks out of touch with where Americans are with respect to how much you could ever pay to attend a high-dollar dinner when a lot of people are suffering to put food on table, and during an international crisis where he's arguably out of step with many Democrats,” she said. “On the flip side, this is what politicians do. We’ve created a system where you need to raise big-dollar amounts to be competitive, and he would be a lunatic to unilaterally disarm. Even though he has the name recognition and has absolutely been introduced to the American public, it would be political suicide to give up big-dollar fundraising.”

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Despite California’s sapphire tilt, the state’s donors are the mother lode of campaign cash for both parties.

The presumptive nominees of the two major parties have raised more in California than any other state in the nation this election cycle, with Biden bringing in $24 million through April 30, and former President Trump $11.7 million, according to the Federal Election Commission. These numbers do not include Trump’s fundraising swing through the state last weekend, nor do they include what Biden is expected to raise Saturday at the Peacock Theater.

In 2020, donors associated with television, movies or music across the nation contributed $40.1 million to efforts supporting Biden and $24.3 million to groups working to reelect Trump, according to a campaign fundraising analysis by Open Secrets, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that tracks electoral finances.

The entertainment industry’s Democratic leanings are well known. However, this election is different from the days when industry leaders feted Bill Clinton in 1992 or Barack Obama in 2008.

“Clinton and Obama were both about generational change,” said Donna Bojarsky, a longtime Democratic political consultant, Hollywood fundraiser and co-founder of a nonprofit dedicated to building civic engagement in L.A. “This is not a happy election. This is an election of great importance, great struggle and great polarization.”

Biden doesn’t have the same deep relationships with the industry’s leaders that either of the prior Democratic presidents did.

National and swing state polls show a tight race between Biden and Trump, with little change since the Republican was convicted of 34 felony counts of falsifying business records about $130,000 in payments made to adult film actor Stormy Daniels to conceal an alleged sexual relationship, and the Democrat’s son being convicted of three felony gun charges.

“These are not the most optimistic of times,” Bojarsky said. “Social norms, economic norms, civic norms, everything is turned on its head.”

She added, however, that donors have come around, notably media mogul and Democratic kingmaker Jeffrey Katzenberg, who orchestrated Saturday’s fundraiser.

"This Saturday, we are going to see an unprecedented and record-setting turnout from the media and entertainment world," Katzenberg said. "The enthusiasm and commitment for Biden-Harris couldn’t be stronger. We all understand this is the most important election of our lifetime."

A discussion between Biden and Obama about the stakes of the election will be moderated by late-night host Jimmy Kimmel. In addition to Clooney and Roberts, other celebrities expected to appear include Jason Bateman, Jack Black, Kathryn Hahn and Sheryl Lee Ralph.

Biden was stymied from holding high-dollar Hollywood fundraisers for much of 2023 because of industry strikes. Once contracts were resolved, the president headlined major fundraisers here, including one in December where top tickets approached $1 million.

Hosted by directors Steven Spielberg and Rob Reiner, producer Shonda Rhimes and other bold-faced names, the event took place at the Holmby Hills home of James Costos, the U.S. ambassador to Spain under Obama, and designer Michael Smith, the White House interior decorator during the Obama administration, and featured a performance by musician Lenny Kravitz.

In February, media mogul Haim Saban hosted Biden for a fundraiser at his Beverly Park estate. Tickets cost up to $250,000 and attendees included actor Jane Fonda.

A few months later, Saban, a Democratic mega-donor, criticized the Biden administration for putting a shipment of weapons to Israel on hold because they could be used in an offensive against a densely populated city in southern Gaza.

This divide, which is splitting key voting blocs of the Democratic coalition, could be on display Saturday. Protesters have interrupted the president and Vice President Kamala Harris inside events, and they have massed outside of fundraisers and the White House. At least one rally is planned outside Saturday’s fundraiser.

Protests over the conflict have roiled college campuses across the nation, including a pro-Palestinian demonstration at UCLA this week that resulted in about two dozen arrests after an initially peaceful gathering turned tumultuous.

This dynamic is likely to be on display at Biden’s fundraiser because of the expected absence of Clooney’s wife, Amal Clooney, an international human rights lawyer. She worked on the International Criminal Court case that led to the court’s prosecutors seeking arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar and others.

George Clooney called a top Biden advisor to object to the president’s characterization of the application for arrest warrants for the Israeli leaders as "outrageous," according to the Washington Post.

Biden, who is attending the G-7 summit in Italy, is expected to arrive in Los Angeles on Saturday.

Later that day, thousands of the president’s supporters will converge upon the Peacock Theater. The least expensive tickets cost $250 for a seat farthest from the stage. The priciest option, at $500,000, includes four seats in the first three rows in front of the stage, a reception and photos with Biden and Obama, and an after-party, according to an invitation.

Republicans seized upon the gathering as proof that Democrats don’t understand the travails of many Americans.

“President Trump will be campaigning and meeting everyday Americans in Detroit, Mich., an area decimated by Joe Biden’s failed policies,” Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung said. “Meanwhile … Biden will be at a glitzy fundraiser in Hollywood with his elitist, out-of-touch celebrity benefactors that own him.”

The former president visited California this month in his first fundraising swing after his convictions, three high-dollar affairs that cost as much $500,000 per couple. Actor Jon Voight was among the attendees at one held at a bayfront manse on gated Harbor Island in Newport Beach.

Said Jessica Millan Patterson, the California Republican Party chairwoman: “Nothing says to struggling Americans, ‘I understand what you’re going through and am ready to help,’ like spending a night schmoozing with the ultra-relatable George Clooney, Julia Roberts and other Hollywood celebrities. What you likely will see at President Biden’s glitzy L.A. bash: anti-Israel protests dividing their party, excuses for why issues like inflation and illegal immigration aren’t as bad as Californians know they are, and a bevy of out-of-touch Hollywood elites who are fearful that their standard bearer isn’t up to the job.”

Democrats argue that such characterizations reflect Republicans’ jealousy over their party’s dominance among such donors, and they note that these contributors are working against their own economic interests because of their concerns for the nation’s future.

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“These people are not fighting for tax breaks for themselves. They’re fighting for you to have clean water, for you to have clean air, for you to have access to abortion and civil rights,” said Mathew Littman, a former Biden speechwriter who helped create a private group of Hollywood actors, directors and producers who work largely behind the scenes to help the Democratic Party.

Among those who have taken part in informational Zooms, fundraisers, get-out-the-vote efforts and other actions aimed at helping Democrats since the group was formed in 2017 are actors Alyssa Milano, Helen Hunt and Barbara Hershey; Lawrence Bender, whose resume includes producing multiple Quentin Tarantino films; David Mandel, whose credits include being an executive producer of “Veep,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Seinfeld”; and Kevin Kwan, the author of “Crazy Rich Asians.”

Kwan was a surrogate to Asian Americans during the 2020 Biden campaign.

“I wrote a lot of angry speeches,” he told the New Yorker in an article published in 2021.

“To get on a Zoom and see two hundred AAPI volunteers, I was, like, ‘Oh, my God,’” he said, according to the magazine. “Maybe I’m stereotyping, but it takes a lot to get the Asian volunteer out.”

Littman acknowledged that qualms about how motivated voters are to turn out in November are a key concern for some of the group’s members.

“There should be anxiety," Littman said. "It’s 50-50.”

But he added that Hollywood could be impactful, such as on social media, which now has a greater influence than most traditional media. He added that even those who are disenchanted by Biden or the Democratic Party recognize what’s at stake.

“Maybe you love Joe Biden. Maybe you don’t,” he said. “But you may love being able to get an abortion. You might love being able to protest without being deported. You might not want inflation going up 10% if Trump is elected. If you don’t want to talk about Joe Biden, don’t talk about Joe Biden. Talk about the issues at stake.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.