Jeffrey Katzenberg, J.J. Abrams Leading the Charge of Hollywood's Super PAC Spenders
In a town that loves its blockbusters, Hollywood's political fund-raising scene is turning into a big-budget drama, thanks to the super PAC.
Political action committees built around industries or causes have been a feature of the political landscape for years, but the "super" variety -- technically, they're called "independent expenditure-only committees" -- was created after a bitterly divided U.S. Supreme Court struck down the McCain-Feingold campaign-reform act in 2010. The premise: Super PACs can accept unlimited funds to use as they wish for political candidates, as long as the money isn't directly funneled into a campaign.
That ruling has prompted a free-for-all mentality in fund-raising circles. Hollywood political insiders say reps of the super PACs have stepped up calls to arrange meetings and line up potential donors. Three of the Democrats' major entertainment industry givers already have been generous to Priorities USA, a super PAC run by former Obama White House aides Sean Sweeney and Bill Burton. Jeffrey Katzenberg has given $2 million to the committee that will support the president's re-election campaign, and J.J. Abrams and his wife, Katie McGrath, have contributed $100,000. Producer Steve Bing has donated $400,000 to the Democratic PACs American Bridge 21st Century and the Majority PAC. (The maximum donation one can give directly to a presidential campaign is $2,500 per election, plus $30,800 a year to a national party committee. Donors can also give $5,000 annually to any other political committees.)
"Every moment we have watched Republican extremists inch our nation closer to the catastrophe of default, Americans have felt the impact of the last election cycle and the success of Karl Rove and the Koch brothers," said Katzenberg at the time of his donation in May. "The stakes are too high for us to simply allow the extremism of a small but well-funded right-wing minority to go unchallenged."
Demand on the Republican side is particularly heavy because of the unsettled GOP field heading into primary season. Rove, the Bush White House political mastermind whose American Crossroads committee spent $38 million helping Republicans recapture the House in 2010, has raised more than $25 million during the current cycle, at least $1 million of which has paid for ads attacking President Obama's jobs proposal. Since Rove formed the PAC, Jerry Perenchio, the former Univision executive whose vast fortune has made him one of the GOP's most prolific givers, has donated $3 million to American Crossroads, including $2 million this year.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry is backed by the super PAC Make Us Great Again, run by his former chief of staff Mike Toomey. Make Us Great reportedly is willing to spend $55 million to help Perry gain the White House. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is backed by a super PAC, Restore Our Future, which has raised more than $20 million to support his campaign. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann has the super PAC Keep Conservatives United in her corner. Even Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert has launched a super PAC, raising money from viewers (deemed "heroes" in an onscreen scroll featured nightly on The Colbert Report). Colbert has not revealed how much he has raised, but it is thought to be a significant number. The show's super PAC funded an amusing ad urging voters in Iowa's August straw poll to back "Rick Parry."
Burton, who has been working with Katzenberg and top Hollywood fund-raiser Andy Spahn, says he and Sweeney will travel to Los Angeles and meet with the industry's Democratic heavy hitters during the coming weeks. Spahn says donors will be told that when it comes to super PACs, "it's clear that Priorities USA is the one."
The mission, explains Burton, "is to answer what Rove is doing, especially in relation to the presidential race." To that end, Priorities USA has raised about $3.2 million so far. "People have been supportive around the country," adds Burton. "People understand that there's a need and an urgency to respond and be ready for 2012."
Even so, another experienced Democratic operative in Hollywood says the super PACs might find themselves operating in a town whose usual donors already are on overload. "I don't know anyone who wants to write a million-dollar check right now," says one industry politico. "People aren't saying no, but they want more information. They want to get a better sense of who Obama is up against. They also want to figure out where their money would be best placed."
Complicating the matter, most super PAC expenditures are likely to be for negative advertising; that certainly has been the pattern so far, and given the nature of contemporary politics, there's little chance that will change. In fact, critics of the 2010 Supreme Court decision lament that it will turn campaigns nastier because "independent" ads often go negative. More than a few industry political givers might balk at financing the broadcast attacks sure to saturate the airwaves during the next year, courtesy of the super PACs.
One of the Democrats' biggest donors, L.A.-based mogul Haim Saban, tells The Hollywood Reporter he hasn't decided "who to give to and how much yet."
Saban echoes a sentiment pervasive in Hollywood. Still, given the pivotal role these massively funded organizations are likely to play in the presidential and congressional elections and the hard sell that's coming to gracious living rooms throughout the Westside, the super PACs could give new meaning to pocketbook politics.