A Harris-Villaraigosa Senate Battle Could Split Hollywood Dems (Analysis)

Antonio Villaraigosa Kamala Harris Split - H 2015
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Antonio Villaraigosa Kamala Harris Split - H 2015

Both politicians have had their turn in the industry's political spotlight, with supporters raising millions for their previous runs.

If State Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa follow through on their plans to run for the retiring Barbara Boxer’s U.S. Senate seat, they’ll face two intense battles — one in the primary and the other in the contest for Hollywood’s support.

It’s anybody’s guess which will be the fiercer contest, because a Harris-Villaraigosa match has the potential to deeply split the entertainment industry’s Democratic donors and activists. Both the attorney general, who announced her candidacy on Tuesday, and the ex-mayor, who is "seriously" exploring a bid, have deep ties to Hollywood major fundraisers and contributors. Similarly, both have enjoyed turns in the limelight that come with being one of the industry’s political darlings.

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Relationships count in the entertainment industry and, as a veteran political consultant told The Hollywood Reporter on Tuesday, “Behind closed doors people root for Kamala, but Antonio has Hollywood’s ear.”

Longtime Democratic strategist and campaign guru Bill Carrick agreed. “Don’t underestimate Antonio,” he said.

Villaraigosa’s two terms as LA’s mayor made him the first Latino to hold that office in modern times, and he previously was elected as the first Latino Speaker of the California Assembly, where he was widely recognized as a master political tactician. His first campaign for City Hall was something of a landmark in Hollywood political history. While the entertainment industry previously had avoided local campaigns, many of its heaviest hitters went all in for Villaraigosa, the one-time labor organizer whose life story and status as a Latino political pioneer, appealed to Hollywood.

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"People look at him as they would a movie star," longtime public affairs consultant Kerman Maddox, a Villaraigosa fundraiser, said in an interview at the time. The ex-mayor further cemented his Hollywood ties with the prominent role he played nationally as a key player in Barack Obama’s outreach to the Latino community.

Just how concrete those ties are was demonstrated in Villaraigosa’s 2009 campaign for reelection, when he raised nearly $2 million in one night from Hollywood donors, including many of the industry’s deepest Democratic pockets. Among them were sports agent Casey Wasserman (grandson of the legendary Lew Wasserman); Disney CEO Bob Iger; HBO Films president Colin Callender; media mogul Haim Saban; Laker great Magic Johnson; 20th Century Fox co-chairman Jim Gianopulos; director-producer Jerry Zucker; syndicated television mogul Michael King; writer-TV producers Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and Harry Thomason (both longtime friends of Bill and Hillary Clinton); superagent Patrick Whitesell; DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg; then-William Morris chief Jim Wiatt; and News Corp.’s then-president Peter Chernin.

That said, Hollywood has been equally demonstrative in its political affection for Harris, who has an equally compelling life story, and whom entertainment industry talent spotters quickly identified as higher office material. As district attorney in San Francisco, she was California first African-American chief prosecutor and now serves as the state’s first black and Asian-American attorney general. (Her mother was an oncologist who emigrated from India and her father was a Jamaican-American.) Though a career prosecutor, she opposes the death penalty and has carved out a reputation as an advocate of progressive reforms in the criminal justice system.

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In her run for attorney general, she shared Hollywood “it girl” status with Elizabeth Warren, now a Democratic senator from Massachusetts. Among Harris’ earliest entertainment industry fundraisers and donors were Kelly and Ron Meyer, J.J. Abrams and Katie McGrath, authors Lisa Jones Johnson and Jarone Johnson, event producer Brent Bolthouse, director-producer Brett Ratner, Haim and Cheryl Saban, and former studio head and longtime Democratic stalwart Sherry Lansing.

“Kamala has been developing a base in Hollywood for several years now and people are very excited and impressed by her,” one longtime Hollywood political consultant told THR. “For many people, she really represents the future.”

Like Villaraigosa, Harris further strengthened her Hollywood ties when she took on a national profile as one of Obama’s early supporters. In fact, she recently was on the president’s short list of candidates to replace U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder, though Harris took herself out of the running for that post.

“If we learned one thing from Hollywood's early and active support of Barack Obama," Harris' then-campaign manager Brian Brokaw said at the time, "it's that the entertainment community has an eye for new leadership and innovative ideas.”

A statewide campaign for U.S. Senate will be the most expensive either Harris or Villaraigosa ever has tried to wage. Given Hollywood’s now established status as a primary source of Democratic funding, both are going to turn to their industry supporters, a group that overlaps in significant respects. With the town’s political donors forced to take sides, it is likely to be a race that tests and divides Democratic Hollywood.