President Obama made history when he became the first sitting US president to announce support for gay marriage on Wednesday.
His campaign hopes to make history again on Thursday when the candidate for reelection heads to Hollywood for what could be the single most lucrative presidential campaign fundraiser yet. Unofficial estimates of the evening’s haul are running at $15 million.
The neatly-timed announcement on gay marriage, political pundits and gay rights activists say, has given the Obama candidacy fresh steam in the entertainment world as he heads toward a face-off with presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
“Hollywood has many faces,” says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. “So you cannot necessarily make a blanket statement.” Nonetheless, she says, there were many in various segments of Hollywood – from the business executives to the middle-class union workers – who felt that Obama had not made good on campaign promises. “This announcement gives fresh energy to Obama’s appeal across many sectors inside Hollywood,” she says.
The payoff has begun immediately, with iconic TV producer Norman Lear announcing that after withholding support for Obama’s reelection, he and his wife will pony up $40,000 each for the night’s festivities.
Openly gay Latino superstar Ricky Martin announced Wednesday that he will host a fundraiser on May 14 in New York, saying in a statement quoted on the Broadway world site, "I believe Barack Obama has shown a deep conviction to help those most in need, even if their voices are not always the ones heard the loudest in Washington.”
He went on to say that Obama “has also been an exceptionally strong advocate for the Latino and LGBT communities, leading us to precedent-setting milestones such as the appointment of the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice. … I believe the president has put the United States back on the right path and has earned the opportunity to finish the critical work that he has started."
While it is easy to scoff at celebrities-as-politicos, it’s important not to underestimate their reach, says Rich Ferraro, a spokesman for the gay rights advocacy group, GLAAD. “They are influencers of the larger culture,” he says, “and when popular entertainers support an issue or a candidate, their exposure matters.”
He points to the explosion of celebrity tweets all over Twitter in support of Obama’s newly stated stance on gay marriage. People from Russell Simmons to Alec Baldwin are speaking their minds, says Mr. Ferraro. “This also means that when someone like Russell Simmons speaks out, his comments get picked up not just on the mainstream media, but in black media and entertainment media as well.”
The Thursday night fundraiser is slated for the Fryman Canyon home of actor George Clooney in Studio City, where A-list actors and executives such as Robert Downey Jr. and Jeffrey Katzenberg will mingle with the other 150 or so luminaries who forked over the $40,000 price of entry.
Joining them will be two winners of an online raffle. This record-breaking strategy dangled two spots at the fundraiser for anyone willing to donate the suggested $3 or more in an online drawing.
This points to another important facet of the Obama campaign, the power of the small donor in contrast to the big celebrity, says Gordon Coonfield, professor of communication at Villanova University in Philadelphia.
“From what other media outlets have reported concerning Obama's fundraising, it isn't the rich and famous who do the bulk of the donating – it is ordinary, everyday Americans,” he says. Indeed, if the $15 million materializes from the event, it would mean that far more than half came from small donors.
Locals such as Lisa Swane, an unemployed nurse who lives in Fryman Canyon, anticipates a nightmare traffic block on Thursday, but says Obama made the right move.
“I’m not thrilled about the traffic this is going to cause,” she says, sitting in a Studio City Starbucks and reading an article about the possible record intake at the Clooney soirée, “but I think Obama is smart to tap Hollywood because he needs their deep pockets to offset Romney’s millions.”
Starbucks barrista Andrew Manus age 20, who just moved from Las Vegas, doesn’t think Obama needs the money at all, but feels the president’s clarified stance in favor of gay marriage will “most definitely help Hollywood types to open their wallets. It was a very smart move.”
Staff writer Daniel B. Wood contributed to this report.