Kerry's California Coddling

*His campaign lavishes VIP attention on well-connected backers, trying to make them feel more like friends than mere fundraisers.

By Anne-Marie O'Connor, Times Staff Writer

Beverly Hills producer Daphna Ziman is no ordinary political fundraiser.

She and her husband sat with other top fundraisers in a special skybox for Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry's campaign at the party convention in Boston. They schmooze with the Kerrys at VIP receptions. At Rosh Hashana, Ziman said, Kerry called her with best wishes for peace in her native Israel. She sometimes calls Kerry on his cellphone â€" just to chat, Ziman said â€" as he traverses the swing states.

The Zimans belong to a rarefied group of Democratic Party fundraisers with backstage passes to the Kerry campaign. They are dealt into weekly conference calls with top party leaders and given special titles â€" Vice Chairs, Co-Chairs, Patriots, Trustees â€" based on how much money they've raised. They jet off to see the Kerrys at retreats, like a gathering at Teresa Heinz Kerry's estate near Pittsburgh in August, or a weekend in Washington, D.C., in early October.

They have helped touch off an avalanche of more than $102 million in political donations from Californians to Kerry, liberal groups and Democratic Party causes. In the process, Kerry set a record for raising more money in a single state than any candidate in any election.

Some fundraisers, like Ziman, display gold-tone brooches that spell out "Kerry 2004" in faux diamonds. Her husband, Richard Ziman, chief executive of Arden Realty â€" and a Kerry backer for nearly 10 years â€" got a silk tie whose pattern subtly blends little American flags and "JK '04."

Of course, wealthy Los Angeles fundraisers â€" like the Zimans, many have entertainment industry connections â€" don't really need campaign tchotchkes. They're committed liberals who want President Bush out of the White House.

But they also want something far more intangible â€" a level of access and attention to which fundraisers in Omaha could never aspire.

"The nice thing about John is that he listens. He really listens to people," Ziman said, sitting on a beige leather sofa with leopard spotted pillows in her beamed neo-Tudor mansion.

Rainmakers like the Zimans have been crucial to the Democratic Party's ability to match Bush's war chest of political contributions for the 2004 presidential race â€" particularly since campaign finance reform limited the usefulness of individual big-dollar donors. Their role is heightened in California, where Kerry holds a commanding lead, and where the fiercest campaign is the shakedown for money â€" not votes.

"In general, California has been used to raise dollars for the rest of the country," said Mark Gorenberg, the Kerry-Edwards California finance chairman. "We're primarily raising money to fund the ground game or the ear war in the swing states."

California fundraising has been "nothing short of amazing," Gorenberg said. In Kerry's last swing through the state, he earned $7 million with just two events, Gorenberg said. Four mid-October events raised $3 million for Democratic causes.

Making key political fundraisers feel appreciated â€" through access, symbolic gifts and honorary titles â€" has become a priority for both parties.

The Bush campaign led the way in the 2000 campaign, when it created the Pioneers, Rangers and Super-Rangers, and granted them substantial rewards: According to one study, at least 146 of them got federal jobs or appointments, some in positions to regulate their industries; at least two got Cabinet posts, and 24 were made ambassadors.

Last year, the Kerry campaign unveiled its own inner circle. Those who raised $100,000 were named Vice Chairs, $50,000 fundraisers were called Co-Chairs, and those raising $25,000 became members of the "national finance committee."

After the convention in Boston, Kerry campaign treasurer Bob Farmer created the Trustees, fundraisers who gather $250,000. Nearly 500 fundraisers signed up, 80 of them in California, though some are still working toward their goal, Farmer said. Trustees are eligible for the weekly conference call and retreats where they have personal access to the Kerrys â€" a taste of the kind of relationships that, in Hollywood, are a tradition.

"This is a very creative community with very healthy egos. There is no shortage of people wanting to offer advice," said Andy Spahn, the political advisor to longtime Democratic donors Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, as he sat in his sun-filled office eyeing a CNN broadcast of Bush speaking in New Hampshire.

"There's a real process of humoring," Spahn said. "A lot of the listening is ego massage."

One campaign volunteer put it more bluntly: "Donors love to hear themselves talk."

By all accounts, the Kerry campaign does lots of listening.

According to someone familiar with the relationship, Spielberg has repeatedly encouraged Kerry to smile more. The director has also sent Kerry John Wayne movies that demonstrate how he used pauses to give his words emphasis â€" an attempt to tone down Kerry's "academic" speaking style, the associate said.

DNC national finance co-chairman Peter Maroney has chatted with fundraisers at hotels like the Peninsula. Top liberal fundraisers such as director Rob Reiner and environmental activist Laurie David and her television star husband, Larry David, went over the campaign's ads with Kerry strategist John Martilla a few weeks ago at a private Brentwood home.

Supermarket billionaire Ron Burkle, who hosted a $4.2-million fundraiser for Kerry in March, is among those who have participated in Tuesday conference calls for West Coast fundraisers, Maroney said. Sometimes Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe fields their questions, he said.

"It helps in keeping people informed," Maroney said.

Kerry treasurer Farmer hosts a national Trustee call every week, during which fundraisers can listen to a revolving political A-list â€" strategist Bob Shrum, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, foreign policy advisor Madeleine Albright and sometimes even Kerry and his running mate, John Edwards â€" deal with issues such as the campaign's slow response to the Swift boat attack ads.

"If you're in Akron, Ohio, or Kansas City, you suddenly feel very connected to the campaign," said Farmer, the chairman of the Trustees program. "I think involvement always leads to money."

Laurie David said she has declined to accept a title â€" one out-of-date DNC list calls her a "Patriot," meaning she raised at least $100,000, though party officials say she has probably surpassed that â€" but she participates in the Trustees' calls.

"For any political junkie, they're fantastic," she said. "You really get to hear the inside of what's going on. You get to stay home and discuss stuff and participate if you have anything to say."

Though the Kerry campaign's fundraising ended with the party convention and the acceptance of public funding, donors can still give to DNC accounts like the "Kerry Edwards Victory '04" fund, which finances efforts to turn out the vote and television and radio ads, among other things. The overall limit is $57,500 each election cycle, Farmer said.

In August, the Trustees were invited to a retreat luncheon with the Kerrys at Heinz Kerry's 88-acre estate, Rosemont, near Pittsburgh, he said.

"We sent out a letter to everyone saying, 'When you visit someone's home, it's appropriate to bring a bottle of wine or flowers,' " Farmer recalled. " 'What we're suggesting is you bring a check for $20,000 or $25,000.' The Trustees brought a total of $2.5 million. It was unbelievable."

At another such meeting in Washington the first weekend of October, the Trustees helped raise $4.5 million. Trustees were invited to a special meeting with Kerry and to receptions with party luminaries, he said.

"It creates a national community," California's Gorenberg said. "It's a nice reward for key people around the country."

But established Hollywood fundraisers are harder to impress. The Zimans didn't even go to the D.C. retreat. They went to a wedding in Las Vegas.

"This is not about the perks," said Daphna Ziman, a former model and record company executive. "We are doing this for our children and the future of this country."

Campaign finance reform has altered the "VIP lounge mentality" that prevailed when presidential candidates courted a handful of Hollywood insiders who could each legally donate millions of dollars, said Skip Paul, an early Edwards fundraiser.

Candidates "have come in and auditioned and kissed rings. We expect to be courted," Paul said. "But it's not that efficient anymore. It doesn't pay to drive across town and wait for 15 minutes in someone's waiting room while they take calls from their agent. It's not, 'Do you know a few rich people?' But, 'Do you know a lot of people?' "

But in a city where the Academy Awards is just the climax of a year-round series of events, political fundraising benefits from a well-oiled social machine. In this universe, an August fundraiser in Santa Monica, featuring Tony Bennett, earned $3 million even though it was put together on 10 days' notice.

"I sat right next to John [Kerry] and gave him my opinions," said Richard Ziman, who with his wife was co-chairman of the event.

Here, Gulfstream liberals mingle with Gulfstream conservatives and Gulfstream libertarians, and political fundraising networks overlap with philanthropic money-raising circles. Fundraisers for Bill Clinton reinvent themselves as fundraisers for Al Gore and lunch with their friend Maria Shriver, the wife of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The wealthy liberal establishment employs a growing team of professional political consultants â€" drafted from the White House and national political campaigns â€" who act as liaisons between major fundraisers and the candidates, charities and causes they support.

The motivations of Los Angeles fundraisers are as varied as their resumes: They're concerned about the war in Iraq and the growing toll on U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians. They're worried about eroding environmental protections, U.S. policy toward Israel, job losses and abortion rights. They're concerned about intolerant attitudes toward gays and stem cell research. Some just want a friend for the entertainment industry in Washington.

Ambitious politicians like Kerry have tapped into this donor-rich community for years. "There's no question there are people in this community with long relationships with Kerry," said veteran political advisor Marge Tabankin.

Emerging fundraisers are quickly drawn into the fold.

Just days after Laurie David initiated a high-profile event for a pro-Democratic group, America Coming Together, DNC chairman McAuliffe penciled in a closed-door meeting with David and her husband in the "Chimp Room" of the Beverly Hilton.

At times, however, it can be difficult to figure out who's massaging whom.

When Dan Burrell came to Los Angeles to orchestrate Kerry's fundraising, he crashed at the Ziman residence â€" for three weeks, the Zimans said.

"John Kerry calls me up and says … can you give him a hand," Richard Ziman said. "He had no car, no place to stay. He ate out of the pantry like the rest of us. I talked to him every single day."

Then there is Jennifer Hodges, a volunteer coordinator working with the campaign and married to a freelance animation writer. Not long ago, she worked a fundraiser honoring McAuliffe at the home of an animation producer.

"I'm talking to her, making sure her celebrities are taken care of, and it turns out she owns one of the biggest animation companies in L.A.," Hodges said. "I said, 'Oh my God, can my husband send a spec script?' She said, 'Sure.' He called her the next day."

Daphna Ziman said she doesn't mind feeding Kerry campaigners. What irks her, she said, is their insistence on "idiotic" fundraiser titles that clash with her party's populist mission.

"I told some people in the campaign that I don't want to be called a Co-Chair or a Trustee anymore," Ziman said. "I want everybody to be equal. I feel so equal to an autistic 35-year-old man who has saved $50. Fifty dollars coming from a working person is worth much more than $25,000 coming from me and Richard."

But the treatment that big money donors receive is quite different. On a recent night, Ziman was one of a handful of people publicly thanked by Kerry's wife at a DNC fundraiser where the level of access was determined by the money donors had brought in.

The event's host was Luciana Solomon, a former "Bond girl" who played the flame-haired assassin who mocked James Bond's charms in 1965's "Thunderball" before being shot dead on the dance floor by one of her own men ("Do you mind if my friend sits this one out?" Bond remarked. "She's just dead.").

Actors Valerie Harper and Samuel L. Jackson were among the celebrities at the soiree. But most of the people Heinz Kerry mingled with in a restricted VIP area were a more obscure but far more crucial group, fundraisers who had each donated or helped raise more than $5,000 for the event.

Later, Heinz Kerry descended the garden path to address the larger, lower-paying group, saying that Los Angeles donors were "always there with a smile, always there with a hug, and always, always, with some dollars."

There was hesitant laughter.

"Well, that's why we're here, isn't it?" Heinz Kerry continued. "Unfortunately, we need money to run, as you know. And you've been superb."

Heinz Kerry detailed the social issues her audience cares about. But she also provided the intimate, insider tone they have come to expect. She confided that her husband had waited a long time to run for president. "He's the slowpoke," she said. "I think of him as a good claret. He takes time, and it's good."

She drew applause when she observed that Californians don't see the political ads broadcast in battleground states "because you're so progressive and so kind, you just give us the money and we spend it elsewhere."

At the Zimans' home, a silent army of caterers set up tables on a recent day for a fundraiser for Environment 2004, one of the pro-Democratic independent groups reaching out to swing state voters who could side with Bush â€" a choice Ziman finds incomprehensible.

"What is it about the American people?" Ziman said, disappearing down a hall to get dressed. "I really feel like half the population has had a lobotomy."

"Do you want to stay and meet Pierce Brosnan?" her voice trailed behind her. "He's the godfather of my daughters."

A few days later, Ziman began her seemingly endless morning phone calls in a small room adjacent to her French provincial-style kitchen, in front of a window with a view of water rushing down a stone fountain. Her husband padded around the kitchen in his T-shirt and shorts, reminding her about another reception.

Solomon, the hostess of the Heinz Kerry fundraiser, called. Kerry's wife, Ziman reported, was very happy with her.

"I told her that she and you would be friends for life," Ziman told Solomon. "Teresa is one of those people who will always make time for people. She'll be one of the only first ladies to use the White House kitchen. She makes the best cookies. I have to keep away from her."

"By the way, Luciana," Ziman asked her, "can you do another fundraiser?

"A lunch for Women for Kerry? You can? Oh, thank you so much!"

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