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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Biden steps out in Tinsel Town and the big donors show up



President Joe Biden arrives at Los Angeles International Airport, en route to Santa Monica Airport, Calif., on Friday, Dec. 8, 2023. The president was back on the fund-raising trail in Los Angeles this weekend after a hiatus because of the writers’ and actors’ strikes.

By Aanjali Huynh


President Joe Biden is facing multiple wars, economic anxieties, the indictment of his son and flagging poll numbers. But he was received in California this weekend like a superstar, headlining the hottest events in Los Angeles.


In sprawling Southern California homes, celebrities flocked — and opened their wallets — to hear the president and the first lady, Jill Biden, make the case for why Biden should be reelected. The campaign swing was the first since the end of the monthslong actors and writers strikes, during which the president stayed away from the fundraising hub to show support for those on the picket lines.


“It was like a desert out here in LA,” said James Costos, a former ambassador under the Obama administration, who hosted one of the events. “There was a lot of people who were idly sitting by, wanting to know what was going on, who hadn’t seen the president in a while.”


The weekend’s activities — which included two large fundraisers and two “campaign meetings,” as described by the White House — came as recent polls indicated Biden could lose in an expected rematch with former President Donald Trump. Biden has struggled to assuage anxieties around an improved economy, and his steadfast support for Israel’s offensive in Gaza has earned the ire of young, diverse voters who threaten not to support him in 2024.


But in Hollywood, as they say, anything is possible.


At a party held by Costos and his partner, Michael Smith, many of those in attendance were household names: Steven Spielberg, Shonda Rhimes and Rob Reiner were co-hosts; Barbra Streisand and Jon Hamm attended; and Lenny Kravitz was the musical performer. Tickets started at $1,000 and went up to $500,000, and the event was expected to raise more than $7 million, according to a person familiar with the president’s fundraising.


And while Biden was the star, Trump took center stage in his remarks. Biden cast his predecessor as a danger to democracy — taking care to mention him by name in saying “You’re the reason why Donald Trump is a former president,” which was met with cheers.


“The other day, he said that he’d be a dictator only on the first day — thank God, only one day,” Biden quipped. He later added that Trump “embraces political violence instead of rejecting it. We can’t let this happen.”


The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment. But Trump on Saturday in New York City called the allegation that he would pose a threat to democracy part of Democrats’ “newest hoax,” and again flipped the attacks, saying “the threat is Crooked Joe Biden.”


Democrats have long counted on the liberal Los Angeles area as a financial power source. In 2019, Biden raised more than $700,000 at the home of Costos and Smith for the primary campaign that he went on to win. The reliance on the region is a frequent subject of attack for Republican opponents, who decry Democrats nationwide as funded by Hollywood elites and California liberals.


At a second fundraiser, held Saturday at the home of investors José Feliciano and Kwanza Jones, Biden tailored his remarks toward his administration’s successes for Black, Latino and LGBTQ constituencies. Of Trump, Biden said: “He talks about the blood of our country being poisoned. He’s talking about — you know what he’s talking about,” a slight addition to his comments from the night before.


While in town, Biden also paid his respects at the shiva for Norman Lear, the acclaimed television writer who died Tuesday.


In attendance at both fundraisers was Jeffrey Katzenberg, the longtime Hollywood executive who is a co-chair of the Biden Victory Fund. Katzenberg said the 36 hours of events represented a preview of fundraising efforts in the region next year. On Sunday, he put the weekend’s fundraising totals at “over $15 million.”


“This is a group of people that are pretty well-read, and they understand that all of the signals today are headed in the right direction and the wind is beginning to come into the sails of the president’s campaign,” Katzenberg said in an interview. He explained away Biden’s troubling poll numbers as evidence that “sentiment has not caught up with the facts.”


The soirees that reporters got a glimpse of had it all: At one, a couple hundred attendees gathered around heat lamps, conversing over live jazz in the background and eating organic hot dogs. On Saturday, dozens of stars lined the path into a multimillion-dollar home whose entryway displayed a larger-than-life Christmas tree, and Biden joked it “looked like walking into the White House.”


The events also drew a wide array of politicians and others, who congregated to demonstrate their support for him — and their distaste for Biden’s likely opponent. Two of the state’s best-known elected officials, Gov. Gavin Newsom and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, attended Friday’s event, and a third, Sen. Alex Padilla, was present at the fundraiser Saturday.


One surprising co-sponsor of Friday’s fundraiser was Rick Caruso, a billionaire and recent Democratic convert who lost his bid for mayor of Los Angeles last year. (Biden endorsed his opponent, Karen Bass, who won the election. She also attended Friday.)


Caruso, who said he had a “very meaningful” private conversation with the president Friday, said he planned to financially support moderate Democrats in California House races next year — and did not rule out another run for public office.


“I don’t agree with everything that Joe Biden does,” Caruso acknowledged in an interview. But, he added, “what I do feel strongly about is that he has a deep care and concern for our country, and he’s got a commitment to the democracy that we all enjoy. And I don’t believe that Trump does.”


But even while insulated in friendly territory, Biden couldn’t quite escape his woes. Pro-Palestinian protesters chanting “Hey hey, ho ho, the occupation has got to go” could be heard from the spacious backyard in Western Los Angeles on Friday. More than 1,000 people gathered at a nearby park to criticize his approach in Israel and the Gaza Strip, the Los Angeles Times reported.


Biden did not mention the conflict in either of his fundraiser addresses. But Jill Biden didn’t skip a beat when faint echoes of the protesters could be heard over her speech Friday. At one point, she remarked, “I’m so grateful Joe is our president during these uncertain times,” prompting a standing ovation from the crowd.

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