LOS ANGELES — California Democrats, especially those with ties to the influential LGBTQ and Hollywood communities, are finding themselves torn between a home-state senator they love, Kamala Harris, and an out-of-state suitor who has suddenly captured their attention, Pete Buttigieg.
It’s a dynamic that’s unsettling the Democratic presidential primary in California — home to an early 2020 March contest that offers a mother lode of nearly 500 delegates. No two candidates are crowding each other quite so closely here, or elbowing each other quite so aggressively, in the pursuit of some of the party’s most generous and influential donors.
Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., isn’t viewed as a direct threat to Harris. But his rapid rise, appeal to millennial voters and newfound popularity among Hollywood and Silicon Valley donors stands to hinder her ability to lock down her backyard. And it could enable the 37-year-old mayor to net a solid cache of delegates from Harris’ home state — perhaps even more than he can capture in early-voting states like Nevada or Iowa.
Democratic strategist Garry South says the growing buzz about Buttigieg’s success in wedging his way into California’s lucrative fundraising base has shocked many longtime politics watchers in the state.
“I think the amazing thing is that nobody is ceding California to Kamala Harris … no one is abandoning California to the native daughter — which tells you something,’’ he says. “Why would he come out here and spend four days if he thought she had California locked up?“
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who presides over one of the country’s most lucrative Democratic fundraising ATMs, hasn’t yet endorsed in the crowded 2020 presidential race. He freely admits experiencing some angst over the situation.
“I love Kamala Harris, she’s a dear friend,’’ he says of the former state attorney general, who has scheduled a dizzying round of fundraisers in the state next week.
But, Garcetti notes, Buttigieg “is one of my closest mayor friends.”
Garcetti will appear at a Thursday event with Buttigieg that will bring together union activists from the teachers, carpenters and SEIU — all bastions of Democratic support in California. Buttigieg is also scheduled to attend packed fundraisers hosted by some of the city’s LGBTQ and Hollywood royalty during his upcoming visit to the state this week.
“We have a lot of people who are very candidate curious,’’ Garcetti notes. “Kamala has a ton of love up and down the state, but people might say, ‘That doesn’t mean I’m not going to shop around…Maybe I’ll keep her as my senator and go with somebody else as president.’”
Buttigieg’s team says the mayor — who is making his fifth trip to the Golden State this week — plans to “play hard” in California, where he’s appearing in aggressive round of fundraisers this week, including sold-out, $25-a-head grassroots fundraisers in both San Francisco and Los Angeles.
State party insiders say Buttigieg’s community events and low-dollar fundraisers, designed to give average voters a chance to meet him, dramatize a longtime critique of Harris from some quarters of the party — that she has tended to favor events crowded with deep-pocketed donors in tony bastions like San Francisco’s Nob Hill and Hollywood over town halls or low-dollar events.
“I think Kamala Harris is in danger of losing ground to a number of people [in her home state],” says veteran L.A. politics watcher and attorney Jessica Levinson, the former president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission.
“Mayor Pete is the flavor of the month, he’s really excited people, particularly in the LGBT community,’’ she says, though “[Harris] actually has more specific policies than he does.”
Buttigieg’s May fundraising schedule includes four fundraising events alone Thursday in the L.A. area, including at the home of Gwyneth Paltrow and her husband Brad Falchuk. Co-hosts include actor Bradley Whitford and John Gile, who has been in LGBT leadership on the Democratic National Committee and served on the Obama and Clinton presidential campaigns.
“He does interest me, because he’s so multi-faceted,’’ says Melissa Rivers — the former star of the cult favorite show “Fashion Police” and Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice” with her mother, the late Joan Rivers — of Buttigieg.
A Joe Biden supporter, Rivers notes that many of her Hollywood friends who have long expected to back Harris are feeling torn these days over their growing attraction to the newcomer mayor.
“It’s going to be very hard. If you don’t like that he’s gay, you’ll like that he’s a military guy,’’ says Rivers, who says she’s been deluged with fundraising invites. “If you don’t like that he’s a military guy, you’re going to like that he’s a mayor. It backs people into a corner because there’s nothing to attack him on.’’
Nowhere has the competition between Harris and Buttigieg been more startling than in emails to major donors from Susie Tompkins Buell, one of the party’s most influential donors and a longtime friend and backer of Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Buell was front and center in February in Oakland, announcing her endorsement for Harris when the senator rolled out her campaign before 22,000 adoring fans.
But Buttigieg subsequently caught Tompkins’ eye — and to the surprise of many, the powerhouse San Francisco donor sent out emails announcing her intention to hold a fundraiser for him and inviting supporters to attend his other fundraisers as well.
“He adds a rich, deep, thoughtful and resonant voice to the conversation and it’s evident that the country is responding to him. He is a special guy and formidable candidate,’’ she wrote in an April email to friends.
While Tompkins Buell has noted that she and husband Mark Buell are still backing Harris, she said of Buttigieg that “we believe he needs to be part of the presidential field,’’ and provided the email of her political assistant Joey Castenada as a Buttigieg contact.
Tompkins Buell has since sent out emails urging key Bay Area Democrats to hear Buttigieg “share his vision” at three May 10 fundraisers in San Francisco.
At the same time, Tompkins Buell has urged her circle of Democratic activists to attend three fundraisers on May 9 and 10 for Harris in San Francisco, saying that “the rest of the nation is beginning to discover what we’ve always known: Kamala is dedicated to public service and continues to do her best for the people.”
Campaign fundraising records show Harris has far eclipsed Buttigieg in raising money from Californians, hauling in more than $4 million compared to roughly $522,000 for the Indiana mayor during the first quarter of 2019, a period in which candidates were rolling out campaigns and introducing themselves to voters.
Still, dozens of Californians hedged their bets and gave to both candidates. Among the double-dippers were television writer-producers Michael Schur and Marlene King, Facebook executive Naomi Gleit and Playboy scion Cooper Hefner.
Rick Zbur, executive director of Equality California — one of the nation’s leading LGBTQ advocacy groups — says that while Harris has long amassed legions of admirers in the gay and lesbian community, Buttigieg has awed those who never believed they would see a married gay man as a major presidential candidate in their lifetimes.
“It’s incredibly inspiring,’’ he told POLITICO in an interview, recalling being at a gathering with friends watching Buttigieg’s public comments. “And when he talked about his faith, and the challenges and struggles of coming out…there were literally people who had tears in their eyes, because it was so authentic.’’
Asked if many California Democrats are torn in their loyalties, Zbur said, “I think people are excited that we actually have two candidates — one of whom has been among our strongest allies as an elected official anywhere in the country, and who would be shattering multiple glass ceilings on her own. And so many members of our community see themselves in her.’’
Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY’s List, who hosted a recent fundraising event that drew crowds of Hollywood women, says Harris may be able to count on some those powerful entertainment industry women to back up her candidacy, given her California contacts and roots.
“The name recognition in California, you’ve got the early primary, you’ve got an interesting situation here,’’ Schriock said. “But those Iowa caucuses still mean the world in this process. So they’re all going to have to roll up their sleeves.’’
Jeremy B. White contributed to this report.
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