By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Like many savvy political operatives playing at the national level, Bernard and Gifford never thought that a presidential campaign would need to raise at least $100 million, but that's the record level this bruising multicandidate fight has reached — and the campaign consultants for Obama back in Chicago expect large checks from Southern California. So far, Bernard and Gifford have out-raised the other regions of the Obama campaign three out of the last four quarters, with Los Angeles events they organized for DreamWorks and Oprah Winfrey bringing in nearly $5 million.
In a massive primary like February 5, with some of the biggest media markets in the world to reach, including not just California but New York, Illinois, New Jersey and Massachusetts, the race between Obama and Clinton could come down to having the money to woo the millions of "soft voters" who polls show have settled on a candidate but could still change their minds.
Rufus Gifford stands in the driveway outside the Fishers' multiwinged, contemporary mansion on the night of the big event. He's dressed in a navy pinstriped suit with a red tie and watches the guests stroll toward him. Obama hasn't arrived.
"Do you need anything?" Gifford asks a woman in a long brown dress.
"Oh, no, dear, I'm fine."
Bernard, dressed in a black suit with a yellow tie, walks around inside, telling jokes and shaking hands with people as they eat minicheeseburgers and sip red wine. Bernard and Gifford know how to work a room, people like them.
Gifford now walks inside and spots Bernard. He tells him everything looks okay, and they crunch the new numbers. They figure some 600 guests, bringing in at least $850,000. The guys look at each other and smile — it's going to be a lucrative evening.
An hour or so later, Barack Obama, dressed in a dark suit, makes his way through the glass doors that lead to the backyard. It looks like a rainforest, lit up like a movie set. Hundreds of people surround Obama as he stands on a little stage covered with black AstroTurf. Mike Medavoy is looking up at him, a foot away. Bill Paxton stands behind the presidential candidate. Dick Zanuck, the Republican movie producer who told Gifford he has never before contributed to a Democrat, flanks Obama's right. The senator goes into his speech of hope and changing America and tells the crowd, "Running against the Clintons ain't no cup of tea."
Bernard and Gifford stand inside and watch the scene from the kitchen. It's the kind of night they signed up for a year ago, when they decided to work for Obama. Hillary Clinton's campaign offered them a job too, and for more money, but Bernard and Gifford just couldn't see themselves raising the big bucks for a candidate who they felt was largely running on Bill Clinton's presidential record, which wasn't always good to gays. "The only way I could honestly sell her to people would be to say she's going to win," says Bernard. "What's the point of that? When we started our company, we wanted to pick only candidates we would be enthusiastic about. Obama was that candidate. He absolutely has the best record on gay and lesbian issues."
On February 1, 2007, Bernard and Gifford went to work, but the campaign infrastructure for Obama in California was sketchy. "There was nothing," Bernard says. Veteran political operative Mitchell Schwartz, for example — who has worked for Barbara Boxer, Bill Clinton and Gray Davis, among others — wasn't hired as the California political director until August. With the help of a few other true believers, Bernard and Gifford took on the added duties of advance men, political strategists — and even Obama's bodyguards, when he came to California during those first six months.
It wasn't an entirely bad situation, at least for the two guys. Few handlers were attached to Obama at that point, so whenever he came into town, Bernard could get coveted face time with the candidate. He could also schedule impromptu meetings, like the one between Obama and several gay leaders from Los Angeles at the W Hotel in Westwood. "They talked about their concerns with Barack," says Bernard.
Bernard also set up a crucial meeting between Los Angeles City Council President Eric Garcetti and Obama. "It was a time when Eric was being heavily wooed by both Obama and Clinton," Bernard says. "So I asked if I could break the golden rule and allow Eric to take a ride with Barack to an event. When Eric came out of the car, he told me he was going to absolutely endorse Barack. He was very excited."
Although endorsements by local politicians have very little effect on what voters do, they are believed to add heft to a campaign, helping with fund-raising — and with gaining endorsements from other politicians. Garcetti, utterly unknown outside Los Angeles, was an important endorsement to land simply because many elected officials in Los Angeles, at that point, were heading to Clinton's camp.
Bernard and Gifford, along with other Los Angeles staffers, were also pushing the campaign honchos in Chicago to send the candidate to speak at the influential and politically oriented First African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Los Angeles, which styles itself a leader in endorsing black candidates. "We thought it was important for Barack to do a political event when he was here for fund-raising," says Bernard. Usually money men like Bernard think only about the big-buck event, but the First AME speech turned into a major happening by earning national press and introduced Obama, the skilled orator, to a national audience.
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