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The Influencers

Who do the A-listers call when they want to get things done? They call The Influencers -- a key group of people who have been quietly advising their clients on how to get involved in the political and philanthropic spheres. You might not know their names, but you’re sure to know their Hollywood clients, and the Influencers are the first on the phone list when politicians make their SoCal campaign stops for donations, endorsements and most importantly, the stellar Hollywood network. Find out who the five key Hollywood influencers are in these in-depth interviews and profiles, as they discuss their careers and experiences in Tinseltown’s dalliance with D.C.

The Networker

Name: John Emerson
Age: 57
Current Role: President of Capital Group Private Client Services, Southern California co-chair of Obama ’12 campaign
Affiliations: Chairman of Los Angeles Music Center, DNC fundraising, local arts advocacy

Name: John Emerson

Age: 57

Current Role: President of Capital Group Private Client Services, Southern California co-chair of Obama 2012 campaign

Affiliations: Chairman of Los Angeles Music Center, DNC fundraising, local arts advocacy


If there’s one man who understands how Hollywood is politically connected, it’s John Emerson. 

After moving to Los Angeles at the age of 24 and working on Charles Manatt’s successful campaign for chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Emerson decided to stay in Los Angeles, rather than making the move to D.C. in order to “participate in the politics but not make politics my career,” as he puts it.

For someone so adamant about not making politics a career, Emerson has found himself in the midst of some of the most important campaigns over the last three decades. After working for Manatt, Emerson found himself working as a general consul for Jerry Brown's 1982 Senate bid. He then became Gary Hart's California chairman in 1984, then the deputy national campaign manager for Hart's presidential bid in 1986, before becoming Bill Clinton's California campaign manager in 1992, and then a part of Clinton's senior staff at the White House. His journey didn't end there; after he returned to Los Angeles from D.C., he ran for chief deputy city attorney (unsuccessfully) before moving into private wealth management in the investment sector. He is currently the president of Capital Group Private Client Services. 

Emerson’s mentors and employers have included Manatt, Hart and Clinton, all of whom he has worked for on their Southern California campaigns. Having been a key Democratic operative over three decades, it is no wonder that Emerson, with his political and Hollywood connections, plays a key role for any candidate coming through Los Angeles.

Being involved primarily in campaign finance, Emerson has seen the evolution of Hollywood’s politics, from the days of the Malibu Mafia in the '60s to the Hollywood Women’s Political Committee in the '90s and then the grass-roots support for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008. 

The change mainly comes through campaign finance reform, which had a huge effect on how Hollywood influenced the money and politics of campaigns. 

“In those days of the Malibu Mafia, the name of the game was to get a few very powerful, very wealthy people together, and having them, in effect, underwrite either an entire campaign or portions of the campaign,” explains Emerson. “Today, with campaign finance reform, the more powerful people are those who have the ability to attract a multitude of contributors at lower levels.”

Emerson is referring to the "bundlers," people who can gather numerous contributions from different donors to hit the big bucks. And three of Hollywood's biggest checkbooks belong to the three studio heads and Hollywood heavyweights at DreamWorks SKG, namely Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg. 

“If Jeffrey commits to an event or a candidate, he gets on the phone, he works it personally, he has a staff of people, they get there, they work it and they work it hard, and they’re bringing lots of people to the table,” says Emerson.

Obama’s recent rally at the Sony Studios Lot in Culver City in April is indicative of this. Holding a rally at the Sony Studio was owed, in part, to Emerson’s advice and connections, and the event saw around 2,500 people attend, purchasing tickets priced between $100 and $2,500 for the VIP section. 

There was a distinct lack of Hollywood heavyweights at the rally, with only a couple of television actors making appearances, but it was the two intimate dinners that really counted. Emerson co-hosted the dinner held at the Sony Lot, priced at $35,800 a head, with approximately 60 attendees, while Jeffrey Katzenberg hosted the second dinner at the Tavern in Brentwood with around the same number of attendees. 

But what does spending $35,800 get in return?

“It really doesn’t get you much of anything,” laughs Emerson. “They basically get and want access to the policymakers and their key advisers so they can talk to them about the issues that they care about, and fundamentally feeling that they’re giving back to society by hopefully getting people elected who are going to make this world a better place.”

While this might sound a little simplistic, Emerson explains that studios have their own lobbyists to influence issues in D.C., but when it comes down to actual Hollywood individuals, the interest in politics doesn’t always come with a personal agenda. 

“Hollywood money and celebrity involvement is about pure political commitment ... there really isn’t a quid pro quo expected,” says Emerson.

In recently released donor lists from the Obama for America 2012 campaign, Emerson is in the top tier of fundraisers, having bundled more than $500,000 from his connections in Hollywood. 

Accompanying him in the ranks for fundraising in Los Angeles County are Katzenberg and his political consultant Andy Spahn [link to his Influencer page] and Noah Mamet [link to his Influencer page] among others, while Vogue editor Anna Wintour is roping in donations from New York. 

But the money doesn’t necessary flow blue and red. While Democratic candidates regard California, and more specifically, Hollywood, as an important stop on the campaign tour, Republicans have a slightly more complex relationship with Tinseltown. 

“There are very few people in the entertainment industry who would be comfortable with the extreme-right-wing component that seems to be taking more and more control over the Republican Party, so maybe there’s a certain ambivalence on their part,” explains Emerson. “The kind of candidates that they support are Meg Whitman, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Clint Eastwood, who run as more economically conservative but they are socially progressive.”

Emerson rejects the conservative conventional wisdom that Hollywood only produces content that is biased to the left.

“If you’re a director, you’re only going to put actors in the film that you feel get the best performance and help you make the best possible product, because you’re only as good as your last movie,” emphasizes Emerson. 

“If you start playing political games with that, your career could be over.”

Emerson understands that Hollywood’s biggest challenge in being heard in D.C. comes down to having an educated voice. 

“I think where Hollywood people hurt themselves is when they don’t do their homework and they go in and start preaching about something and it looks like they don’t know their facts,” says Emerson. 

He points to actor George Clooney being more knowledgeable than many people in Congress on the Darfur conflict in the Sudan. Clooney, who has been actively advocating for the resolution of that conflict for the past five years, is one of the founders of Not On Our Watch, an organization aimed at ending mass atrocities around the world. Fellow founders of the organization include Hollywood A-listers Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, Don Cheadle and Jerry Weintraub. Clooney has also taken his fight to D.C. numerous times.

“Because they have the resources to learn, to talk to the experts, to get to the places, to see it on the ground, they actually can be quite knowledgeable and quite helpful,” adds Emerson. 

With an interest in getting more civically involved, Emerson took on the voluntary position as chairman of the Music Center in Los Angeles.

“I’ve always had a personal interest in the performing arts, but I think fundamentally what attracted me to it was its role as one of the major civic institutions in Los Angeles,” says Emerson of his role at the Music Center. 

Part of his role required him to organize fundraisers, and with Emerson’s connections, the Music Center has hosted some star-studded events. In June 2011, Emerson and his wife, Kimberly, were honored at the Music Center's annual Gala Con Brio, as Emerson stepped down as the chairman of the Music Center after eight years. 

Having stepped down, Emerson can now focus on his role as the Southern California Co-chair of Obama's 2012 re-election campaign. And when it comes to the younger generation of Hollywood, the recent wave of youth involvement in politics in 2008 hasn’t gone without notice. 

“I think with the Obama campaign, there was a reawakening of young people,” explains Emerson. “While that has slipped away a little with the economy and some disillusionment on the part of many, it hasn’t gone away and I’m just very impressed with the number of young people who are still very active in wanting to mobilize for causes or political candidates; it’s much more than it was in the '80s and even part of the '90s.”

Emerson names Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz as active on environmental issues, Lady Gaga on gay rights, and the Black Eyed Peas’ Will.I.Am for rousing the increasingly more pertinent echelon of young Hollywood. As Los Angeles gears up for the next round of presidential campaigns, Emerson hopes to see celebrities continuing to use their platform and access to get involved and empower young people. 

“Who can be influential? Fundamentally, people who are smart, who are willing to take the time to learn the issues, and who are exceedingly popular,” says Emerson. Regardless of whether they’re film, television or recording artists, it’s anybody who has that popularity and then is willing to put the work into it.”

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