Biden woos donors, sidesteps Gaza at glitzy Westside fundraiser

President Biden’s arrival in Los Angeles for a weekend of campaign fundraising was greeted not just by well-heeled supporters, but hundreds of protesters who gathered outside a glitzy Westside fundraiser to demand a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip.

The Friday night fundraiser was held at the Holmby Hills home of James Costos, the U.S. ambassador to Spain under President Obama, and designer Michael Smith, the White House interior decorator during the Obama administration.

The star-studded event, headlined by musician Lenny Kravitz and co-hosted by filmmakers Steven Spielberg and Rob Reiner, was Biden’s first in Southern California since the end of the writers’ and actors’ strikes and the start of the Israel-Hamas war in October.

In an 11-minute speech to Democratic donors and elected officials, Biden did not address the Gaza conflict, instead focusing on the threat he said Donald Trump poses to democracy.

“The future of American democracy is at stake — literally,” Biden said. “It all is at stake. Let me be clear: Donald Trump poses many threats to the country, from the right to choose to civil rights to voting rights to America’s standing in the world. But the greatest threat Trump poses is to our democracy, because if we lose that, we lose everything.”

In a lush backyard surrounded by tall hedges, several hundred guests listened to live jazz, sipped cocktails and ate organic hot dogs made from grass-fed beef. Many guests had jackets or white pashmina shawls to guard against the 55-degree night.

Hours before the event, hundreds of pro-Palestinian demonstrators began gathering in a public park across the street, calling for a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip and for the United States to end financial and military aid to Israel.

As guests dressed in suits, ties and cocktail attire walked toward the fundraiser, protesters chanted at them, “Shame on you!” and, “What we want is total freedom.”

Much of the crowd had abated by the time the fundraiser’s programming began in earnest, but helicopters continued to fly overhead. During brief comments by First Lady Jill Biden and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), the crowd heard the faint but unmistakable sound of air horns.

More than 300 people were expected at the fundraiser, some of whom were flying in from Texas, Washington, Boston and other parts of the country, Costos said in an interview with The Times.

“This isn’t just Hollywood glitterati, you know, this is really like a rally,” he said, as Kravitz could be heard doing a sound check in the background.

Biden landed at Los Angeles International Airport about 5 p.m. and flew to Santa Monica Airport on Marine One, where he was greeted by California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass and other local elected officials. The presidential motorcade briefly shut down the 405 Freeway as it headed north to the fundraiser.

Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack that targeted Jews in Israel, and Israel’s airstrikes in Gaza in the days since, have revealed a dramatic divide among Democrats over a war that has already left thousands of people dead, mostly Palestinians.

A Pew Research Center poll released Friday found that the Biden administration’s handling of the war in Gaza has been far less popular with young Democrats. The poll, conducted last week, found that 21% of voting-age Democrats under the age of 30 approve of Biden’s handling of the war, compared with 74% of Democrats ages 65 and older.

Overall, about 1 in 3 Americans approved of Biden’s response to the war, 4 in 10 disapproved, and about 1 in 4 were not sure, the poll found.

Campaign officials say that party divisions over Biden’s handling of the conflict have not hindered fundraising efforts — and in some cases, have motivated donors to cut heftier checks.

The tensions over the war are a “snapshot of a moment in time,” said Jeffrey Katzenberg, a co-founder of DreamWorks Pictures and a Biden campaign co-chair who has played a central figure in the president’s reelection effort.

“These things are ongoing every single day, and the emotions around them are going to change,” Katzenberg said. “To try and be predictive of how young people are going to act or react or what they’re going to do when they go to the polls 10 months from now is a crazy exercise in futility.”

The president and first lady are expected to attend six events — a mix of private fundraisers and meetings — between them during their 36-hour visit to Los Angeles.

The trip is part of an end-of-year fundraising blitz aimed at boosting Biden’s fourth-quarter haul to a target of around $67 million, according to a source familiar with the campaign figures.

Katzenberg said each event is at capacity, and he expects Biden’s Los Angeles visit to be the biggest fundraising swing for any candidate in a year prior to an election year.

To attend Friday night’s event, donors could contribute up to $929,600 to the Biden Victory Fund, a joint fundraising committee that supports the president’s reelection campaign, the Democratic National Committee and state Democratic parties.

Star-studded Hollywood fundraisers are a staple of Democratic candidates who rely on California donors to fund their campaigns. But those types of glitzy events have been on hold for most of the year during the dual strikes of the actors and writers guilds. Writers were on strike for 148 days and actors for 118 days between May and November during disputes over pay, benefits, streaming revenue and the use of artificial intelligence.

“I think there’s pent-up interest, excitement and enthusiasm to actually have President Biden in person,” Katzenberg said. “It’s not lost on anybody how important and effective his leadership has been.”

The other co-hosts of Friday’s star-studded event included producers Shonda Rhimes and Peter Chernin, businessman and former L.A. mayoral candidate Rick Caruso and several former U.S. ambassadors.