Reading the newspapers or watching cable news, you might think that President-elect Barack Obama’s best pals in Hollywood are George Clooney, Barbra Streisand and David Geffen. However, as with most things in Los Angeles, the facade often hides a less glittery reality.
Sure, Clooney is a cool guy with whom the president-elect has had occasional friendly conversations, Babs is a go-to Democratic fundraiser and Geffen helped the Illinois senator get his foothold in Hollywood, providing an early PR blow against the Clinton machine. But none of these showbiz giants could be considered Obama’s close friend — at least not the type he’ll text or IM when he wings out to the Coast.
Obama’s tightly knit circle is mostly Chicago-based, but there is a group of folks he considers his buddies here in L.A. Few ever make headlines, and you probably won’t find any hocking the guy for ambassadorships, high-level White House positions or even Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers.
Here’s a partial rundown of the folks Obama can call true blue, according to several insiders who worked on his campaign. All were contacted to confirm details about their relationship with Obama, with only a few not returning calls by press time.
There are still others we tried to track down: a Pasadena banker, a partner at an energy investment firm whose mother knew Obama’s mother in Indonesia, and a woman in the San Fernando Valley who may (or may not) be a distant cousin on his “Kansas side.” Erring on the side of caution, though, we’ve listed only those we could nail down as having been there at the beginning or, as one character says in “Citizen Kane,” even “before the beginning.”
Michael Lawson — A partner with the international law firm Skadden, Arps and a board member of the Music Center and the Los Angeles Airport Commission, Lawson and his wife, interior designer Mattie McFadden-Lawson, have been big Obama donors since his first U.S. Senate campaign. Beyond giving financial support, however, they’ve also become personal friends, and Michael Lawson is one of the first people Obama calls when he comes to town. A fellow Harvard Law School alum, though he graduated about a decade earlier, Lawson raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the candidate through fundraisers at his lush, lavish estate — an Italian Renaissance mansion formerly owned by boxing great Muhammad Ali in the exclusive gated area of Hancock Park.
James Lassiter — Will Smith’s longtime manager and head of their production company, Overbrook Entertainment, Lassiter — always known by his initials, J.L. — grew up in the same Philly neighborhood as Smith and was introduced to the actor/rapper by his former sideman, DJ Jazzy Jeff. Launching Overbrook in 1998 (the company is named after their high school), Lassiter struck deals with Sony and Indian media company UTV. He later became close with Obama through a mutual friend, Wall Street investment banker Brian Mathis.
Hill Harper — Yet another Harvard Law School alum who moved to L.A., Harper is best known to television audiences as crime scene investigator Sheldon Hawkes on the hit series “CSI: NY.” (He’s also appeared in several films, including Spike Lee’s “He Got Game” and the Oprah Winfrey-produced slave drama “Beloved.”) A member of Obama’s national campaign finance committee, he also participated in the “Yes, We Can” viral video. Aside from his acting, Harper is an activist who formed an online social network, ForRealSolutions.com, and also contributes to several philanthropic efforts, including the recent 10,000 Bookbags campaign to provide school backpacks and educational supplies for underprivileged kids.
Jamie Lynton — The sister of Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter and wife of Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton, Jamie Lynton was raised in Chicago, where her mom, the late Joanne Alter — the first female Democrat elected in Cook County, according to her obit — spotted Obama in 2003 and convinced her daughter to support him. As a result, Lynton co-hosted an early fundraiser for Obama’s Senate bid in 2004 in addition to hosting a presidential campaign event early last year, when most showbiz types were still supporting Hillary Rodham Clinton. Will.i.am, who composed the viral video for “Yes, We Can,” met Obama during a fundraiser at Lynton’s home and, while she doesn’t pretend to be a close, personal friend, she can certainly claim to be one of Obama’s first and most fervent L.A. supporters.
Nicole Avant — One of Obama’s major fundraisers in Southern California (along with co-finance chairman Charles Rivkin and full-time staffers Jeremy Bernard and Rufus Gifford), Avant had boundless energy and networking savvy that gave her a special “in” with the candidate, more of one than her colleagues had, in many cases. (Indeed, the half-true joke around L.A. was, “He only talks to Nicole.”) Her dad, soul music legend Clarence Avant, was a major force at Motown Records and eventually applied his deal-making prowess to politics, growing close to Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton as well as state power players such as Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).
Nancy McCullough — An entertainment lawyer in L.A., McCullough was a year behind Obama at Harvard but worked closely with him at the school’s Law Review. Heavily involved in lawyer-monitored voter protection efforts before and during the election, she was also there at the start of Obama’s campaign, huddling in the front row in Springfield, Ill., when he announced his presidential bid. More recently, she sat on Obama’s Arts Policy Committee along with novelist Michael Chabon, photographer Pat York and Disney exec Thomas Schumacher.
Crystal Nix Hines — Another member of the “Harvard Law Mafia” who stayed in close contact with Obama years after graduation, Hines, who wrote for The New York Times both before and after law school, opted to forgo legal work and instead pursue television writing in Hollywood. She penned and produced several episodes of “Commander in Chief” for director Rod Lurie, who went to the same Hawaii high school as Obama, and also served as executive story editor for the second season of “Alias,” created by sci-fi/fantasy mogul (and longtime Democratic Party activist) J.J. Abrams. On a campaign website, Hines wrote about Obama, her friend of nearly 20 years: “When he told me he wanted to enter politics to make a difference in people’s lives, I remember thinking, ‘Right, another politico who wants to feed a giant ego.’ But over time, as we spent hours together editing articles at the Harvard Law Review, I came to see and understand the depth of Barack’s commitment to social change.”