A lot of us in Los Angeles for the Democratic Convention are thinking quite a bit about Playboy these days, and not for the usual reasons. In a rather embarrassing pre-convention controversy, Democratic Party chair Joe Andrew retaliated against Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., for not canceling or relocating a fundraiser for her political action committee, which was to be held at the Playboy Mansion in Bel Air. That is, until Friday evening when Sanchez caved and announced that the event would be relocated to a nearby Hollywood studio.
It had gotten real ugly. Sanchez's speaking role at next week's convention had been taken away. Democratic officials were contemplating other punishments, such as stripping her credential for the convention, removing her as co-chair of the Democratic National Committee, or even denying party funds for her November reelection campaign.
"They're not really gonna do that," Playboy founder Hugh Hefner said on Wednesday, reacting to the news. "They're not really gonna strip her of her credentials," Hef said, according to his vice president of public relations Cindy Rakowitz.
But indeed they might have.
Rakowitz said in an interview that her boss "just couldn't believe it."
After myriad efforts to get Sanchez to relocate the fundraiser, Andrew -- in consultation with the presidential campaign of Vice President Al Gore -- on Thursday found himself forced to "take action," in Andrew's words, stripping Sanchez of her prime-time speaking opportunity. Reached Friday afternoon in his Beverly Hills office, Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt said, "This whole episode reinforces my opinion that sex is more political than anything else."
It's all been heating up for the last few months. Gore, and his running mate Sen. Joseph Lieberman (Orthodox Jew-Conn.), plan on making values a centerpiece of their campaign, running as far as they can away from the president who has turned the Oval Office into his own little version of Hef's grotto. In that regard, Sanchez's event was waaaaaay off message.
As a last warning before he took away her speaking slot, DNC honcho Andrew wrote to Sanchez, "As a father of young children, I tried to convey to you my dismay at the kind of message that this event would send. As the National Chairman of the Democratic Party, I told you how Democratic State Chairs, Latinos, leaders of women's groups and just plain Democrats have called and told me that this event was neither appropriate nor reflective of our Party's values. But you refused to budge."
Continuing her refusal, Sanchez held a press conference Thursday in which she said that "the board of directors of Hispanic Unity USA has decided to proceed with the fundraiser next Tuesday, and I support that decision. We selected a high profile venue to highlight the important work of Hispanic Unity USA. The event has sold out and it will be a success."
With 600 invitations going for $5,000 apiece, the fundraiser event for Hispanic Unity USA could garner up to $3 million. Then -- the capitulation. After two days of fleeing reporters in a white SUV that recalled another Los Angeles-area scandal, Sanchez said that her relocation of the event "in no way reflects anything other than appreciation to the Hefners and to Playboy Enterprises....Sometimes there is discord and disagreement....But I want you to know that sponsors and donors and in particular the Hefners are with us in this move."
From inside the Playboy Mansion, the whole controversy has been received with a bit of wonder. And with the observation that "there seems to be some hypocrisy here," according to Rakowitz.
Hugh and Christie Hefner, CEO of Playboy Enterprises, "are lifelong liberal Democrats, and they've supported numerous Democratic candidates and causes," says Playboy national director of communications Bill Farley. "They're very disappointed and upset that his home -- the flagship of operation, the Playboy Mansion -- is not considered 'acceptable' for a fundraising event for a wonderful cause."
Just this spring, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, spoke at a fundraiser at Christie Hefner's Chicago penthouse apartment on behalf of a U.S. House candidate, Illinois state Sen. Lauren Beth Gash.
"He was very warm to Christie" at the event, reports a Playboy executive.
But that warm front turned cold, and speaking on July 18 about the Sanchez fundraiser on National Public Radio, Kennedy said that the fundraiser "totally contradicts what our party stands for in terms of equal rights, civil rights for all people and respecting the human dignity of every individual. That's why I will not be attending. Nor will I be encouraging any of my colleagues to attend. In fact, I'll be discouraging them."
According to Farley, "Christie Hefner was incensed" after she heard of his remarks. "She sent him a very strong note expressing her feelings."
Without going into the Kennedy family's spotty record on "respecting the human dignity of every individual" -- Kennedy, you might recall, did find it in his heart to attend William Kennedy Smith's Palm Beach rape trial -- Farley says that "you can go back to the Bible on that one, there are several axioms that apply. 'First cast the beam from thine own eye.' Or, alternatively, 'Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone.'"
In addition to the $1,000 that Christie Hefner gave to Gash at Kennedy's behest, both Hefners have donated literally tens of thousands of dollars to Democrats, who didn't seem to have any problem with the organization when the checks cleared. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Hef himself gave the DNC $5,000 in 1998, the DCCC $26,000 since 1996, $2,000 to Clinton in 1992 and 1995, and $1,000 to Gore himself in 1999.
Christie Hefner has given similar sums to the Democratic candidates and causes. She's given $9,600 to Emily's List, which works to elect pro-choice Democratic women, $14,750 to the Voters for Choice/Friends of Family Planning PAC, $3,000 to the DNC and $4,500 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Democrats receiving her evil money include former New York Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, former Pennsylvania Sen. Harris Wofford, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, the late Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas, North Carolina Senate candidate Harvey Gantt, Illinois Rep. Rod Blagojevich, Colorado Senate candidate Dorothy Lamm, former Illinois Sens. Paul Simon and Carol Moseley-Braun, California Sen. Barbara Boxer, Pennsylvania Senate candidate Lynn Yeakel, Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold, former Illinois Rep. Mel Reynolds, Virginia Sen. Chuck Robb, President Bill Clinton, Michigan Rep. John Dingell, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, Washington Sen. Patty Murray and New York Sen. Chuck Schumer.
Additionally, Rakowitz points out, Playboy has hosted fundraisers for former California Gov. Jerry Brown, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and Chicago Mayor Harold Washington.
"But it's not just the personal political donations that Hef and Christie have made," Rakowitz says. "It's the causes we share."
The Bel Air mansion has been the site of events to raise cash for the Hollywood Women's Political Committee, the National Women's Political Caucus, the Midwest Women's Project, Rock the Vote, the Equal Rights Amendment, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, the Urban League, the American Civil Liberties Union, AIDS research, inner city schools and Ralph Nader's group Trial Lawyers for Public Justice. "And the list goes on and on," she says.
More to the point, Rakowitz says, the mansion is not what the naysayers "are envisioning in their heads, the sexiest fantasy they have of the Playboy Mansion. They're generalizing it and making it a moral issue."
According to Rakowitz, "the mansion is what we want it to be. All it is a Gothic-style house. It's like the Four Seasons, with first-rate service ... Yes, there are fun parties there, with Playmates dancing and boogying down. But there are also prestigious parties there that look like Citibank parties. When we do fundraisers, we're sensitive to the image the party-holders want to portray. And from the beginning, Loretta Sanchez has said that she didn't want to have the Bunnies there and she didn't want to have the Playmates there."
Sanchez should have seen it coming, I say. The man whose congressional seat Sanchez took, Rep. Bob "B-1" Dornan, once made an issue of an opponent having a fete at the mansion. In 1982, while running in the California Senate Republican primary against Barry Goldwater Jr., Dornan accused partygoers of regularly exploring the pleasures of bestiality.
"He might be confusing the fact that we have a beautiful private zoo, and he took it to the next level in his demented mind," Rakowitz says.
But on the topic of B-1 Bob, Rakowitz gets a bit fired up. Sanchez, after all, "is the woman who unseated Dornan. This is the woman who infiltrated Republican Orange County for the Democrats. Isn't this over-punishment?"
Rakowitz is also concerned about the frictions this brouhaha may cause between Democrats and Latino voters. "This is political history," Rakowitz says. "The Hispanic vote is just so important, particularly with [Gov. George W.] Bush having a strong connection to the Hispanic community. And Loretta Sanchez is one of the most powerful Hispanics they [the Democrats] have -- and she's female!"
Playboy has heard that Gore and Lieberman are staying as far from the controversy as they can, she says. Though they are aware that Lieberman is "very, very conservative, and very right-wing in his personal values that he wants to clean up the country with," she puts the blame for the mess on party chair Andrew. And she doesn't understand why he cited his two children in his letter to Sanchez.
"Playboy has always been very, very bullish about its position -- we're an entertainment company and a magazine for grown-ups. Why would his having two young children be relevant? Hef has two young children, too."
Three thousand miles away, in various Republican headquarters throughout Washington, GOP officials are cackling at the Democrats' fumbling. "I just heard that the Laker Girls were going to roll out the red carpet, but they canceled that, too," laughs one. "I can understand their not wanting to flaunt girls who are Monica's age, but they've caused this whole mess. They're making such a big deal out of this by how they're handling it."
On Friday, the New York Senate campaign of Republican Rep. Rick Lazio smacked opponent first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton for taking cash from "pornography magnate" Christie Hefner while "calling on Loretta Sanchez to cancel her fundraiser."
"The hypocrisy of Mrs. Clinton and the national Democratic Party is astounding," said Lazio campaign manager Bill Dal Col. Dal Col refrained from mentioning that while participating in a New York-themed pop quiz on the "Don Imus Show," Lazio was able to recall lyrics from the "song that closes out each episode of 'The Robin Byrd Show'" -- a late-night pornographic talk show on New York public access.
The GOP official says Republicans weren't planning on making much of a stink about the fundraiser, "until the Democrats started having kittens about it. They should have done this weeks ago, out of the limelight. We're jumping on it now, but we weren't planning on it before. Democrats have been taking Playboy money for years, and we've never gotten any traction on that fact."
Friday morning, Sanchez seemed willing to give in to the substantial heat she was taking, telling NBC's "Today" show that she would relocate if she could find a locale with the same "cachet" as the fabled mansion. "It's never been about the Playboy Mansion," Sanchez said. "It's been about putting on a good event and raising money."
Later that day, announcing that her event would be held at Universal Studios, Sanchez said that "to continue to dwell on where our event is held, and whether my role as a DNC officer conflicts with my role at a party for a good cause, frankly makes no sense. The only real party I am interested in is a party that represents real people, with real needs. That party is the Democratic Party."
For his part, Andrew told CNN that if Sanchez gave in she could get her speaking role returned, which is said to have happened. Andrew added that he'd offered to help Sanchez secure the Wilshire Grand Hotel for her event, though he allowed that the hotel was not quite the same thing.
"Nothing is comparable to the Playboy mansion, and that is the point," Andrew said. "We don't want something comparable."