By Karl Taro Greenfeld
In the sanctuary above an herbal tonic bar, before a seated Buddha and a pair of mandalas, 48 volunteers for congressional candidate Marianne Williamson close their eyes and meditate as Annelise Balfour, the manager and head facilitator of the Source Spiritual Center, intones a welcome prayer. “Marianne, she’s … Whoa! She’s the s---. I’m so grateful for her. We thank you, God, for more gratitude, more adventure, more transformation. Now I ask all of you, drop your story of the past. Only now do you have the power to transform your world. Visualize gardens growing and dolphins swimming and any dream you care to dream of a government that responds to its people.” When she finishes, a few of those gathered, echoing how Williamson ends her own talks, add, “And so it is.”
Williamson, 61, is the best-selling author of 13 books on spirituality and a renowned New Age guru, although she hates that term. She wants to channel some of her 220,000 Twitter (TWTR) followers and 456,000 Facebook (FB) likes—and millions of readers—into a constituency that will vote for her. She’s out to replace Democratic Representative Henry Waxman, who’s retiring after 20 terms, in California’s 33rd U.S. congressional district. Encompassing Beverly Hills, Bel Air, Brentwood, Pacific Palisades, Malibu, Santa Monica, and Venice, the 33rd then curves around to include the equally tony enclaves of Hermosa Beach and the Palos Verdes peninsula. The district has the highest per capita income, $60,000 per year, and the highest median home value, $911,000, of any district in the country. It’s rich, white, and liberal; Barack Obama carried more than 60 percent of the vote in both his races, and the district gave millions to his campaign. The 33rd is home to donors such as Jeffrey Katzenberg and Haim Saban and a host of other liberal billionaires. Whoever controls the 33rd becomes a power broker: Almost every Democratic candidate with national aspirations stops in to tap the ATM.
To win Waxman’s seat, Williamson must first make it into this fall’s general election; to qualify for that, under the state’s open electoral system, she must finish first or second in a June 3 primary. Running as an independent, Williamson benefits from a fragmented field of 17 announced candidates with no clear front-runner. High-profile establishment Democrats in the race include State Senator Ted Lieu and former Los Angeles City Controller and mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel, both of whom will attempt to appeal to the 33rd’s traditional Democratic base of former Waxman supporters. There is no similarly positioned Republican candidate, though in 2012, businessman Bill Bloomfield, an independent, spent $7 million, much of it his own money, in an unsuccessful attempt to take Waxman’s seat. If any district in America might embrace Williamson, it’s the 33rd.
She has only recently moved into the district herself but was always a good fit among wealthy Westsiders. Driving around in a white Toyota Prius, she’s proven herself a formidable fundraiser, tapping into her unique base, a combination of Hollywood insiders and spiritual seekers, to raise more than $1 million to date. At a recent event, Steven Tyler and Chaka Khan performed at a $5,200-per-person private concert at the Malibu estate of True Religion Apparel co-founder Kym Gold. The average day on the hustings will find Williamson driving from Beverly Hills to Hermosa Beach, giving her impassioned stump speech, an eloquent refresher on U.S. history that attempts to situate her candidacy in the context of the abolitionist, suffragette, and civil rights movements before broaching three central issues: getting money out of politics, ending mass incarceration, and forcing food companies to state on labels whether their products include ingredients from genetically modified organisms.
Political movements have often arisen in California, from Ronald Reagan’s staunch conservatism and Howard Jarvis’s tax-cut revolution to the Black Panther Party, and it could be that Williamson represents the start of a sort of anti-GMO Tea Party of the Left. Former Ohio Representative and frequent presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich has heralded her as a new type of politician, one who is “truly outside the system.” Former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura has endorsed her campaign and her call to end “a legalized system of corruption and bribery.” Those endorsements may not confirm a movement, but her popularity appears symptomatic of a deep dissatisfaction among wealthy Los Angelenos and millennials who are disappointed with Obama’s centrist compromises. Williamson, a frequent speaker at Occupy Wall Street rallies, appeals to the thousands of people who protested the banks but have little to show for it. And while persuading some of the wealthiest people in the U.S. to accept tighter financial regulations and higher taxes might seem like a tough sell, in California’s 33rd she’s just as likely to lose by alienating the vegan vote. Indeed, Williamson hesitates a long time before admitting that she occasionally enjoys a steak. “That’s the most dangerous question you’ve asked me,” she says. “And since the campaign began, I’ve been craving red meat.”
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