Marianne Williamson Aims to Defeat Henry Waxman, and Save Washington's Soul
Marianne Williamson doesn't like most articles about her. She seems to remember every slight, every snarky subhead that called her a shaman, a prophet, an ex–lounge singer.
"The press creates a caricature," she says.
Take, for example, the most recent headline from The New York Times: "Marianne Williamson, New-Age Guru, Seeks Congressional Seat."
" 'New Age guru,' " Williamson scoffs. "First of all, what is the suggestion here, that the 'old age' is working?"
Williamson is sitting on a wooden bench beside her press person, Ileana Wachtel, inside a vegan/organic/raw food café in Santa Monica called Rawvolution. "I've never worn a velvet scarf in my life. You label somebody 'New Age,' and that's automatic mockery: 'She cannot possibly be a serious thinker.' "
What would she rather be called?
"Author ..." she says, searching for something with more oomph.
Wachtel offers, "Author, lecturer, thought leader — how about thought leader?"
"That's what that world calls it," Williamson says. "I wouldn't call myself that. In the East, the guru never calls himself a guru."
She sips from her room-temperature carrot juice. On the sound system, Donovan is singing: "Wear your love like heaven. Wear your love like heaven."
" 'Spiritual teacher' feels a little grandiose," Williamson ventures. "What do you call Alan Watts? What do you call Ram Dass? What do you call Wayne Dyer? If it's a man, there's not even a question."
Wachtel breaks in: "What do you call Deepak Chopra?"
"Well, he's a doctor," Williamson says. "To me, when I think of New Age, I think of crystals and rainbows and platitudes. A Course in Miracles — what do you see in there that's silly? That's a very serious book for very serious thinkers."
It has been nearly three months since Williamson — best-selling author, spiritual teacher, founder of Project Angel Food, international lecturer — announced her candidacy at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills, an art deco movie palace that once served as home to her spiritual lectures. Alanis Morissette performed at the event.
The announcement was met with guffaws from political insiders — a challenge to Henry Waxman? From the left?
"She has some very unusual beliefs about the world, a cult following, but she's not a credible candidate," says Eric Bauman, chairman of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party. "She's done a lot of work helping people heal, but that's not preparation to be in Congress."
Then again, with Congress' approval rating hovering at about 10 percent, the feeling toward career politicians is hostile.
"No question about it, Waxman is one of the most powerful and influential Democrats in Washington," says Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. "But in this type of political environment, that both helps and hurts."
Schnur, who is preparing his own unlikely run for California secretary of state as an independent, says the battle for California's 33rd District congressional seat may throw a few curveballs. Too much is unknown about Williamson, her campaign style, how hard she'll work, how hard her rabid fan base (she has 200,000 Twitter followers; Waxman has 3,100) will push, how much money she'll raise, how much of her own money she'll put in.
"A campaign against Williamson," Schnur says, "is a much less straightforward one than [Waxman] had last year."
California Congressional District 33 contains one of the wealthiest demographics in the nation, hugging the Pacific Ocean from Point Dume to Rancho Palos Verdes, with a small, east-reaching finger that includes Beverly Hills and ends at tony Marlborough School in Hancock Park.
Waxman, a congressman since 1975, couldn't be less concerned with Williamson. The candidate who really keeps him up at night is independent Bill Bloomfield, a multimillionaire who came within eight points of unseating Waxman in 2012, thanks to spending $7.5 million of his own money — more than any other congressional candidate that year.
Waxman is aching to know if Bloomfield will run again. Bloomfield says he hasn't decided.
As for Marianne Williamson? "If she ended up in a runoff against me, which is not easy to imagine, but it could happen," Waxman says, carefully playing out the scenario at his Miracle Mile district office, "it would be like two Democrats, she more to my left. I don't think she would win."
A debate between the two would be a fascinatingly asymmetrical encounter, akin to one speaker reading Shakespeare and another reading an interdepartmental memo from a box factory.
Even setting aside obvious stylistic differences, their visions of liberalism couldn't be more different — she the utopian, reaching for the moon and the stars; he the coldly effective pragmatist with a résumé that could drown a man in ink.
Williamson had toyed with the idea of making a symbolic presidential run. "But I don't think this is a time for symbolic gestures," she says. "I think running for Congress is scale."
"I don't know about winnable. It feels lateral."
Her candidacy was a surprise to political insiders but not to loyal fans who buy her books or regularly attend her Monday night lectures. One of Williamson's great gifts is connecting with her audience, and many are actually friends with her.
"She has been a major force in my life in terms of how to handle personal issues," says actor Frances Fisher, best known for the films Unforgiven and Titanic. "That's really how we became friends. And a lot of us who are her friends go to her lectures and are supporting her candidacy."
Ever since her 1997 book, Healing the Soul of America, in which she asked, "How do we make spirituality relevant to politics?" Williamson has inched toward a political crossover moment. She and Fisher went to Washington in 2005 to help then-Congressman Dennis Kucinich lobby for a Department of Peace, whose mandate would include training international peacekeepers, rehabilitating ex-prisoners and preventing domestic violence.
Then in 2011, she put on Sister Giant, the first in a series of weekend conferences in Los Angeles about women and politics, one theme of which was how to get more women to run for office in a still heavily male political culture.
"There's a profound dissatisfaction with leaders of both parties," says Adam Winkler, a professor of constitutional law at UCLA, who spoke at Sister Giant and backs Williamson. "You see this on the right with the Tea Party, a growing populist anger at politicians. But you also see this on the left, and that's where Marianne comes in."
Establishment Democrats ask why Williamson is running against such a progressive stalwart as Waxman, who has done as much as any politician to address issues like climate change and AIDS. Why not, some have said, target a vulnerable Republican, like Buck McKeon in Santa Clarita?
But Williamson, who lives in a West Hollywood apartment just outside 33rd District lines (members of Congress don't have to live in their own districts), dismisses the idea, saying, "It wouldn't be authentic to go to some district where I don't even know the street names."
Besides, if she has any chance at all, she's much more likely to find her target demographic of white, upper middle class, spirituality-seeking holistics on the Westside.
The Source sits on Rose Avenue a few blocks from the beach, in that part of Venice where the air is a near-perfect ratio of ocean breeze and marijuana smoke, where the homeless mingle with the locals almost seamlessly, save for the telltale Café Gratitude takeout bags. The "spiritual community center" holds services on Sundays at 11:11 a.m. — a time imbued with spiritual meaning — and also functions, each Thursday night, as campaign headquarters for the year's most unlikely political candidate.
A hundred and fifty people pack into a small room adorned with paintings of Buddhas and spirals. There aren't enough chairs. The Source co-owner Annelise Balfour, a tall, striking woman with pale blue eyes and curly, golden hair, takes the stage, microphone in hand.
"Take a deep breath," she gently instructs the audience members, and they do. "Exhale gratitude, inhale love. We are elevating our frequency to a higher dimension, where love prevails." After another minute of this, the mood is set and Balfour says cheerfully, "Welcome Marianne!"
Calming the boisterous applause, Williamson says, "Let's start with a moment of silence. ... We dedicate ourselves to all that is true and all that is beautiful. To pool our resources. To be useful." The room seems to breathe in silence all at once. "And so it is."
"And so it is," the audience repeats.
Only then does Williamson launch into her stump speech.
It's good. It's really good. It's delivered with an almost Victorian elocution and brimming with lines like, "In other countries they have two brands of toothpaste and 14 presidential candidates; in America, we have the reverse," and "America should be like a golden thread in the tapestry of the world." You'd be forgiven for thinking she was some West Wing character sprung to life.
After the breezy monologue comes the Q&A — perhaps her strongest medium, both in political settings and in her Monday night spiritual lectures at the Arc Theater on La Brea (a $15 donation is strongly suggested). The 61-year-old can take audience questions for hours without breaking a sweat, always patient, never condescending, always insisting that the questioners have a microphone before speaking.
"Do you see yourself on any committees?" one optimistic woman asks.
"I believe that the vision of ourselves should be us in the present," Williamson answers.
"I see women being brutalized every day by poverty," says Shelly, who launches into a tirade about the Venice area's treatment of homeless people.
"Lewis and Clark never got busted for illegal camping!" a man calls out.
"What you just shared is beautiful," Williamson tells Shelly.
Willamson is careful not to mention her political candidacy during her Monday night spiritual lectures (to do so would risk breaking campaign finance laws), nor does she make direct reference to A Course in Miracles at her Thursday night volunteer meetings. Yet the two nights feel almost identical. It's not as if Williamson is playing two different roles. In fact, her message both nights is eerily similar.
A Course in Miracles was very much a product of its time. As the upheaval of the '60s gave way to the economic downturn and violent backlash of the '70s, many erstwhile flower children took comfort in new or resurgent spiritual practices such as Transcendental Meditation, the teachings of Sun Myung Moon and Meher Baba, and kooky groups like the Divine Light Mission, which worshipped a teenage boy, Guru Maharaj Ji (Chicago Seven defendant Rennie Davis became an adherent).
A Course in Miracles was, supposedly, dictated to psychologist Helen Schucman by a voice that she later said was Jesus Christ's. Co-authored in 1976 by Schucman and colleague William Thetford, and weighing in at 1,188 pages, it sums itself up neatly in the intro: "Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists. Herein lies the peace of God." It was, in a way, Christianity Lite.
Williamson first encountered Schucman's moderately successful book in the late 1970s. The Houston native had been working in New York as a temp secretary and singing in cabarets. She would later write in her first book, A Return to Love, "I sank deeper and deeper into my own neurotic patterns, seeking relief in food, drugs, people or whatever else I could find to distract me from myself." But in the end, "It wasn't drinking or drugs that was doing me in; it was my personality in general, that hysterical woman inside my head." Although Williamson now plays down that crisis, she has written that A Course in Miracles was her "path out of hell."
The path led to Topanga Canyon, where she moved in 1983. Williamson found a job at the Philosophical Research Society in Los Feliz and began giving weekly lectures on Schucman's A Course in Miracles. She soon developed a following, especially among gay men, for whom the AIDS epidemic had created a spiritual vacuum.
"Western medicine had nothing to offer," Williamson says. "Organized religion was silent for quite a while. ... And there was this young woman in Los Feliz talking about a God who loves you no matter what."
She adds, tearing up: "Gay men in L.A. gave me my career."
Film producer Howard Rosenman began attending Williamson's lectures in 1987, at a church on Hollywood Boulevard. "We called it the HBR — the Handsome Boys Religion," he recalls. "There were all these good-looking boys going to hear this incredible woman speak. There was no one like her — charismatic, beautiful. She was unreal."
But Williamson felt that "spiritual speaking without service is a narcissistic loop."
She founded the Center for Living, a house in the West Hollywood panhandle, which served as a sanctuary for people with AIDS, where they could clean up, be fed, get a massage, get therapy, watch a movie or hang out. It was staffed by an army of volunteers, many of them also patients. "There was so much love," Williamson says. "Because there was nothing to hold onto but love."
Project Angel Food began as an extension of the Center for Living to deliver food to homebound, terminally ill patients. David Kessler, who helped found it with Williamson, recalls his initial chat with her:
"Do you have a business plan?" Kessler asked.
"No," Williamson said. "I have a vision."
"You need a business plan!"
"I need a vision and committed people, and we can do anything."
"That's not how it works!"
Yet it did work. It attracted donors including David Geffen, Shirley MacLaine and Bette Midler, and by 1999, Project Angel Food had 34 employees and was delivering 1,200 meals a day to homebound people with HIV/AIDS.
"It caught the public imagination," Williamson says. People dubbed her "The Divine Miss W," while Time wondered if she was a "Mother Teresa for the '90s?" Vanity Fair photographed her on a chaise longue with a sultry look in her eyes, above the cheeky headline, "Marianne's Faithful." One photo showed Williamson shirtless, wrapped in a bedsheet, holding her baby daughter, India Emma, who's screaming to high heaven. (Williamson has never publicly identified her daughter's father; today, she's largely reticent about her personal life.)
When the L.A. Times in 1992 detailed the power struggle at the Center for Living, noting that Williamson was firing people and perhaps letting her temper get the best of her, she wondered if she would attract such scrutiny as a man — but admitted she could sometimes come across as "the bitch for God."
"If things weren't going right, she'd freak out," Rosenman says. "But I don't think she had an excessive temper. If people were lazy, or did things wrong, it would bother her."
Williamson left the Center for Living in March 1992. Any pain she felt surely was offset by her first book, A Return to Love, which spent 39 weeks on the New York Times Advice/How-To best-seller list, and has sold more than 3 million copies. Oprah Winfrey claimed to have bought 1,000 copies and to have experienced 157 individual miracles as a result of reading it.
It is no small measure of the book's cultural relevancy that a passage from it is routinely misattributed to Nelson Mandela: "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us."
If Williamson's fame has receded somewhat, that is in part because so much of what she preached at the height of her fame has since been absorbed by mainstream society.
"My own sister, when she was diagnosed with cancer in 1989, said to her doctor that I had suggested she attend a spiritual support group, and her doctor said, 'Really, what medical school did your sister go to?' " Williamson says with a wry smile. "No oncologist would say that today."
Western medicine has come to embrace spiritual practices, support groups and recovery. Williamson says American politics must do the same — or face extinction.
"Whether an individual or a system is in crisis, it will not ultimately transform just by tinkering with some things on the outside," she says. "There has to be a deeper inquiry about who you are, what your principles are."
Williamson is still trying to figure out how to practice a new kind of spiritual politics. She wants her congressional run to be something transformational — a movement.
One political consultant quit on her after less than two weeks of service.
"There's a big gulf between what you do as a political operative and what you do for a celebrity," says one source. "Political people tell [a candidate] what to do. She kinda couldn't handle that."
"There seems to be in the political world a cookie-cutter approach, where political operatives create a campaign, and the candidate is expected to do what they're told, and that's simply not gonna happen here," Williamson declares emphatically. "Ten books and 30 years and thousands of speeches later, I'm not reading someone's else's material."
She isn't bothered by her campaign's loose organization or by its lack of a seasoned professional at the helm.
"Creativity is messy! Intimacy is messy! Democracy is messy! The transition from pure idea to excellent manifestation has to go through its chaotic phases," she says.
The Williamson agenda reads like a fairly standard progressive to-do list: Overturn Citizens United; rein in food companies like Monsanto; halt the extension of the Keystone pipeline; block the United States' entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement that she says will "trump national sovereignty" (an argument many make against the World Trade Organization); and stop drone strikes, surveillance programs and wars of aggression.
Yet her message risks being overshadowed by lines such as, "I want us all to look at this campaign as a collective act of love."
Los Angeles Republican political strategist Jonathan Wilcox, who has taught a course on politics and celebrity at USC, read Williamson's campaign announcement last year and is following her campaign with some degree of interest.
"It sounded a little bit like a midcareer crisis to me," Wilcox says. "But what she wrote was very melodic, very heartfelt, wistful. ... She's all about the possibilities."
However, he hastens to add: "She's entering into the least dreamy, least romantic and least poetic business in this country. And it ain't beautiful. And there is nothing beautiful or poetic about Henry Waxman."
With enormous floppy ears, front teeth that are forever peeking out from his mouth and a nose that somehow manages to swoop upward, so that to look at him is to be staring directly into his nostrils, Rep. Henry Waxman looks a bit like a cartoon mouse.
Personable, avuncular, down to earth (literally — though his staff claims he is 5 feet 5 inches tall, he appears shorter than 5-foot-2 labor leader Maria Elena Durazo when they stand together), Waxman carries himself with all the pomp and splendor of a bookkeeper. With his gray slacks and corny jokes, he is, if nothing else, a study in the banality of statesmanship.
His legislative record is staggering: co-author of the Waxman-Hatch Act in 1984, which allowed for generic prescription drugs and saved consumers (according to him) trillions of dollars; co-author of the 1990 Ryan White CARE Act, which provides health care and medicine to low-income people with HIV/AIDS; co-author of the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments to address acid rain and the destruction of the upper ozone layer; and co-author of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, mandating nutritional information on food.
"He's a very skilled legislative strategist," says Mel Levine, his friend and former congressional colleague. "He knows where the likely votes are, he knows which compromises will be necessary to make."
While many politicians seem focused on booking their next cable news segment, Waxman stands out as a nonflashy but effective professional. "He's a work horse, not a show horse," says Los Angeles Democratic political consultant Bill Carrick, also a friend. "He's never seen his role to be a media figure. He's always been the quintessential House leader, who's really working daily and getting things done."
Of course he has his detractors — namely Republicans.
"On the Hill, he is an industry unto himself," Wilcox says. "He exacts revenge on people he doesn't like, promotes favors to people he does like. He may be the most imperious man in Congress."
Waxman grew up in South Central Los Angeles before white flight remade the area, and attended UCLA in the early 1960s, becoming close friends with Howard Berman (later also a California congressman). Both were Young Democrats; Waxman would become its California chapter chair.
Waxman recalls being invited on a talk show: "They had a woman who said she was picked up by aliens, another person who had a theory about the Kennedy assassination, and then I was the third guest, because I said I wouldn't support Lyndon Johnson if the war in Vietnam continued." For this, he earned a strong rebuke from the chairman of the California Democratic Party, Eugene Wyman.
Waxman first ran for office in 1968 at the age of 28 against 70-year-old state Assembly incumbent Lester McMillan, who'd been indicted (though not convicted) for bribery. When Waxman visited him, the cocky McMillan advised: "Don't put your own money into the campaign."
But Waxman had a secret weapon — his UCLA pal Howard Berman's little brother, Michael, then a 19-year-old computer whiz at UC Berkeley. Michael was too young to vote, but he ran Waxman's campaign to perfection, using punch card–era computers to send individualized messages to different voter blocs — an unheard-of tactic that's now commonplace. For his part, Waxman pounded the pavement.
In the end, it wasn't even close: The kid won by a 2-to-1 ratio.
Six years later, in 1974, when a new congressional seat was added to California, Waxman, then 36, convinced L.A. City Councilman Ed Edelman to run for county supervisor instead of Congress, clearing the field for him to waltz to victory.
For decades, Waxman's was the safest of House seats. He rarely campaigned, instead learning legislative wrangling — and spending his fat campaign war chest to get his Washington friends re-elected.
A central theme of Marianne Williamson's campaign is that much of what is wrong in Washington can be traced to the influence of big money — a tool Waxman is unafraid to use. When he sought his Democratic colleagues' backing to become chairman of the Health and Environment Subcommittee in 1979, Waxman beat a more senior, pro-tobacco Democrat whose fortune came from pharmaceuticals. Waxman prevailed, in part, by transferring his campaign funds to colleagues' campaign war chests — a payoff for their votes so he could grab the chairmanship.
His move earned him the ire of The New York Times' editorial board and some colleagues, but it worked.
"It was the first example of what they now routinely call 'leadership PACs.' I was a pioneer," Waxman says, chuckling, "of someone raising campaign money and not needing it and then giving it away" to political allies. "It's a very common practice now in Washington."
Waxman's tactics also helped advance his progressive causes. In an even more brazen move against another Democrat, Waxman in 2008 toppled the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, John Dingell, snagging a key position from which to pass the House version of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.
Waxman is convinced that had his House version, itself a compromise plan, dominated instead of the compromise approved by the Senate, "It would've been a better law." But, "You always have to compromise," he says. "Better half a loaf than nothing."
Williamson scoffs at this. "Obamacare wasn't about compromise," she says. "This was about capitulation to multinational corporations."
Which pretty much sums up how she feels about Waxman in general. She is full of praise, particularly for his work breaking "the conspiracy of silence about climate change." But lately, she says, "He toes the line with the corporatist direction of the Democratic Party."
California, of course, is hardly unaccustomed to voting for celebrities, having elected Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and even Sonny Bono. Yet few think Marianne Williamson has much of a chance, even though she could place second in the primary and end up in California's top-two November runoff.
Far more worrying to Waxman is the possible third candidate, political independent and multimillionaire Bill Bloomfield of Manhattan Beach, who built his fortune from a coin-operated laundry company.
Waxman, whom The Nation once called the "Democrats' Eliot Ness," was caught flat-footed by Bloomfield in 2012, though it had been widely assumed the incumbent would walk away with the election. "I didn't know I had a fight until after the primary, when I saw that Bill Bloomfield came in second, having spent a million and a half [dollars] to beat the Republican," Waxman says.
And two years earlier, in 2010, Bloomfield spent heavily on two popular California reform initiatives that almost upended Waxman:
One measure took away the gerrymandering powers of politicians like Berman and Waxman, handing the power to draw voting-district boundaries to a citizens commission. The commission placed Waxman in a redrawn district that included a chunk of the South Bay, an area unfamiliar to Waxman, with no small number of Republicans and Independents.
A second reform backed by Bloomfield put an end to partisan-ruled primaries in California. Voters now can pick from any party's candidate in the primary, and in the November general election they choose from the top two primary vote getters, whether that's two competing Democrats or some other mix.
The 2010 law change put independent Bloomfield in the 2012 runoff against Waxman. Bloomfield lost by eight points — hardly a razor-thin margin, but closer than anybody has ever come to ousting Henry Waxman.
Waxman still seems shell-shocked by Bloomfield's showing, repeatedly asking around to find out if his old foe is going to run again in June. Bloomfield has not decided, though a recent mailing he sent out has fueled speculation that he'll soon enter the fray.
"I decided last time in March," Bloomfield says. "Three months is more than enough time for a primary."
Waxman isn't campaigning yet, either, except for fundraising. When the 74-year-old is asked if he'll run more vigorously this time, he replies, "I'm sorry to say it depends on how much money I raise to be able to communicate. That's part of the advantage of the incumbent. I've been out there."
So Marianne Williamson remains the longest of shots. To win, she must create a movement, a whirlwind of a campaign that inspires the same kind of passion and volunteerism that drove the Center for Living and Project Angel Food to such stunning successes.
"No one motivates people like Marianne Williamson," Project Angel Food co-founder Kessler says. "She knows how to speak to you, in a way that you perceive as real and authentic."
The disembodied sound of an acoustic guitar can be vaguely heard inside the Source, at another volunteer meeting in December. Empty chairs abound — her number of volunteers has dropped by nearly half.
"Can we turn that music off?" Williamson asks.
"It's coming from outside," a volunteer says.
Maybe it's the holidays, but progress appears slow. Lists have been typed up of coffee shops, health food stores and Pilates and yoga studios to leaflet. The campaign has buttons reading, "Give This Woman a Seat!"
"I think it should have my face on it," Williamson tells the crowd. " 'Give this woman a seat!' What woman?" She laughs. "We're still learning."
Later, someone asks if she'll release talking points for volunteers to share with voters. Williamson grins.
"You know, early in my career, people would ask, 'Can you just give us five steps to enlightenment?' No!" The audience laughs. "If the campaign is about me finding my voice, it's also about you all finding yours."
Even when talking politics, Williamson is every bit the self-help motivational speaker.
"Washington isn't the only place where democracy is broken," she says. "Democracy is broken within ourselves."