By David Rosenfeld
About 40 people wait patiently in a side room at the Venice Library on a recent weekday afternoon. Among them average folks, retirees, some middle-aged hippies and eager young people all there to hear Marianne Williamson, candidate for Congressional District 33 to replace Rep. Henry Waxman this November.
More than anything, however, the group is here to be inspired, because that’s what Williamson has been doing for the past 30 years. When she arrives just a few minutes late she barely takes a moment to catch her breath before launching into her message, which at its core she says is about disrupting the system.
“The way I see it, this is a job interview,” she begins. “Even though there are 18 people running in this race, there are only two conversations. One is about how to perpetuate the system as it is…That in my opinion is not what we need. I believe we need to disrupt the system.”
By “disrupt the system” Williamson has her eye mostly on money in politics, a force she says has so corrupted the US government she routinely calls it a “legalized system of bribery.” She seems to borrow in part some of the messages from Occupy Wall Street when she talks about a government that has become not “for and by the people” as Abraham Lincoln stated in the Gettysburg Address, but “for and by a few of the people.”
“No matter how nice a few of the people might be, that’s not what America is supposed to be about,” she told the crowd. “If we are going to change the social contract between the American people and our government, then you and I should be having a passionate debate about that. And that’s what I’ve set out to do.”
Williamson’s career took off following an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1992 to promote her first book Return to Love, which soon became a bestseller, and she has been changing conversations ever since. She’s published 10 books on spirituality, four of which are New York Times bestsellers, and became a world-renowned lecturer. Though she’s not currently writing anything, she still lectures each week at The Saban Theatre even during the campaign. Over the years, she’s also been a profound voice for local causes such as recent efforts to save the Chain Reaction sculpture near Santa Monica City Hall.
Lately she’s been crisscrossing the district, which extends from the Pacific Palisades to the South Bay, over the past several months leading up to the June 3 primary. She is running in a crowded field in an open primary. Among her opponents are Wendy Greuel, who came in second in the recent Los Angeles city mayor’s race and State Senator Ted Lieu. But what Williamson has in very large degrees is something the others lack and that’s star power. She also poses an interesting question in politics, which is why she gained the attention of this magazine. Can Washington handle the politics of love?
We caught up with Williamson at her Brentwood apartment filled with vintage furniture. Although a lifelong Democrat she’s running as an Independent in part because her affiliation doesn’t matter in an open primary where the top two vote getters advance to the general election. And as an Independent she can hammer home on issues that affect both parties such as campaign finance reform. She will, however, caucus with the Democrats if elected.
Not lost on her is the obvious irony that much of her support has come from the one percent crowd. “Until the money’s out, it’s in,” she says, and refuses to take corporate PAC, special interest or lobbyist donations.
“Capitalism has been good to me,” she said. “But there is a difference between a righteous capitalism and the predatory strain of capitalism that has occurred in too many places. I was told you couldn’t go into Brentwood and talk about child poverty and mass incarceration. My response was I’m going to, and I am happy to report I have not found a lack of listening. Every rich person is not greedy any more than every poor person is lazy. I’m speaking to the American in all of us.”
The big question for the Williamson campaign is whether her message, which largely takes an aerial view of our problems from a root cause perspective, can be translated to the nuts and bolts of politics. She says of course it can, and in fact, that’s what Washington needs.
“Spirituality is simply the path of the heart, it has nothing to do with dogma or doctrine,” she said. “But it is the inquiry into what makes life worth living. We know in our individual lives that when we live with greater mercy and compassion and forgiveness that life turns out very differently than when we face life with negativity, fear and blame. That’s as true of a nation as it is an individual because all a nation is is a group of individuals”
Rather than the devil being in the details, Williamson says it lies in the big picture.
“The big picture is that we’re losing our democracy,” she continued. “These are not religious issues but they are issues of the heart and conscience. I think those things have as important a role in our national debate as our personal conversations.”
Rep. Alan Grayson, who has endorsed Williamson’s campaign agrees. “Marianne Williamson has taught us that ‘playing small doesn’t serve the world.’” Grayson said. “Every Member of Congress needs to hear those words. We all need to ‘play big,’ and create a world where each one of us is free to – in Marianne Williamson’s words – ‘let our own light shine.’”
Among her other endorsements include celebrities such as Eva Longoria, Alanis Morissette and Jane Lynch along with politicians like Rep. Keith Ellison and former Rep. Dennis Kucinich.
“If there ever was a time for an independent candidacy, this is it,” Kucinich said at a recent campaign event. “From this district you’re going to send a message to the rest of the country. This is about a cause greater than any of us.”
Other big issues for Williamson include incarceration rates and the security of our food system. Then she rattles off the indicators.
“The United States is second to Romania in child poverty,” she said. “We have the highest mass incarceration rate of any country in the world with 2.4 million people in prison and African American men with 1 in 3 lifetime probability of incarceration. Thousands of children without access to pre-school or other development stimulation are starting kindergarten behind on day one. If we don’t catch them up they are on track to jail. One in 5 Americans are food insecure. One percent of our population lives on 38 to 40 percent of our wealth. It doesn’t mean we’re a bad country. It means we aren’t focusing on some of the things our moral compass would have us focus on.”
In her stump speech at the library, Williamson makes no mistake about her ambition. She aligns her goals with that of previous generations who saw injustice and tried to change it through the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage and civil rights to today’s struggles for marriage equality and opposing corporate greed.
“This is not the first time in our history that we have swerved,” she said. “I don’t think we’re going to be the first generation to wimp out. That’s what this signifies. I believe this campaign represents a historic opportunity.”