SAG taps Gilbert, take 2

Election has highest-ever turnout

This article was updated at 1:53 a.m. PT.

Screen Actors Guild members, acting according to Hollywood’s expectations, again tapped Melissa Gilbert over Valerie Harper as president in a raucous re-run of last fall’s election.

The one-time “Little House on the Prairie” star won an overwhelming victory despite an aggressive campaign challenge by Harper, best known as the star of “Rhoda.” Gilbert, who won the November election by 1,588 votes, was able to take advantage of her four-month incumbency by portraying herself as a can-do moderate.

“Our membership has once again spoken,” a tired but elated Gilbert said at a 1:30 a.m. news conference at SAG headquarters. “It’s been kind of dismaying that I had to go through this again but the silver lining is that more of our membership voted than in any other election, which shows that our membership is interested in what we’re doing.”

Gilbert garnered 21,351 votes, followed by 12,613 for Harper. Presidential candidates Eugene Boggs and Angeltompkins reprised their third and fourth place finishes with 2,178 and 1,010 votes, respectively.

The election may give some hope that SAG members support the closely watched issue facing the guild — an upcoming vote by SAG members on a landmark tentative deal to loosen ownership restrictions on talent agencies. Gilbert supports the tentative agreement , which was announced Feb. 25, while Harper opposes it.

Also winning were Harper running mates Elliott Gould for recording secretary with 19,792 votes, who topped Kevin Kilner (12,953) and Rene Aubry (3,728), and Kent McCord for treasurer with 16,539 votes, beating Amy Aquino (15,180) and Kathleen Haigney (4,460).

The results, announced early Saturday morning, represented by far the highest voter turnout in SAG’s history with 37,742 of 91,054 eligible voters, or 42%, casting ballots. Voters cast 10,012 more ballots than in the fall election, when 28% participated, which in turn was up sharply from 22% in the 1999 presidential election.

“Gilbert’s incumbency was a huge advantage,” said Boggs, who noted that he had opposed in January the decision by SAG’s staff to allow Gilbert to remain in the office rather than have a board vote or have her replaced by first VP Mike Ferrell, as provided for in the SAG constitution. But SAG’s lawyers contended that the incumbent should remain in office despite the invalidation of the election.

Boggs also said that the “disinformation” that Gilbert’s camp released about the reasons for the rerun election also damaged Harper’s chances. “The allegations of misconduct by the elections committee were totally untrue, but they also had a tremendous backlash effect that was not countered effectively by Harper’s campaign,” Boggs said.

Boggs, a boardroom maverick, said victories by Gould and McCord will provide some balance to the overall outcome and added, “I certainly congratulate Melissa on her victory and wish her well.”

Ballots were picked up Friday morning from a Los Angeles mail box and SAG officials had originally expected disclosure of results to come as early as 6 p.m. that evening. But the higher-than-expected volume plus glitches in scanning equipment and multiple checks of results by the American Arbitration Assn. pushed back the announcement well into the evening.

The pool of eligible voters, limited to those current on dues payments, dropped by 7,523 but members evidently responded to a barrage of fervent appeals — many via e-mail — by both sides during the four weeks of voting.

Though SAG did not break out the results by region, Gilbert’s strongest showing came from regional branches while Harper’s strength was among Hollywood members.

The selection of Gilbert means that the 37-year-old actress will give the traditional welcome speech during Sunday’s SAG Awards at the Shrine in Los Angeles.

The unprecedented re-run was required after SAG’s elections committee voted unanimously to invalidate last fall’s election due to violations by SAG staff and Sequoia Voting Systems for using different rules in conducting voting in New York. That led to Sequoia being ousted from conducting the balloting for both the re-run election and the SAG Awards.

Harper, Gould and McCord all challenged the results and strongly endorsed the decision for upholding the notion of uniform rules; Gilbert’s supporters complained that the violations were minor and have asked the Labor Dept. to toss out the decision on grounds that the elections committee was composed of Harper backers.

Harper said Saturday, “In this election, re-run in a fair and uniform manner, the real winner is the democratic process. I am grateful to everyone who participated in it.”

The spirited campaign also underscored deep divisions within SAG with Gilbert positioning herself as a pragmatist while Harper took a more confrontational tack toward the Hollywood establishment. Harper’s support of plans to cut operating costs led to members of SAG’s 23 regional branches showing strong preference for Gilbert.

The most debated campaign issue focused on SAG’s two-week-old tentative deal with the Assn. of Talent Agents to revamp its master franchise agreement. Gilbert, who was on the negotiating committee, supported the pact as a way to avoid the chaos of deregulation while Harper opposed it as an unacceptable conflict of interest due to provisions allowing talent agencies to sell 20% of themselves to ad agencies and advertisers.

“Stop the sellout!” proclaims Harper’s Web site, while Gilbert’s says, “Without a franchise agreement, there would be NO nationwide protections providing limits on commissions, agency investments and ownership.”

SAG’s national board will vote Monday on whether to send the pact to members, only about 30% of whom have a franchised agent. Given the hostility of many actors toward agents, the outcome of that upcoming vote is uncertain although Gilbert’s victory is certain to be heralded as an indicator that SAG members can be persuaded to back the pact.

Gilbert predicted Saturday that the board will approve the deal but refused to speculate as to whether the membership will also endorse it. She noted that she was encouraged by her strong showing in the election, adding that the deal reflects the changing realities of doing business in Hollywood.

SAG staff has been under fire over the past two weeks for its spin campaign to sell the deal to members by bringing on PR consultants Mark Fabiani and Chris Lehane along with issuing press releases touting its benefits. Those moves led to Harper’s slate accusing SAG staff of electioneering and McCord complaining over CEO Robert Pisano’s failure to disclose key info such as how much Fabiani and Lehane are being paid.

Another issues that figured in the campaign was Harper’s support of the national board’s endorsement of a federal probe seeking import penalties against producers using Canadian production subsidies. Gilbert has contended that SAG’s stance is misguided but five former SAG presidents, including Charlton Heston and Ed Asner, recently blasted Gilbert and Pisano over the ouster of another SAG exec who supported the board’s policy.

Gilbert also pledged she will strongly support SAG’s campaign to enforce its ban on members performing non-union work overseas. “It’s our only chance for survival,” she added.

As SAG’s 23rd prexy, Gilbert has joined the ranks of such notables as James Cagney, Ronald Reagan and Eddie Cantor. She is SAG’s third female president after Kathleen Nolan and Patty Duke, whose election in 1985 had drawn the previous high mark with 34% participation.

The results also represented a reversal of the fall 2000 Hollywood board election, in which Harper led all 74 candidates with 7,099 votes while Gilbert was fifth with 6,434. And the two Gilbert-Harper votes also brought focus to the guild’s more confrontational style leadership under Bill Daniels, who decided not to seek a second term and endorsed Harper last summer.

In November, Gilbert received 45.3% to 39.4% for Harper, 9.4% for Boggs and 5.9% for Angeltompkins. Gould won with 51.9% in the first election over Kilner with 32.2% and Aubry with 15.9%. McCord, with 40.2%, had edged Aquino’s 40% and Haigney with 19.8%.

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