Obama era reignites stars' fervor for lobbying
One Monday afternoon in early March, MSNBC cut to a live shot inside the Capitol, where House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stood before a row of media cameras and introduced “a real hero for the people of New Orleans and a real model for the country.”It was Brad Pitt, who was there to pitch, promote and lobby for efforts to rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward of the city. Four days later, Pelosi met with Richard Gere to talk about the plight of Tibet. Two days after that, she convened with singer Paul Simon to celebrate the passage of an expansion of a children’s health insurance program. Such unity of Congress, cause and celebrity has long been a Washington formula for mutual assured publicity. But there has been an unmistakable escalation since Democrats expanded their majority and took back the White House. The stream of stars to the Hill has had the ironic effect of raising the bar on what merits the attention of lawmakers and the media, putting extra pressure on Hollywood figures and their advocacy orgs to be savvier about how they approach a capital that’s been inundated by efforts to “raise awareness.” Celebs for decades have used their fame to draw attention to causes, but the dilettante approach has long lost its uniqueness. D.C. demands celebs who are truly informed, and Bono, with his effectiveness in winning support for poverty relief and international AIDS efforts, is seen as the role model of how to mix celebrity with political clout. “While staffers and members of Congress appreciate celebrities coming, I think people recognize the fact that if they are going to (have an effect), they have to have another level of commitment than they have had previously,” says Tom Sheridan, whose D.C. firm represents charities and nonprofits, including Bono’s ONE Campaign. The past few months have seen a wave of celebs and their causes hitting Washington: A reunion of the cast of “The West Wing” lobbied for the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to form unions. Tony Bennett crooned for lawmakers at the Capitol Visitors Center to promote the Performance Rights Act, which would establish the right of artists to collect royalties when their songs are played over the air. This week, Julianne Moore, an advocate for Save the Children, will meet members of Congress, unveil a report on how disasters have affected kids and attend a book party for her new children’s book. “What it takes is a personal connection and a demonstrated commitment,” says Dan Glickman, chairman of the MPAA, who encountered his fair share of celebrity activists as a member of Congress from 1977-95. “Without that, it might get a one-day story but I don’t think it has a lasting impact.” Simon, who founded the Children’s Health Fund with Dr. Irwin Redlener in 1987, for years sought an expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, only to see it vetoed twice in 2007 by President Bush. (In a Capitol Hill press conference then, Simon called it a “heartless act.”) One of the purposes of Pitt’s visit, which also included meetings with cabinet officials as well as President Obama, was to ensure that New Orleans was near the top of the agenda. But his Make It Right Foundation is also looking to apply for stimulus grants for its sustainable building efforts through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program. Industry activists see the current climate as an opportunity for progress on issues that for years stood little chance of advancement in the halls of power. Heather Thomas — who hosts a monthly salon, dubbed L.A. Cafe, for progressive activists at her Santa Monica home — recently devoted a part of the event to the art of lobbying, dispensing wisdom as simple as the need to be polite and as realistic as knowing that the best way to get one-on-one time with elected officials is to be ready to host fund-raisers for them. She was at the Capitol recently as part of a National Resources Defense Council delegation to lobby for a bill that would shift the burden of proving that chemicals in consumer products are safe from the EPA to the manufacturer. “There has never been a better time for doing it,” Thomas says. Last month, on behalf of the Intl. Fund for Animal Welfare, Pierce Brosnan lobbied members of Congress at a series of receptions for new legislation to save whales, and met at the White House with Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and other administration officials. He talked of a “renewed sense of optimism and hope for their future” but also spent a great deal of time, in almost dramatic flourish, outlining how committed he was to the cause. “Somehow, when you have to show yourself in the hallowed halls of the Capitol, it really does test your mettle,” Brosnan reportedly said at a reception that day. The trials include a skeptical press corps more likely to include D.C. gossip columnists than writers covering environmental legislation. Brosnan appeared a bit rattled at a press conference when one reporter asked him whether “we should ban Moby Dick.” He gamely answered, “How could you ban Melville?” The nature of coverage may be beside the point given that the aim is to break through to other lawmakers on an issue that may not have a lot of resonance beyond coastal states. “Were (Brosnan) not here to lend his name and eloquence, it would have been a much greater struggle to get attention,” says Mark Forest, chief of staff for Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.), co-sponsor of the save-the-whales bill. “It just helps get it on the political radar screen. You are competing for space in a very limited policy agenda.” Chris Cutter, a spokesman for the Animal Welfare fund, noted that they did “have some contact” with administration officials during the Bush years, “but it was a much tougher climb.” By contrast, the Obama White House has shown what seems like a greater willingness to take a celeb meeting — such as George Clooney’s February visit with Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden to talk about Darfur. Glickman notes that with the younger generation in the White House, “Their interest and access points are perhaps more attuned to an activist entertainment culture” than the previous administration. It’s hard to tell exactly when such celebrity lobbying began in earnest, but just about every lawmaker seems to have a story or two about rubbing elbows with a famous person. Glickman recalls one committee hearing that he chaired on the farm crisis back in the 1980s at which Jane Fonda and Jessica Lange were to testify. Then-Rep. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) spotted them and said, in a tone of irreverence, something on the order of “I’m so glad to be here with chairman Glickman and such phenomenal experts in the field of agriculture.” The two actress-advocates may have been tough sells as farm experts, but Glickman quickly learned the power of celebrity: Where stars go, the media follows. “You would usually find time to skip out of other hearings and be there because invariably there would be a lot of cameras there,” he recalls. By the 1990s, as lawmakers grew accustomed to listening to a cornucopia of celebs pitching their causes, the stars who were earnest about making real progress ran into roadblocks. Hollywood’s progressive tilt didn’t mix well with the agenda pursued by Republican majorities and their dominance of Washington for the first part of this decade. Stars like Michael J. Fox didn’t so much push new legislation as fight against bills that hurt their causes, such as the Bush administration’s ban on stem cell research. It was also during that time that Bono helped create a sophisticated org that linked nonprofits, philanthropists and politicians to target world poverty and disease. The concerted effort helped win over skeptical members of the Bush administration — and the president himself, who dedicated an initial $15 billion over five years for AIDS relief. The bigger challenge, however, was establishing some measure of grassroots support for international cau
ses not high on the congressional priority list. Sheridan cites a meeting he had with Bono, Bobby Shriver and Mark Shriver as Mark Shriver was in the midst of a 2002 campaign for a Maryland congressional seat. After a day walking precincts and talking to voters, Mark Shriver quietly informed the Irish star that “No one raised the issue of African poverty and AIDS,” Sheridan recalls. What followed was the creation of a grassroots effort, eventually called the ONE Campaign, that allows Bono to lobby the Hill with the leverage of a database encompassing more than 2 million members. The singer visited Capitol Hill in April, meeting with everyone from Pelosi to House Majority Leader John Boehner, to support a John Kerry-Richard Lugar effort to add $4 billion to the international affairs budget. During Bono’s daylong push, Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.) even tweeted, “Bono is incredibly versed in the issues regarding African relief!” The effort passed in the Senate. Trevor Neilson, president of Global Philanthropy Group, which represents high-profile individuals and their causes, describes the emerging strategy as a “carrot and stick” approach: The orgs have the ability to inform their membership when specific local congressmen support the cause — and when they don’t. “From the outset Bono knew that he had to be able to walk into a member of Congress’ office with the names and email addresses of constituents and to be able to say, ‘I have their email address, and I am going to tell them whether you are going to be helpful or you are not.’ ” Neilson’s firm, which represents clients including the Pitt-Jolie Foundation and the singer Shakira, recently partnered with a consulting group headed by Paul Tewes, a political organizer and Obama’s Iowa state director, that aims to build grassroots support for issues supported by philanthropists. “In Hollywood, the mistake that is made is that there are a number of artists who think if they just show up their presence alone gives them a huge amount of credibility on an issue,” Neilson says. Very few celebrities have the wherewithal or the time to devote to the complicated business of lobbying and the business of actually changing minds. There’s been some grousing that many of the celebrities who dropped in for the Obama inauguration, promoting such things as public service, have never been seen or heard from again. In their trips to D.C., the not-so-famous describe a laborious lobbying process of breakfast, lunch and dinner, followed by an evening fund-raiser or event for a member of Congress. The goal: face time. Mitch Kaplan, partner in the Kaplan-Stahler Agency, has been making trips for D.C. for years on behalf of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. In 2005, much of the group’s time was spent fighting privatization. Now, with health care reform on the table, the feeling is that “the wind is at our backs. The new administration makes all the difference,” Kaplan says. Thomas says, “The most important thing is to represent a lot of people and represent fund-raising, and never threaten. Don’t bombard them and don’t threaten.” Fame only goes so far. Inside the Beltway types who’ve noticed the presence of TMZ, as well as the new phenomenon of cordoned-off and Hollywood-style VIP areas at parties in recent months, doubt that D.C. will be swayed much by celebrity culture. “Time is the most precious commitment, so that shows through,” says Hilary Rosen, managing partner of the Brunswick Group’s Washington office and the former CEO of the Recording Industry Assn. of America. “This is traditionally not a town where getting paid to promote a handbag will get people to want to come and meet you. “Historically, for better or worse, this is a town that requires a little more substance and engagement.”
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