Screen Actors Guild voters delivered an overwhelming rerun victory to president Melissa Gilbert, providing positive momentum to SAG’s pending deal with agents.
“I have tremendous hope for it,” said Gilbert during a 1:30 a.m. news conference Saturday following announcement of her election with 57% of the vote to rival Valerie Harper’s 34%. “It’s a solid deal, and its time has come. The business has changed, and it’s the best way for us to control that change.”
SAG’s national board is due to vote today on the deal — which would loosen ownership restrictions on talent agencies under the guild’s master franchise agreement — and send it on to SAG’s 91,000 paid-up members. But Gilbert refused to speculate as to how the membership will vote.
Although the deal is expected to pass the 107-member board, much of today’s debate may be devoted to how the SAG-Assn. of Talent Agencies agreement is presented to the members in the referendum. Sufficient resistance is expected for a 25% no vote, which would trigger inclusion of a “minority report” as part of the referendum.
Some board members have even discussed the possibility of sending the measure on to the membership with no recommendation or a bare-bones recap of the pros and cons of the deal.
Gilbert, who sat on the SAG negotiating committee, backed the deal during her first and second campaign as a pragmatic approach to preserving the 6-decade-old master franchise agreement rather than risking the uncertainty of deregulation. Harper attacked as an unacceptable conflict of interest the deal’s provisions, first announced Feb. 25, that would allow ad agencies and advertisers to buy up to a 20% stake in talent agencies.
SAG staff has already touted the benefits of the deal, citing a new fund to help the pension and health plan and another to repay actors when agencies fold along with aid from agents in enforcing SAG’s ban on non-union overseas work. But persuading the overall membership to endorse the pact will still be a daunting task due to thesps’ traditional wariness of agents plus strong opposition from high-profile members.
Harper cites incumbency
Harper contended that Gilbert’s incumbency — albiet short — rather than support among members for the ATA deal, was key in the margin of victory. She noted that running mates Elliott Gould and Kent McCord also were re-elected to their posts as secretary and treasurer with both campaigning actively against the deal.
“I continue to believe that the deal will be voted down,” she added.
Presidential candidate Eugene Boggs, who finished third with 6%, agreed that the pact faces a rocky road simply because so few members — about 30% — have agents. “I don’t think that Melissa’s victory is going to have much in the way of coattails because (members) are simply going to see the ATA deal as diminishing their chances to get an agent,” he added.
Gilbert won an overwhelming victory despite an aggressive campaign challenge by Harper, who lost the November election by 1,588 votes. Gilbert’s campaign strategy was two-fold: attack Harper for forcing a rerun and take advantage of her incumbency by portraying herself as a can-do moderate in areas like Global Rule One and cutting back the size of the board.
“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, 2,178 for Boggs and 1,010 for Angeltompkins. Gould won with 19,792 votes, topping Kevin Kilner (12,953) and Rene Aubry (3,728), while McCord led for treasurer with 16,539 votes, beating Amy Aquino (15,180) and Kathleen Haigney (4,460). McCord had won by only 34 votes in November.
The results represented by far the highest voter turnout in SAG’s history with 37,742 of 91,054 eligible voters, or nearly 42%, casting ballots. Voters cast 10,012 more ballots than in the fall election, when 28% participated.
The fall election became the first national SAG election to be thrown out due to findings by the guild’s elections committee that Sequoia Voting Systems and SAG staff had violated rules.
Boggs, a boardroom maverick, 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 Farrell, as provided for in the SAG constitution.
Boggs also said the decision by Gilbert’s camp to complain 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. “I certainly congratulate Melissa on her victory and wish her well.”
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, “In this election, rerun in a fair and uniform manner, the real winner is the democratic process. I am grateful to everyone who participated in it.”
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.
Volume slows tally
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 into Saturday.
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 email — by both sides during the four weeks of voting.
Harper pulled 65% of her votes from Hollywood voters, but still lost the Hollywood voting by more than 2,500 ballots. Over half of Gilbert’s came from New York and the regional branches, where fears remain that smaller offices may be closed due to cost-cutting.
SAG staff has been under fire over the past two weeks for its spin campaign to sell the agents deal to members by bringing on PR consultants Mark Fabiani and Chris Lehane along with issuing press releases touting its benefits. In response to those moves, Harper’s slate accused SAG staff of electioneering and McCord complained over CEO Robert Pisano’s failure to disclose key info such as how much Fabiani and Lehane are being paid.
Another issue 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.