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H’wood works issues, not candidates

While alarms have been raised stars are scrambling to raise awareness

A Hollywood figure was out recently to rally the faithful, sing a song to inspire and urge a crowd to get out and organize. The twist was that it was Pat Boone, 76 and an unabashed conservative, leading a Tea Party rally of several hundred in Beverly Hills.

As novel as the event was, it hardly signals a seismic shift in Hollywood’s affinities. But it may say something about enthusiasm this cycle.

While showbiz is still placing its money on Democrats, the engagement of industry figures in individual campaigns, whether through rallies or campaign spots or get-out-the-vote efforts, has up to now not come close to matching that of 2008 or even 2006.

The alarms have certainly been sounded, particularly when it comes to deploying a celebrity to rouse young voters, a key voting bloc for Democrats in recent cycles. On Sept. 28, Ben Harper opened for President Obama at his rally on the campus of the U of Wisconsin at Madison. Two nights later, B.o.B performed at DAR Constitution Hall at an event featuring Obama to try to give a jolt of energy to the Democratic National Committee org Gen 44.

And over the next several weeks, stars including Casey Affleck, Joaquin Phoenix and Kate Walsh are appearing in a get-out-the-vote campaign for the non-partisan org Rock the Vote, part of a final push to get young people to the polls. The org expects to reach a goal of registering 200,000 additional young voters this midterm, four times the amount they did in 2006.

But the org, which has specialized the craft of deploying celebrities to drive enthusiasm, recently released the results of a poll that offered plenty of warning signs for the party in power. It showed that young Republicans were more energized than young Democrats to get to the polls. Obama and the Democrats still have higher favorability ratings than the GOP, but those numbers have eroded and, what’s more, a majority were more cynical about politics than they were in 2008.

“If congressional reps are just starting to head out to football games and concerts in youth-dense battleground districts, with only one week left before most states’ voter registration deadlines, banking on President Obama’s rhetorical gifts on a single campus is too little, too late,” Rock the Vote’s executive director, Heather Smith, wrote in a blog post.

Instead, she noted, young voters are waiting to hear from candidates “who are doing something about the issues they care about.” Likewise, the figures who have developed “street cred” with this age group have not been on the campaign trail but engaged in issues, like Lady Gaga using social media to lobby her followers to call their representatives and urge repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It’s also the type of issue that has driven skepticism of both parties: Obama and Democrats seem to have been criticized almost as much for lack of progress as Republicans have for their opposition.

Industry activists this cycle have devoted their effort to other issues, like same-sex marriage and immigration reform, more than to individual candidates. Voto Latino recently launched a get-out-the-vote effort called United We Win, in which celebrities including Wilmer Valderrama, Eva Longoria-Parker, Rosario Dawson and Jessica Alba aim to boost turnout but also criticize recent state immigration laws, like those in Arizona.

Yosi Sergant, who in 2008 was a key figure in organizing a grass-roots org of artists and activists around Obama’s candidacy, is not rallying around any candidate this cycle, but around education reform.

He’s one of the chief organizers of Re:Form School, a New York art exhibition and event series to be held on Oct. 9-11 to draw attention to the need to fix the public education system. Partners include the CAA Foundation, Bing and the Hole.

“In the midterms, traditionally there’s a lot of noise and mistruths out there about policies,” Sergant says. “No set of candidates can quiet that noise.”

Instead, he says, “I’m fighting for the value system to which I want my candidates to be speaking.”

Last year, Sergant took a job as communications director of the National Endowment for the Arts, until he found himself a target of Glenn Beck.

It’s the current partisan warfare, Sergant says, that is keeping many creative figures on the sidelines.

“The issues are being debased from any sort of intelligent discourse,” he says. “That’s not an environment many people want to be in. They don’t feel comfortable if the end result is going to be people screaming at them.”

The sentiment is mirrored by Jon Stewart with his plans for a Rally to Restore Sanity on the National Mall Oct. 30.

It is all done in the name of satire, but for the tens of thousands who have expressed interest on Twitter and Facebook, it’s where they are staking their hopes.

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