by finn-olaf jones | May 25, 2014 | People
New-age guru Marianne Williamson is running for Congress. She wants your vote… and your soul.
The Divine Ms. W: Spiritual teacher Marianne Williamson is hoping to bring ethics back to politics—starting with LA’s ritzy 33rd District.
As the sun settles over the Pacific, only the sound of mellow guitar music can be heard above the crashing of waves beneath a beach house pyloned on a particularly pricey stretch of Malibu. A particularly pricey group of some 150 people have paid $500 apiece to be jammed shoulder to cashmered shoulder in the living room. Among them, actresses Marcia Cross and Frances Fisher sway to coffee-house-singer-turned-Grammy-sensation Jason Mraz as he croons, “You can relyyyy on me,” backed against the flat-screen TV next to the fireplace.
But the star of the night is sitting in the first row, her long dark hair bopping as she nods along. Despite the high-wattage crowd, everyone, including Mraz, is keeping their eye on her—when she nods to the music, they nod. Although she still identifies herself as Jewish, she’s become such an icon of Christian-leaning spirituality in this country—with best-selling books about spiritual salvation and the values of “The Christ”—that you almost expect a halo to appear over her head. It also doesn’t hurt that, at 61, she still carries those gleaming, natural, Ivory Snow girl looks that stood out on The New York Times best-selling author’s photos for years, like the cheerleader in the computer club’s yearbook shot.
Marianne Williamson is running for Congress in the 33rd District, literally the “Left Coast”—it encompasses the city’s toniest progressive neighborhoods lining the Pacific, from Malibu down to Palos Verdes (with a stray finger reaching into Beverly Hills and Hancock Park). Come the June 3 open primary, Williamson needs to be one of the top two vote getters in order to appear on the final ballot on November 4. And anyone who might want to belittle her Independent run should remember that she has spent a good part of the last three decades rousing readers and crowds such as this with her serene presence, subdued passion, and a 1960s eloquence rivaling that of her political hero, Bobby Kennedy. Also, there’s the possibility that even God wants her to win. By some miracle, District 33’s congressional fixture for nearly 40 years, Henry Waxman, who was considered unbeatable, suddenly decided to retire a few weeks after Williamson entered the race. (“I didn’t have any idea he was going to do that when I decided to run,” Williamson later said. “At least not consciously.”)
Williamson gets spiritual with longtime fan Oprah Winfrey on OWN network’s Super Soul Sunday.
What’s more, the slate of contenders that has since emerged, notably Wendy Greuel and Ted Lieu, are about as relatively charismatic and inspiring as your typical B-list party functionaries at a time when “professional politician” is practically a swearword.
When Mraz is done with his set, Williamson gets up to speak, her buff body (one of her best sellers was A Course in Weight Loss) framed in a simple, tight black dress with a white geometric design going through it like lightning. She rails against corporate participation in the political system, the rise of special interests, and the 1-percenters. “In 1783 we got rid of the aristocracy in America,” she announces at her speech’s conclusion. “It’s time for us to repudiate an aristocratic system again.” The crowd erupts into wild applause that seems slightly surreal given that this group would be first in line were the guillotine to be set up amidst the Bentleys and Beemers parked outside.
“If the system goes down, we all go down,” Williamson later says, sipping herbal tea in the lounge of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Even in this intimate setting she is ethereally serene, yet very passionate about her political views—leaning forward, patting my arm, eyes drilling into mine. “So many things have happened for the past few years that make every serious person want to step up and think about the future of this country,” she says.
Jason Mraz serenades Williamson and her campaign backers in Malibu.
“I’ve done book deals and speaking contracts. I understand the high side of capitalism,” Williamson continues. “If you’re in the club, then there’s no better place to be in the club than here [in the US]. But the inequalities of this country need to be addressed at a fundamental level…. Both our government and our financial system need to reclaim their ethical centers, or this country will not endure.”
If anyone knows what that club is like, it’s this woman from Houston, who by way of temp office jobs in New York post-college and a bit of youthful partying (“Yes, I did inhale,” she freely admits, “but probably not more than was typical of the times I grew up in”), came across the 1,000-plus page tome A Course in Miracles, supposedly dictated by Jesus to psychologist Helen Schucman. The book inspired Williamson to write A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles, which in 1992 became an Oprah Winfrey favorite, spent 39 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list, and catapulted the then-40-year-old author into the vanguard of the mainstream self-help movement. She has since written nine more self-help books, which together have sold more than 3 million copies.
Despite her success and fame, her two-bedroom apartment in Brentwood is striking for its lack of ostentation. She is a single mom of a 23-year-old daughter, India, who is currently studying in London. This is not a woman who has been lost in what she calls “woo-woo land.” “This New-Age label is just used to trivialize people, including me,” she notes. “But I have not been a dilettante when it comes to spirituality, and I’m not a dilettante when it comes to politics, either.”
Williamson with supporters Mark Burnett and Roma Downey.
Exhibit A in this regard would have to be her 1997 book, Healing the Soul of America, 344 pages of detailed discussion and analysis of the issues that have become the political hot buttons of our time. Exhibit B is that Williamson is not just handing her candidacy to the “Good Vibrations” set. Among her staff is political samurai John Shallman, who oversaw Wendy GreuelÂ'’s last race for mayor, as well as Joe Trippi, who helped snatch the congressional seat for Janice Hahn during 2011’s brutal special congressional election for District 36. Williamson has also already raised almost $500,000—and even though several million dollars will be required to win, she has yet to tap the fortunes of her deep-pocketed spiritual followers (more than 400,000 on Facebook and 200,000 on Twitter), who sprawl all the way to the East Coast and beyond.
And despite some rather radical-sounding platforms (“My primary interest would be to support a constitutional amendment outlawing the undue influence of money in politics.”), her vision transcends political views, and indeed even spiritual ones. Take District 33 resident Zachary Treadwell, a former Republican who is now a Williamson advisor and fundraiser. “The US Congress, complete with its whopping 9 percent approval rating, has been disengaged from the democratic process for too long now,” he says. “If it takes a new perspective of thought to create a new and needed discourse, I am all for it.” Treadwell, who describes himself as a “nonpracticing agnostic,” doesn’t own so much as an incense burner.
Not that Williamson’s New-Age aura is necessarily as big a political drag as many pundits have suggested, especially given the unique characteristics of the area she wants to represent.
“I’ve been told that if I want to be taken seriously as a candidate, I’ve got to stop having all these yoga fundraisers,” Williamson says with a smile. “But this is District 33! If everyone who owns a yoga mat votes for me, we win.”
photography by amy dickerson; MICHAEL TIGHE (MRAZ, BURNETT); GEORGE BURNS-HARPO INC. (WINFREY)