Underdogs in L.A.

Congressional hopefuls will travel a long way for some Tinseltown support

Los Angeles and politics can make strange bedfellows.

What other city can boast of/apologize for sending the Terminator to the governor’s mansion and the Gipper to the White House? Not to mention L.A.’s greatest policy legacy, Proposition 13, the regressive-tax Rosetta Stone of the “I’m OK, you’re a parasite,” Ayn Rand-inflected philosophies of young-gun conservatives such as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, vice-presidential hopeful Paul Ryan, and late-blooming-but-making-up-for-lost-time Mitt Romney. In case you want to know how this story ends, check out California’s public education, once the envy of the world and now scrambling to keep pace with Alabama.

Against this backdrop, as they say in Hollywood, on the evening after Romney was busted for telling a roomful of country-clubbers he thinks half of America is a waste of time and money, the actress Barbara Bosson could be seen giving tours of her Pacific Palisades home to guests bedazzled by her art collection while Wayne Powell and Rob Zerban worked a great room dominated by a nearly head-high hearth.

You may remember Bosson for her Emmy-nominated turns as Fay Furillo on Hill Street Blues and as Miriam Grasso on Murder One. You probably didn’t know she saved money to attend Carnegie Mellon by working as a Playboy bunny, joining a storied tradition of bunnies turned activists (Gloria Steinem, Jenny McCarthy, et al).

Most likely you haven’t heard of Wayne Powell or Rob Zerban.

Powell is challenging Cantor for Virginia’s 7th congressional district, while Zerban is going against Ryan to represent the hard-pressed southeast corner of Wisconsin. They’re Democratic long shots against two of Congress’s most powerful incumbent Republicans.

So, what are they doing in L.A.?

Well, Hollywood loves an underdog story. And its mix of pop-culture pull, ready cash and available free time to obsess over geographically far-flung electoral contests make it a player in local contests well beyond the California state line. So Bosson, environmental activist Sara Nichols and a few other Westside women eager to end the political careers of Cantor and Ryan—both proponents of government incursion in the womb—arranged the meet-and-greet. For Powell and Zerban, the task of the evening was to convince the assembled Californians that their Hail Mary campaigns were not simply curiosities but legitimate causes—missions that could be accomplished.

Powell’s campaign began piquing interest when Dave “Mudcat” Saunders signed on as manager. Saunders is known for getting Democrats elected in red, ole Virginny. In 2001, he helped Mark Warner to the governor office and in 2006 steered Jim Webb’s upset of incumbent Republican Sen. George Allen.

Most presciently, back in 2008 Saunders helped script John Edwards’ “two Americas” campaign theme. Before he disgraced himself, Edwards warned of a country heading down a road that would irreparably divide us between haves and have-nots. Now, as Romney’s donor speech and Ryan’s eat-the-poor budget make abundantly clear, that dire prophecy is actually the Republican platform. I met up with the 61-year-old Powell in Brentwood Village the day before the gathering. It was the kind of breezy, late-summer afternoon that can almost make you forget that O.J. Simpson used to prowl these parts. Powell had just finished a radio segment on The Ed Show. Current TV’s Young Turks and Stephanie Miller’s podcast were on the agenda. He seemed to be enjoying the sunshine.

“People say this is the second most important election this year, and California has an impact in presidential and national elections,” Powell said. “There’s also a little more critical thinking out here.” And that’s not all.

“They invited me to come and said I could get some money,” he said. “So I came.”

Powell will need lots of money if he’s going to turn Cantor negatives—a recent poll showed 43 percent of 7th district voters would prefer that anybody but Cantor represent them—into Powell positives. Perhaps more importantly, the 68 percent of the district’s voters who say they are pro-choice have watched Virginia devolve into the hard-right’s laboratory for pro-life legislation such as trans-vaginal ultrasounds and conception as the start of life. Meanwhile the state is mandating that clinics operate at hospital-level standards as a way of expensing them out of business.

If you were looking for someone to challenge the preternaturally smug Cantor for this white, working-class district, Powell is straight out of central casting. His father was a welder and his mother a baker. Powell is a 30-year Army vet who worked counterterrorism after 9/11. His son is serving in Afghanistan after several tours in Iraq.

When folks in his district, many of whom expect Democrats to have horns, ask if he’s progressive, Powell cites the Constitution and tells them, “I’m American; I’m progressive by definition.”

Powell says canvassing confirms how desperately folks in his district are trying to hang on. “They want to see their families more and maybe work one less job. They need the most help and they are getting the least from the policies Cantor promotes, which appeal to the greediest among us.”

The folks gathered in front of Bosson’s enormous fireplace wanted more than just soothing policy pronouncements; they wanted to know if Powell and Zerban had the cajones to fight the other side’s brass-knuckled campaign machine. In other words, they didn’t want to invest in any well-intended-but-ineffectual John Kerry sorts.

Powell smiled gamely. “I’m a kid from the streets,” he assured. “Eric Cantor has never met anyone like me before.”

For his part, Zerban told the well-heeled gathering he’s faced tougher odds than Ryan while growing up in a single-mother household eating “government cheese” before attending culinary school on Pell Grants and Stafford loans. He called Ryan’s budget plan “the most irresponsible, destructive budget in our country’s history” and vowed not to let Ryan and Romney do away with programs that helped people like him climb out of poverty.

“I’m thankful to be in California enjoying this great weather—and also to be standing in front of a fireplace that could handle a pig roast,” Zerban joked, adding emphatically, “I plan to be the first chef in Congress.”

The audience laughed and applauded and then continued to vet the candidates for another hour before repairing to darker corners to open their checkbooks. The curiosities had become a cause.