Powerful Advocate

07.15.14

George Takei Sets Phasers to Reform

The ‘Star Trek’ star, gay-rights advocate, and social media powerhouse talks up his new cause—campaign finance—and faith in democracy.

George Takei’s experience with American democracy began shortly after he turned 5 years old, on a train car, flanked by armed guards, on his way to an internment camp for Japanese Americans.

It took him many years to overcome his bitterness at the system that had trapped him there, made him feel like a criminal, and left his family homeless after World War II. As a young man, he blamed his father, telling him, “You led us like sheep to slaughter when you took us into that camp!”

His father took a moment to reflect. “Maybe you’re right,” the elder Takei eventually said, before quietly leaving the room and shutting the door.

“I realized I had hit a nerve. I had hurt him,” George Takei says now. “But there were other conversations, and what I remember of those conversations were his [arguments in favor of American] democracy.”

Takei, who rose to fame as the iconic Hikaru Sulu in the original Star Trek television series, changed his mind about America over time. He began to understand his father’s patriotism. To explain their internment, the elder Takei had said democracies are as great or as fallible as the people who participate in them—and that America’s system had soaring potential, even if their family had suffered a great injustice. It was crucial, then, to take part.

It is through this lens that Takei is offering his support for campaign finance reform. Earlier this month, he encouraged his fans to donate to the Mayday Political Action Committee, a super PAC formed to end super PACs and limit the role of money in politics.

“The core of what our democracy is about ‘We the people,’ ‘All men are created equal.’ When we have a situation like the Koch brothers, [who] can donate multimillions of dollars to a campaign…you’ve got to fight fire with fire,” Takei told The Daily Beast. “‘We the people’ can fight that challenge with fire. We can’t each afford a million-dollar contribution, but we can afford $3. And there are a lot more of us, those who can afford $3.”

It’s a fitting role for an actor whose seminal Star Trek performance took place in a utopian universe that had mostly eliminated the need for money. While Takei’s traditional advocacy has been LGBT rights, the young fans he’s attracted through his work on gay marriage and gay rights are whom he thinks of when he reflects on the issue of campaign finance.

“I’m a person who believes in the ideal of one man, one vote—a true democracy, as opposed to a plutocracy where lobbyists can control the result of an election with their money.”

“The thing that breaks my heart is that there are so many young people with ideals and principles who are engaged with nonprofits and community organizations. [They] refuse to register to vote because they think it’s corrupt,” he said. “And it is corrupt, when…money can buy an election. We’ve got to make our electoral process credible to the very people we need to make involved and engaged.”

Launched in May, Mayday PAC has raised nearly $8 million in donations from more than 50,000 contributors. On the Fourth of July, Takei urged his 7.2 million Facebook fans to donate to the super PAC, a post that was shared nearly 8,000 timed and received more than 28,000 likes. Takei himself kicked in a symbolic $3.

“I’m a person who believes in the ideal of one man, one vote—a true democracy, as opposed to a plutocracy where lobbyists can control the result of an election with their money, so I support campaign finance reform,” he said.

Takei has been involved in politics for decades. In his famously deep, theatrical voice, he explained that his father had first gotten him interested in politics by bringing him down to the local headquarters for Adlai Stevenson’s 1960 presidential campaign.

He later worked for Tom Bradley’s successful campaign for mayor of Los Angeles, then George Brown Jr.’s campaign for U.S. Senate. Takei even tried his luck at a campaign, running for City Council to replace Bradley. Despite name ID and fluent Spanish (there was a sizable Hispanic population in the area), he lost by a sliver.

During his race for City Council, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that his time on television as a character on Star Trek qualified his opponents for equal free airtime to present their case as candidates. Takei, now 77, is the same age as Sen. John McCain. But the FCC ruling, he said, is the reason he will never run for office again.

He’s found other ways to keep himself politically active, through political advocacy and contributions. According to Federal Election Commission records, he’s mainly supported Asian-American politicians in the past few years, including Democratic Reps. Mike Honda, Colleen Hanabusa, and Judy Chu.

To this day he’s still stung by racism he faced after World War II. He can’t shake the memory of a schoolteacher, Ms. Rugen, who would refer to him as “that Jap boy.”

“I was an innocent kid, and she was a teacher…I thought, well, maybe her husband was in the Pacific theater, or a son—but I’m still a kid, your student, and an American. Why did she want to hurt me so much? But there are people like that,” he said. “I thought about her all the time.”