Why Are Hollywood Celebs Backing a Socialist in California?
The winners of the L.A. city council elections in March will wield real power, and Hollywood stars—including Natalie Portman and Jane Fonda—are backing DSA candidate Nithya Raman.
On a Wednesday in January, comedian Joel Kim Booster spent the afternoon walking the streets of Sherman Oaks, a neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley, knocking on doors. Last fall, Booster, a touring stand-up, actor, and writer, starred in Sunnyside, an NBC single-camera sitcom about a corrupt city councilman who gets fired and finds his calling helping the disenfranchised to find their footing and live the American Dream. But that afternoon, Booster wasn’t on set. He was canvassing—walking door-to-door, handing out pamphlets, and talking to people about a different city councilman who might get fired, and the woman Booster hoped would replace him: a progressive challenger named Nithya Raman.
Raman, an urban planner, former Executive Director of Time’s Up Entertainment, and Democratic Socialist, is making an unusual bid for Los Angeles’ Council District 4—a sprawling district stretching from Sherman Oaks down to Miracle Mile, through the Hollywood Hills, and into Silver Lake. It’s an influential seat—Los Angeles, governed by a weak-mayor system, has the most powerful council of any major metropolis in the country, with just 15 members overseeing its population of 4 million (New York City, by contrast, has 51 councilmen; Chicago has 50), all of whom earn higher salaries than almost every member of Congress. It’s also a political contest that does not often attract notice. Local races, long the kid sister of the electoral circuit, yield notoriously low voter turnout. In 2017, for example, only 25 percent of New Yorkers voted in the mayoral race, and in L.A., turnout was even worse—so low nonprofits used cash prizes to incentivize voting.
But Raman, whose housing, climate, and immigration policies invite comparisons with fellow DSA-backed candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Julia Salazar, has found an odd cachet among Hollywood figures who live in her district. She locked the comedian vote with endorsements and donations from Mindy Kaling, Jimmy Kimmel, Tina Fey, Tim Heidecker, Ike Barinholtz, Michael Schur, Adam Scott, and more. Danny Zuker, creator of Modern Family, donated; and producer Jeffrey Richman held a Raman meet-and-greet with the cast and crew. The band Wolf Parade dedicated a concert to her campaign. She appeared on both Trevor Noah’s podcast and “Chapo Trap House”; received contributions from workers at Universal, 20th Century Fox, Sony, Disney, Warner Brothers, CBS Studios, ABC Studios, Shondaland, HBO, Netflix, and Crooked Media; and shot endorsement videos with actors including Busy Phillips, Nick Offerman, Jane Fonda, and Natalie Portman.
Her opponents, five-year incumbent David Ryu and former screenwriter Sarah Kate Levy, who has also made housing a central part of her campaign, have similarly high-profile supporters. Levy scored the endorsement of Congresswoman Katie Porter, who represents California’s 45th congressional district, and former Congresswoman Katie Hill—the Democratic challenger who defeated Republican incumbent Steve Knight in the 2018 midterms, but resigned last fall amid leaked photos of an affair with a campaign volunteer, and has since become an outspoken opponent of revenge porn. Ryu, meanwhile, has mobilized his significant support across L.A. to fundraise over $1 million for the race—more than any other single candidate on the ballot and a quarter of all campaign funds raised across Los Angeles elections this year.
Hollywood activism isn’t especially new. But the critical mass of entertainment personalities involved in the council race is unusual both in scale and level of involvement for an election so local. Celebrities aren’t merely donating or making earnest speeches from an award show pulpit—they’re emceeing events, hosting fundraisers in their homes, shooting promotional videos, and phonebanking. Some, like Booster, are canvassing door-to-door. It’s an oddity that signals a sea change in civic engagement, in how national movements are reinvigorating local ones—and poses the question of why candidates whose platforms center Los Angeles’ poorest residents are resonating with some of the richest.
“For the last presidential election I wasn’t really paying attention to local politics,” actress Busy Phillips, who hosted a Raman fundraiser on Feb. 8, told The Daily Beast in an interview. “But post-2016, I was a little bit disillusioned with how our government was working and who it was working for at the highest level. I started to look around at my neighborhood and see the things that could be changed here and what I could do… Because of the growing homelessness crisis in this area and in Los Angeles, I was feeling incredibly at a loss. Then, a friend of mine introduced me to Nithya.”
Part of Raman’s appeal among Hollywood types might be explained by her background and campaign staff. The urban planner, who studied political science at Harvard and got her master’s at M.I.T., doesn’t have a long history in entertainment. Born in India, Raman came to the U.S. at age six, and returned after college to fight slum evictions in Delhi and Chennai. But after she moved to Los Angeles to join her husband, a comedy writer for TV, she signed on as Executive Director for Time’s Up Entertainment, launching initiatives to connect underrepresented writers with Hollywood producers using grant money from Les Mooves’ CBS exit agreement. After stepping down last spring to run for office, she built her team with two local organizers—Meghan Choi and Jessica Salans of Ground Game LA—but also Josh Androsky, a former stand-up, writer, and frequent guest on “Chapo Trap House,” who joined as Communications Director, and Hayes Davenport, a comedy writer and the podcaster behind Hollywood Handbook, who quit his job as a showrunner at TBS to volunteer for Raman full-time.
Like many candidates on the national stage—Bernie Sanders with Vampire Weekend and The Strokes, or Mike Bloomberg and his squadrons of paid memers—part of Raman’s campaign strategy has hinged on tapping figures with large followings to spread her message at a much lower cost than say, running TV advertisements or paying for slots on state-wide voter guides.
The result has led to a few odd bedfellows. Most of their endorsees share Raman’s commitment to housing reform and environmental justice. Jane Fonda, for example, has spent the past six months leading climate protests in D.C. and Los Angeles, getting arrested for engaging in acts of civil disobedience—one of which Raman joined last week. Portman, on the other hand, has disavowed social justice movements like Boycott, Divest, Sanctions, which targets Israel’s failure to comply with international human rights law, and recently drew criticism for a cape at the Oscars embroidered with the names of every woman director the Academy had overlooked, even though her own production company has only hired one female director to date: Portman.
Timing could also be a factor. Since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s 2018 upset against Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley in New York, the model of the progressive outsider taking on the establishment candidate has almost become a trope, lending legitimacy to the longshot campaigns of figures like Julia Salazar, Danica Roem, Jumaane Williams, and Tiffany Cabán. Raman’s bid has molded itself in that image, emphasizing the grassroots organizing and door-knocking Ocasio-Cortez championed. A spokesperson for the campaign said Raman volunteers had so far knocked on 60,000 doors—twice as much as all the votes cast in the primary that won Ocasio-Cortez her seat—and plan to hit 80,000 by election day. Likewise, Levy, Raman, and Ryu find themselves in a race that could increase turnout by tens of thousands—for the first time, California’s presidential primary takes place on Super Tuesday—March 3, 2020—rather than in early June, aligning local elections with one of the biggest voting days of the year.
But perhaps the largest factor pushing entertainment involvement in local elections may be frustration with national politics. “I’ve done a lot of charity work in the past, but there are some structural changes that just need to be addressed,” actress Busy Phillips said. “I think that the disillusionment with 2016 has really motivated people to put themselves out there at home.”
For Phillips, disappointment with politicians on a national level pushed her toward issues in her own neighborhood, like homelessness. The homelessness epidemic has spiked across the country since 2017, according to data from the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, but it is acute in California, home to nearly a quarter of the nation’s homeless population. The situation is especially dire in Los Angeles County, where an estimated 58,936 unhoused people live—36,165 of them in the city alone, according to the point-in-time count in 2019—and more visible. Unlike New York, where the homeless population is 40 percent larger, Los Angeles does not provide much access to shelter, leaving 75% of unhoused people without a bed each night. The results are deadly. More homeless people die of exposure in Los Angeles than in any other major American city—roughly 1,000 people per year, or three people every day.
Every candidate in the CD-4 race, where homelessness has increased more than anywhere else in the city (53 percent since last year), has made housing the focus of their campaign. Ryu has long run on the promise of eliminating developer money from political races, though he recently had to return some dozen donations after reports emerged of their real estate connections. Levy has promised to expand safe parking sites, supportive housing, mental health services, and tenant protections. And Raman, who co-founded the prominent homelessness coalition SELAH, has released extensive plans to end criminalization and invest in services by opening city-wide access centers, implementing rent freezes, and constructing half a million units of affordable and first-step housing. Both Levy and Raman have criticized the council’s inaction on homelessness, which passed a $1.2 billion bond to fund 10,000 new units of housing in 2016, just one building of which has materialized. Levy has taken a more moderate, small business-focused perspective in her platform, while Raman’s critique comes from the left—as when she appeared alongside Bernie Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez at a December rally in Venice to endorse the Homes Guarantee, a sweeping proposal to construct 12 million units of affordable housing in 10 years.
“I phonebanked for Bernie and I phonebanked for Hillary—like we all did in 2016—and I think it’s because of that that I’ve become super involved in this campaign,” Booster said. “Nihilism is really easy to slip into, because we have access to all this information about how poorly things are going in the rest of the world. But shrinking it down to your neighborhood, it makes you feel like you have a little more control.”