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CAMPAIGN 2000

Amid Glitz of Hollywood, the Spotlight Could Be Stolen

Pop culture: The Shadow Convention is ready to reconvene in a town that loves to mix politics with pun.

August 12, 2000|ANNE-MARIE O'CONNOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's unconventional politics--by any means necessary.

The list of participants alone is like a speed-dialing duel between bookers for "Hollywood Squares" and "All Things Considered."

There's '60s icon Tom Hayden--and Roseanne. Preeminent black intellectual Cornell West--and singer David Crosby. Jesse Jackson--and Baba Ram Dass, counterculture czar of "Be Here Now" fame.

There's acerbic literatus Gore Vidal and "Politically Incorrect" satirist Bill Maher. Public Enemy rap survivor Chuck D will unveil an ominous new song--"Son of a Bush"--and cinematic rapper Warren Beatty is on and off the marquee.

This is the Shadow Convention, a hybrid of '60s grass-roots activism and '90s celebrity culture that will be playing as of Sunday night at Patriotic Hall in downtown Los Angeles. After a dry run in Philadelphia, the Shadow Convention is making its real debut--free and open to the public, though capacity is limited--in the Hollywood-driven city that created it.

If, as Cajun political raconteur James Carville once said, Washington is Hollywood for ugly people, the Shadow Convention is where activists, luminaries and the downtrodden will come together on common ground.

Why the Democratic Party decided to cede the Shadow Convention's three populist issues--campaign finance reform, the gap between rich and poor, and the racial inequities of the drug war--is anyone's guess.

The problems of people who are "victimized" by government policies--the working poor, the children of parents jailed on minor drug offenses, the voters cheated out of their influence by corporate campaign donors--will be showcased at the Shadow Convention as a passionately serious matter by a number of weighty reformist groups convening the forum.

But politicians will be a joke--at least in the satire of "Saturday Night Live" veteran Al Franken, fellow merry prankster Maher and radio commentator Harry Shearer.

Can this pop culture hybrid--which opens at 6 p.m. Sunday and will hold daily sessions beginning at 10 a.m. throughout the Democratic Convention--succeed in driving home important issues?

"There's so much cynicism and frustration with both parties," said Assemblyman Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles), the former California Assembly speaker who will address, at the Shadow Convention on Monday, the gap between rich and poor. "I think this is an excellent vehicle for civic involvement."

Organizers are hoping that other Democratic delegates will wander over from Staples Center and attend the Shadow Convention sessions. They also hope to get greater daily press coverage in Los Angeles, where their approach is more tailored to the entertainment industry-saturated culture of Southern California.

Organizers were disappointed by press coverage in Philadelphia. Newspaper editorials said the Shadow Convention's focus on the gritty human realities behind national policy distinguished it from the scripted inclusiveness of the Republican National Convention. But in spite of a well-organized program, daily coverage was thin.

Activists, however, were engaged--especially when black ministers, grass-roots activists and a typically thunderous Jesse Jackson decried the toll of the drug war on blacks and Latinos.

Grafting the million-dollar aura of the celebrity-sprinkled Shadow Convention onto the activists and unfortunates who flesh out alarming but otherwise dry statistics requires plenty of imagination.

"You don't want political chic," Rudy Langlais, a producer of last year's Oscar-nominated "The Hurricane," said at a Shadow Convention planning meeting. "You don't want it to be cool just for a moment."

Convenors have worried since the beginning that the inclusion of celebrities is a double-edged sword that could draw bigger crowds but deflect attention away from the issues.

And some parties--most notably the press--have questioned the political about-face of celebrity author Arianna Huffington, a former Republican insider who is a central Shadow Convention organizer.

"Doesn't anyone think it's odd that four years ago she spent $30 million with her husband to buy his Senate seat?" Jonathan Weiss, a computer consultant, asked at a Shadow Convention party in Philadelphia. "Suddenly she's a populist."

But this is Los Angeles, the city that invented self-invention. Here on the Left Coast, the past is not taken so literally.

On Los Angeles' Westside, where celebrity and wealth overshadow civic life like an Armani National Guard, everyone who's anyone considers themselves liberals. And in this Hollywood-driven world, where parties are business by other means, Huffington has gained a broad and influential following. Her admirers see her as an iconoclastic reformer, not a political cross-dresser.

"She has an amazing ability to bring people together and get them talking to each other," Shadow Convention volunteer Nancy Snow said. "There's great magic in it."

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Information on schedules and registration is available at www.shadowconventions.com.

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