Attending a Marianne Williamson for Congress town hall is a bit like going to a rambunctious church service, including familiar rituals such as greeting the strangers sitting around you and taking a moment for silent reflection.
At a February gathering at the Pacific Unitarian Church in Rancho Palos Verdes, Williamson tells the crowd of 200 why she — a bestselling author and lecturer on personal growth and spiritualism — is running or Congress.
"The behavior of the U.S. Government in too many cases and in too many ways does not reflect the better angels of our nature," she said, offering the first of the night's many statements about how her religious background informs her political positions.
Williamson entered the race in October, months before longtime Congressman Henry Waxman announced he would no seek re-election in the 33rd Congressional District, which stretches from Malibu through Santa Monica and down to the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
Waxman's January announcement triggered a cascade of candidates into the race to succeed him, notably former L.A. City Controller Wendy Greuel, who is looking for another political post after her costly losing race for L.A. mayor, and state Senator Ted Lieu, looking to move up the political food chain in a Congressional district that overlaps much of his legislative district.
Williamson, 61, is a native of Texas who has lived for decades in California. Her book sales are in the millions. Her talks continue to draw big crowds around L.A. and the country.
She is scaling up her message from helping people through personal crises to addressing the nation's ills. And that's not odd, she said. After all, she noted, reforms such as abolition, women's suffrage and civil rights did not originate in major political parties.
"They came from people's movements, by the way, spiritual in nature," said Williamson during her town hall. Despite the spiritual motivation, she said, if elected she would observe the separation of church and state.
"We have a tradition in this country of secular conversation around political issues, and I think it needs to be respected," she said. "We did have a minute of silence when we came in tonight, but I did not open with a prayer."
Decades ago, a Mother Jones magazine profile dubbed Williamson the "high priestess of pop religion." Time Magzaine political columnist Joe Klein recently called her a "glamevangelist."
"Of course calling me a new age guru is the way to automatically peripheralize, minimalize, and trivialize your thinking," Williamson said. "That's what the game is. I'm hoping there are enough people in this district to see through that ruse."
One Republican and 10 Democrats have taken out papers to run on the primary ballot, and in the crowded field, Williamson could pull votes from Greuel and Lieu, two of the better-funded candidates.
Williamson identifies with Democratic positions, but is running as an independent. With a recent Gallup poll finding that 46 percent of Americans identify as independents, she's miffed when people discount the legitimacy of her campaign.
"I'm the one who's raised $380,000. I'm the one who has 2,000 volunteers. I'm the one who has thousands of donors. But they talk about Wendy Greuel and Ted Lieu like they are frontrunners," Williamson said.
Stanford political science professor Bruce Cain says there is an election scenario that could cause a surprise: "One option is that the vote is so fractured and that she somehow ends up being in the number two position."
Williamson said she can translate her spiritual rhetoric into effective campaign language that will connect with voters who aren't already acolytes and with members of a divided Congress.
"Well, actually, I believe that our behavior stems from our thought system, so I actually do not believe it's just rhetorical," she said.
In campaign mode, Williamson is perhaps at her best when responding to predictable and politely skeptical questions from an audience. Like, when a man asked if funding her social programs agenda wouldn't break the federal budget.
"Well, I agree with you," she replied, but then changed the focus to what she believes were bad decisions in Washington. "All that spending on all those wars that were mistakes, shouldn't have happened."
It was one of the night's biggest applause lines.
She also fielded questions about how an independent could function in Congress.
"I think a problem we have in our country is the two-party duopoly," she said. "It has a chokehold on our politics. It is sucking the oxygen out of our public discourse."
Williamson wants the candidates to talk about the nation's wealth being siphoned off by banking laws, trade policy and tax laws and what she calls predatory capitalism.
"That is not righteous, that is not ethical, it is not blessed," she said.
She laments high rates of child poverty, mass incarceration, low opportunity, and broken education systems. Williamson objects to the dominance of oil companies over environmental policy, the drug and insurance industries companies shaping health policy.
She wants a constitutional amendment to reduce the influence of money in politics.
"And I'm not taking PAC money," she told the crowd. "This is a grass roots campaign, our average donation so far has been $51 dollars."
That average has grown to be closer to $71 dollars, according to recent campaigns filings with the Federal Election Commission. And her campaign isn't completely PAC-free.
Some of her campaign money comes in through Democracy Machine Inc. PAC, a federally-registered political action committee that forwards individuals' contributions to the candidates they select, said Democracy Machine founder Jonathan Zucker. You can think of it as a kind of nonpartisan conduit for candidates, but it's still a PAC.
Williamson positions herself as a nontraditional candidate but she's got mainstream help, including from veteran strategist John Shallman, who worked for Greuel in last year's L.A. mayor's race.
And while Williamson talks about getting big money out of politics, she does have access to her own fortune, and support from Hollywood. One recent fundraiser in Malibu was co-hosted by celebrities including Jane Lynch and Laura Dern.
And she does have her "new politics" message down pat, though she closed her town hall with this down-to-earth pledge: "I will stand for the values that I say that I will stand for and, if you don't like it, bring me home. But during those two years, I will kick ass for you."