Heated NYC Mayor Race is a Star-Studded Affair
NEW YORK -- One makes a video with Steve Buscemi and rockers Vampire Weekend. Another gets shout-outs from Whoopi Goldberg and Brooke Shields. A third hobnobs over cocktails with an actor from "The Sopranos."
No, it’s not an awards show weekend. It’s the New York City mayor’s race, featuring a cast of celebrities like few other municipal elections.
Last weekend, Democratic mayoral contender Christine Quinn unfurled a star-dusted list of pro-gay-rights backers of her bid to become the city’s first female and first openly gay mayor. Among them: singer Lance Bass, actor Neil Patrick Harris, director Rob Reiner and "Project Runway" style czar Tim Gunn, who said Quinn would "make the position of mayor the bully pulpit it needs to be to fight for all New Yorkers. "
Ten days earlier, Alec Baldwin announced that he’d raffle off two dinner invites to any-amount donors to Democratic candidate Bill de Blasio.
"There are few things I enjoy more than a good meal with good company, particularly when an issue as urgent as the New York City mayoral election is up for discussion," the "30 Rock" actor told de Blasio supporters in an email, saying the candidate "understands the inequality crisis facing our city."
And in May, a fundraiser for Republican hopeful Joe Lhota spotlighted as "special guest" Steve Schirripa, best known as gentle-spirited goodfella Bobby "Bacala" Baccalieri on "The Sopranos."
With the super-competitive campaign to lead the nation’s biggest city in high gear since spring, the day-to-day menu of candidate forums, policy speeches and endorsements from political figures and interest groups has increasingly been sprinkled with a healthy dash of glitz.
One day, it’s a video from hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons praising de Blasio, now the city public advocate. Another day, it’s Goldberg posting on her Facebook page to cheerlead for Quinn, now the City Council’s leader. Or salsa star Willie Colon tweeting a link to a song he wrote lauding Democratic contender Bill Thompson, a former city comptroller.
Indeed, the race can sometimes seem like something of a ballot-box version of "Battle of the Network Stars." De Blasio’s "LGBT for BdB" gala is headlined by Sarah Jessica Parker and Cynthia Nixon of "Sex and the City" fame and Tony Award-winning actor Alan Cumming? Well, here comes the "LGBT for Quinn" team, with actor-playwright Harvey Fierstein and actors Cheyenne Jackson and George Takei, along with Bass, Harris, Reiner and Gunn.
Republican candidate George McDonald, meanwhile, has links to actor Ethan Hawke, a longtime supporter of the Doe Fund, the homelessness-services nonprofit McDonald runs. GOP rival John Catsimatidis has been cultivating a theatrical tie of his own - the billionaire businessman has been underwriting performances of "The Little Flower," actor Tony Lo Bianco’s one-man show about former New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia.
Entertainers, athletes and other pop culture icons have lent star power to national politics since at least 1920, when singer and comedian Al Jolson wrote a campaign song for Republican nominee Warren Harding and ushered dozens of theater performers to a rally at Harding’s Ohio home. Later, show business would pave the path for several stars to win office themselves, most prominently President Ronald Reagan.
And celebrities’ politics can be local, too, particularly in such fame havens as New York and Los Angeles, where the recent mayoral contest drew in Salma Hayek, Moby, Jimmy Kimmel and Magic Johnson, among other buzzerati.
In places where voter rolls are stuffed with boldface names, candidates can almost feel pressed to get celebs on their side, says former New York mayoral candidate Tom Allon, a newspaper publisher who dropped his campaign in March. He doesn’t think stars’ political opinions carry much weight with New Yorkers, but if he’d kept running and could tap some famous endorsers, "I’m sure I would have tried," he said.
While celebrities’ imprimatur may not sway voters, stars can help campaigns more indirectly, political observers say.
"The crude notion that celebrities are persuasive, most of the time, for how people vote is just wrong. But I think celebrities are very important in certain situations: fundraising, attracting crowds and interest where it otherwise might not exist," says North Carolina State University political science professor Michael Cobb, who has researched whether celebrity endorsements affect voters.
A star might get more people to a rally or fundraiser, generate press coverage or write checks and round up wealthy friends to do likewise. (Several celebrities are bringing their pocketbooks to bear on the New York mayoral campaign, including Quinn donors Tom Hanks and Jon Bon Jovi and de Blasio contributors Paul Simon and John Turturro.)
And a celebrated backer can contribute to voters’ view of a candidate, especially if the star’s known for political activism.
Baldwin, for example, is so outspoken about city matters that he flirted with a mayoral run himself. Buscemi, a former city firefighter, got arrested alongside de Blasio in 2003 while protesting plans to close a firehouse.
Such supporters "may be famous, but they are also progressive New Yorkers and passionate activists who care deeply about the future of our city and believe we need real change" after Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 12 years, de Blasio said in a statement. His campaign’s famous friends also include Susan Sarandon.
Campaigns can run the risk that celebrity supporters will distract from their message instead of amplifying it. Just ask Mitt Romney about Clint Eastwood’s Republican National Convention speech to an empty chair or query President Barack Obama about Robert de Niro’s crack about some GOP candidates’ wives at a fundraiser earlier in 2012.
De Blasio faced questions last week after Baldwin lashed out at a British journalist with a vulgar Twitter tirade using an anti-gay term. Baldwin apologized in a statement to the gay rights group GLAAD, and a de Blasio spokesman called the actor’s language "clearly unacceptable."
And Quinn was on the spot when illustrious feminist Gloria Steinem publicly threatened to forsake Quinn’s mayoral campaign if Quinn kept preventing the council from voting on requiring many businesses to provide paid sick time. Quinn ultimately backed the proposal, and Steinem endorsed her.
Some candidates say their campaigns aren’t courting stars. Average New Yorkers’ votes "are way more valuable than the endorsement of the `Sex and the City’ cast," said Todd Brogan, a spokesman for Democratic contender Sal Albanese, a former city councilman.
Another candidate is well-known enough in his own right, for good or ill: Anthony Weiner, the Democratic former congressman felled by smutty tweets. Weiner hasn’t announced any endorsements since he jumped into the race roughly six weeks ago.
Campaigns that are embracing luminaries say they’re keeping fame in perspective.
"We’re always so appreciative to have them," said Jessica Proud, a spokeswoman for Lhota, an ex-Metropolitan Transportation Authority boss. But ultimately, Proud said, "people want to know what you’re going to do with them in office."
"You’re not running for `American Idol,’" she added. "You’re running for mayor."