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Celebrity advocates use social media to influence which California bills become law

Celebrity advocates use social media to influence which California bills become law
From left, singer and actress Barbra Streisand, actress Alicia Silverstone, actress Mariska Hargitay and musician James Valentine of Maroon 5. (Getty Images)

Barbra Streisand took to social media to endorse an ambitious clean energy proposal being heard in Sacramento. Alicia Silverstone tweeted her support for a bill to end the sale of animal-tested cosmetics in California. Maroon 5 guitarist James Valentine urged state lawmakers to resist a water project backed by President Trump.

As California legislators cast votes in the final hours of this year’s session, celebrities leveraged their fan bases on Facebook and Twitter to encourage lawmakers to pass bills and Gov. Jerry Brown to sign them into law.

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Actors have been known to reach out to state Capitol offices to discuss legislation. In 2015, for example, Patricia Arquette called the state Senate to talk about fair pay for women.

But Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) said she was surprised to learn from her son in July that Kim Kardashian West tweeted to support her legislation.

“He said, ‘She’s tweeting about this bill, [Assembly Bill] 2550.’” Weber said. “I said, ‘That sounds familiar, what’s the name?’ And he told me, ‘It’s women’s dignity,’ and I said, ‘That’s my bill!’”

Assembly Bill 2550, which the governor signed into law in August, prohibits male corrections officers from patting down female inmates or entering areas where they might be undressed, except in emergencies. The bill already had broad support among lawmakers, but Kardashian’s tweet brought increased visibility to the issue.

“A lot of [celebrities] have very wide networks, so they can reach people the ACLU might not be able to get in touch with,” said Daisy Vieyra, a communications strategist for the organization’s Northern California chapter.

But celebrity support never ensures success.

Another bill by Weber, Assembly Bill 931, which would have limited police officers’ use of deadly force, attracted celebrity backing from actors including Jane Fonda and Lena Waithe amid a national conversation about the issue.

They tweeted in support and the American Civil Liberties Union also helped publicize the legislation. But opposition from law enforcement and other factors defeated AB 931 in August.

“Some folks have had celebrities on a bill and it still dies,” Weber said. “They can help generate the interest, but I don’t think they can do it alone.”

No topic drew as much celebrity attention this year as legislation inspired by the #MeToo movement. After a deluge of allegations hit the entertainment industry and state political circles last fall, California lawmakers wrote dozens of bills to address sexual harassment.

The bills won online backing from actors, including Oscar-winning actress Mira Sorvino, who accused Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment last year. Sorvino, who did not respond to a request for comment, has publicly linked her advocacy with the #MeToo movement.

Others have established foundations to help push for legislation.

Actress Mariska Hargitay, star of ”Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” started the Joyful Heart Foundation in 2004 to help sexual assault survivors.

“California has always been a focus for us at Joyful Heart,” Hargitay said in an email. “I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and the discovery in 2010 of more than 12,000 untested [rape] kits there shook me to the core and inspired my work on this issue nationwide.”

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This year, the foundation helped lawmakers craft two bills to eliminate the backlog. One, Assembly Bill 3118, requires an audit of all of the state’s untested kits. The other, Senate Bill 1449, would mandate that law enforcement process all kits collected in the future.

After the bills were introduced, Hargitay used Twitter to try to persuade the legislators who could move them forward.

“[We] particularly focused on decision makers — appropriators and committee chairs who had the power to decide whether or not SB 1449 and AB 3118 would be brought up for a vote,” Hargitay said.

Once the bills arrived on the governor’s desk, she directed her tweets at him.

Although the governor signed one of the Joyful Heart bills, agreeing to an audit of California’s untested rape kits, he vetoed SB 1449.

Of more than a dozen bills championed by celebrities this session, the record of success was mixed. Besides SB 1449, Brown vetoed two #MeToo measures, which would have limited forced arbitration agreements and given harassment victims more time to file claims, and rejected a bill that would make it more difficult for police departments to obtain military-grade equipment.

Landmark legislation to end the practice of cash bail in California was opposed by many who initially supported it including musician John Legend, who tweeted that the initiative would actually make the justice system less fair for people of color. Organizations including the ACLU argued late amendments to the bill handed over too much control to local courts and probation offices to decide who should remain incarcerated. Despite a last-minute push against the bill, Brown signed it in August.

“Our office makes decisions on policy based on what will best serve Californians,” said Brian Ferguson, a spokesperson for Brown. “To the limited extent that celebrity advocacy is even seen, the impact is negligible.”

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In the Capitol, where more than 1,200 bills were passed this year, lawmakers might not hear about a bill until a floor vote late in the legislative process. Public figures can use their platforms to publicize proposals that aren’t drawing much attention.

State Sen. Hannah Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) said celebrities make a difference as spokespeople for legislation in the same way they promote products in commercials and advertisements.

“It has a significant impact in dealing with legislators, many of whom are a little starstruck,” Jackson said.

Social media also allows celebrities to help shift public opinion and encourage ordinary citizens to speak up. Hargitay, for example, said Joyful Heart’s efforts inspired tens of thousands of calls, letters and emails to legislators in support of the two rape kit bills.

“I don't spend a lot of time focused on my impact,” Hargitay said, “I am much more focused on how we as a community can make a change for good.”

Sandra Fluke, an attorney who became nationally known in 2012 when radio host Rush Limbaugh called her a “slut” for testifying in support of contraception coverage before House Democrats, has also urged social media followers to contact their representatives about passing California bills, including the net neutrality measure. She said she has seen grassroots efforts help bills jump major hurdles to become law.

“They make a difference in D.C., but because there is less attention paid [to politics] in Sacramento, the calls can make even more of a difference there,” she said. “I have seen legislators respond.”

Josh Ginsberg, founder of social media analytics platform Zignal Labs and a former adviser to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said that tweets from celebrities prompted Twitter users to post hundreds of times about legislation. According to a Zignal analysis, Sorvino and Hargitay each generated about 2,000 retweets and mentions on #MeToo legislation and rape kit reform.

“What politicians like to do is build third-party coalitions,” Ginsberg said. “If you can then get that extra layer of having a celebrity involved, that adds a bigger microphone.”

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