Jennifer Aniston, other celebrities make presence felt in Capitol


Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn’t the only Hollywood celebrity shaping legislation in the state Capitol this past year. Jennifer Aniston, Paul Rodriguez and Sean Penn were among the A-listers who took on starring roles in crafting or promoting new laws.

When state lawmakers enacted a measure cracking down on the paparazzi, Aniston played a key part in shaping the legislation. Landmark legislation to improve the state’s water supply was pushed through under pressure from a group of Latino farmers led by actor and comedian Rodriguez.

When tax incentives were passed aimed at keeping filmmakers in California, “Iron Man” director Jon Favreau had promoted the cause. And Sean Penn stood front and center when gay rights legislation was introduced.

Hollywood celebrities have long cast themselves in activist roles on the national political stage: Oprah Winfrey and Matt Damon were among those who supported Barack Obama for president, while Jon Voight and Pat Boone backed GOP presidential candidate John McCain.

But recently some stars have become more visible in the state political arena, according to Ben Austin, a political consultant who has worked with actor/filmmaker Rob Reiner.

“They see the chance to have more meaningful impacts at the state and local level,” Austin said. “Celebrities have a unique ability to shine a light on an important issue.”

“We live here,” said Aniston, a Los Angeles County resident who parlayed a run on the popular “Friends” television sitcom into a successful film career.

Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) said Aniston’s activism was instrumental in the success of Assembly Bill 524, which takes effect Jan. 1. The law allows for civil penalties of up to $50,000 against members of the paparazzi and media outlets that sell and buy “unlawfully obtained” photos and video of people, including celebrities and their families.

The law focuses on photos and video taken in a way that violates privacy laws, featuring people “engaging in a personal or familial activity” where they have “a reasonable expectation of privacy.” This includes photographing people in their backyards or on other private property.

Bass said she wrote the bill after hearing horror stories about the paparazzi from Aniston, who assembled a group of celebrities and entertainment security experts to describe the problems for the Assembly leader.

Aniston recounted having 30 photographers charge her on the sidewalk and instances in which she was followed through Los Angeles streets at night by photographers in SUVs who ran red lights and blocked her car so they could get a shot.

“There have to be some boundaries,” Aniston told The Times. “When you have children in the car and the photographers are rushing you, it’s just absolutely out of control.

“It’s become a public safety issue. Somebody’s going to die if we don’t do something,” she said.

The measure was signed into law in October by Schwarzenegger. Later that month, Schwarzenegger signed into law Senate Bill 572, which designates May 22 as Harvey Milk Day, to be observed by public schools in recognition of the slain gay rights leader.

The bill was introduced earlier this year by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) at a news conference attended by actor Penn -- who won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Milk in a film.

“It is important that we remember Harvey Milk for his spirit, his courage and his activism,” Penn said in calling for the Legislature to act.

Rodriguez also said personal reasons helped propel his involvement as volunteer chairman of the California Latino Water Coalition.

Rodriguez and the group frequently marched on the Capitol and lobbied legislators for passage of a package of bills to improve the state’s water supply to help drought-stricken farmers. Rodriguez and Schwarzenegger appeared together several times calling for passage of the bills

The actor said he got involved three years ago after seeing his mother and siblings struggle to find enough water to maintain a 120-acre farm of oranges, lemons and olives that he helped them buy near Fresno from his earnings as an entertainer.

“It hit home. I’ve lived through this,” Rodriguez said of the water shortage. “I’ve had to cut down 100-year-old olive trees because there was not enough water.”

Bill Magavern, director of the Sierra Club California, criticized Rodriguez’s coalition for pushing the agenda of “big ag interests” and “trumping up a water crisis” for farmers when the situation was not so dire. Rodriguez himself faced fire on blogs for having a personal financial interest in getting more subsidized water for Central Valley landowners and for, at one point, shoving a critic in Fresno.

Rodriguez said the water crisis is real, and he is glad his celebrity helped draw attention to the issue, even if it meant that his acting career has suffered because of time spent campaigning for water legislation.

“My agents and managers told me I didn’t pick a sexy issue,” he said.

Rodriguez is gearing up to lend his skills to the upcoming campaign to pass an $11-billion state water bond that is a key part of the legislative package.

Aniston said she probably would stay involved in state government as well and believes that laws should be toughened against stalkers, and that paparazzi should have to register with law enforcement and undergo criminal background checks.