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California, of course, is hardly unaccustomed to voting for celebrities, having elected Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and even Sonny Bono. Yet few think Marianne Williamson has much of a chance, even though she could place second in the primary and end up in California's top-two November runoff.
Far more worrying to Waxman is the possible third candidate, political independent and multimillionaire Bill Bloomfield of Manhattan Beach, who built his fortune from a coin-operated laundry company.
Waxman, whom The Nation once called the "Democrats' Eliot Ness," was caught flat-footed by Bloomfield in 2012, though it had been widely assumed the incumbent would walk away with the election. "I didn't know I had a fight until after the primary, when I saw that Bill Bloomfield came in second, having spent a million and a half [dollars] to beat the Republican," Waxman says.
And two years earlier, in 2010, Bloomfield spent heavily on two popular California reform initiatives that almost upended Waxman:
One measure took away the gerrymandering powers of politicians like Berman and Waxman, handing the power to draw voting-district boundaries to a citizens commission. The commission placed Waxman in a redrawn district that included a chunk of the South Bay, an area unfamiliar to Waxman, with no small number of Republicans and Independents.
A second reform backed by Bloomfield put an end to partisan-ruled primaries in California. Voters now can pick from any party's candidate in the primary, and in the November general election they choose from the top two primary vote getters, whether that's two competing Democrats or some other mix.
The 2010 law change put independent Bloomfield in the 2012 runoff against Waxman. Bloomfield lost by eight points — hardly a razor-thin margin, but closer than anybody has ever come to ousting Henry Waxman.
Waxman still seems shell-shocked by Bloomfield's showing, repeatedly asking around to find out if his old foe is going to run again in June. Bloomfield has not decided, though a recent mailing he sent out has fueled speculation that he'll soon enter the fray.
"I decided last time in March," Bloomfield says. "Three months is more than enough time for a primary."
Waxman isn't campaigning yet, either, except for fundraising. When the 74-year-old is asked if he'll run more vigorously this time, he replies, "I'm sorry to say it depends on how much money I raise to be able to communicate. That's part of the advantage of the incumbent. I've been out there."
So Marianne Williamson remains the longest of shots. To win, she must create a movement, a whirlwind of a campaign that inspires the same kind of passion and volunteerism that drove the Center for Living and Project Angel Food to such stunning successes.
"No one motivates people like Marianne Williamson," Project Angel Food co-founder Kessler says. "She knows how to speak to you, in a way that you perceive as real and authentic."
The disembodied sound of an acoustic guitar can be vaguely heard inside the Source, at another volunteer meeting in December. Empty chairs abound — her number of volunteers has dropped by nearly half.
"Can we turn that music off?" Williamson asks.
"It's coming from outside," a volunteer says.
Maybe it's the holidays, but progress appears slow. Lists have been typed up of coffee shops, health food stores and Pilates and yoga studios to leaflet. The campaign has buttons reading, "Give This Woman a Seat!"
"I think it should have my face on it," Williamson tells the crowd. " 'Give this woman a seat!' What woman?" She laughs. "We're still learning."
Later, someone asks if she'll release talking points for volunteers to share with voters. Williamson grins.
"You know, early in my career, people would ask, 'Can you just give us five steps to enlightenment?' No!" The audience laughs. "If the campaign is about me finding my voice, it's also about you all finding yours."
Even when talking politics, Williamson is every bit the self-help motivational speaker.
"Washington isn't the only place where democracy is broken," she says. "Democracy is broken within ourselves."**An earlier version of this article said Williamson's book had sold more than 3 million copies, which is the sales figure for all of her books.