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On Tuesday, Kerry Washington joined Vice President Kamala Harris and Los Angeles mayoral candidate Rep. Karen Bass for a meet-and-greet at a breakfast spot on Pico Boulevard, encouraging maximum civic participation on Election Day. But just before this, the actress and activist completed a three-day, four-state trip that she has termed the “S.O.S. Tour,” where she hosted rallies and discussions, filmed TikToks and took photographs, and visited local radio outlets to raise awareness about the power of the vote.
Though Washington has been a surrogate for candidates for years, this election season she wanted to focus her efforts on showing up in battleground states for the midterm elections to raise awareness about the importance of secretary of state races (hence the “S.O.S.”) and the impact of local elections, as opposed to parachuting in every four years during the presidential voting cycle.
Washington and her team stopped in Nevada, Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania, focusing on events in support of Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (the first woman elected to represent Nevada in the Senate and the first Latina elected to serve in the upper chamber); Sen. Mark Kelly, gubernatorial candidate Katie Hobbs and secretary of state candidate Adrian Fontes, all of Arizona; Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and secretary of state Jocelyn Benson in Michigan; and now-Senator-elect John Fetterman in Pennsylvania, where she partnered with Philadelphia-based grassroots organizations and visited local Black-owned business to discuss what small businesses in the community need. All of the Democratic secretary of state candidates supported by Washington were going up against Republican candidates who have denied the results of the 2022 presidential election; of those Democratic candidates, Whitmer, Benson and Fetterman have won their elections.
Weeks prior, in Georgia, Washington encouraged voter turnout in support of Stacey Abrams and Bee Nguyen, two candidates that would have made history had they won their races for governor and secretary of state, respectively. One of the weekends of early voting, Washington tapped into the young and Black voting demographic by hosting rallies during the annual HBCU homecoming for Spelman and Morehouse.
On the road, Washington was also joined by singer Camila Cabello, who harnessed her influence with younger people and Latino voters to emphasize the importance of showing up to the polls in Arizona and Nevada in particular.
Separate from her personal political work, Washington also recently partnered with the non-partisan, 501(c)(3) Movement Voter Fund to launch a two-year Vision Into Power (VIP) Cohort which provides 10 grassroots organizations with resources and support to accelerate and scale their impact year-round. To help communities build power in between major election years, the cohort supports grassroots leaders and their organizations in building a shared vision for an equitable democracy through storytelling and collective action.
Washington spoke exclusively to The Hollywood Reporter about the importance of bridge-building, the true impact of celebrity influence on voting, and why she believes U.S. Rep. Karen Bass should be Los Angeles’ next mayor.
Why is the “S.O.S.” tour such an important initiative for you? Why did you decide to embark on campaigning across four states in three days, and how does it align with your personal political mission?
My personal mission, politically, is for people to know that they matter, and for people to understand that in order for democracy to function, we need everybody’s vote to count and everybody’s voice to be valued. I think midterm elections have historically had a lower turnout. And part of what we were trying to accomplish was to raise awareness about how important midterm elections are, because this is where all the decisions get made on your state and local level. The folks in these positions have a real impact on our day-to-day lives, so the [S.O.S. tour] kind of helped shine a light on secretaries of state as one of the many roles that is filled in midterm elections.
I feel that right now there are so many massively important issues on ballots all over the country, from the economy, to education, to reproductive rights — but also democracy itself is on the ballot in many places. And the secretary of state is the person in each state who makes sure that we’re able to have free and fair elections. Shining a light on them and the work that they do felt really important, and a great way to highlight what the issues are at stake, and who the people are doing the hard work to protect us and protect our democracy.
How did you select the politicians that you worked with in the field across the various cities you visited? What was your own personal research process like in terms of finding the people that you really wanted to collaborate with on this tour?
I’d been an activist in high school and in college, but when I started working as a political surrogate, I really got bit by the bug being on the trail for then-Senator Obama. I wound up doing 16 states for Obama, as I was incredibly passionate about him as a candidate. And I started supporting other candidates through the years who I also had similar passion for.
But when I started looking at the relationship to the communities I was going into … I would go into a community and say to a group of people — hundreds of people at a rally — “Your vote matters! Your voice matters!” so show up for this candidate. And I started realizing that there was a bit of a disconnect because I felt like I was there in service to the community, but they only saw me when I was in service of a candidate. So I started to try to shift the paradigm toward having a deeper relationship with communities and community organizers on the ground who are doing the work toward extending democracy, as opposed to just showing up for candidates. And that basically meant going somewhere more than once, over the course of a period of time, building deeper relationships with local politicians and community organizers and community members.
Some of the places [I stopped in] I’ve had an ongoing relationship with. [Washington, for instance, visited Arizona and Michigan in 2020 to campaign for President Biden.] Over the years I’ve done a lot of work in Michigan and Virginia and Arizona. And then there are also places where I felt like democracy really is on the ballot — places that are really important in the current shape of our electoral college and where there were secretaries of state that I thought were really doing the hard work of making sure that every vote and voice does count, and that we are upholding our democratic structures and systems in fair and just ways.
Bearing our current political moment in mind, did you notice any shifts or trends that were different this time around, particularly in the places where you’ve had longstanding relationships and repeat visits? Did turnout look different? Did your change your approach to engaging these areas?
It seems like there’s much more interest and excitement and passion around the midterms than I’ve ever seen before. I think everybody is having increased awareness and acceptance and passion about what’s really at stake in our democratic process and on the issues that matter most to us and our families and our communities. I’ve definitely seen a lot more passion and awareness about these other roles and offices; the presidential years get all the splashy attention, but these midterm years are when we make decisions about the people who impact our day-to-day lives.
I know that Camila Cabello joined you in Nevada and Arizona. What was it like working with her and mentoring someone who’s part of the younger generation on the road?
It was really fun. Camila is a natural leader; she’s so smart and so easy to adore. So it was a joy having her on the trip and sharing all of those events together. You know, it’s funny, we’re out there to support community and to support the idea of bridge-building and working together, so it was nice to not be out there alone — to actually be in community while doing the work.
Certain people in the crowd really resonated with Camila and her message, particularly in places where she was speaking Spanish on stage. And other people in the audience were resonating with me. You really see how it takes a village to uphold a democracy, and you realize how important representation is and how necessary it is for all of us to be willing to stand up for our communities and allow people to see themselves in this democratic process. It’s not just about seeing ourselves in the movies and on television, but we have to see ourselves in the democratic process as well.
Zooming in a bit more on Los Angeles, you’ve been vocal about your support for mayoral candidate Rep. Karen Bass. What was it like joining her and Vice President Kamala Harris for an event at family-owned restaurant John O’Groats on Election Day?
In so many of the states, I would say to the crowd: “These midterm elections are so important. Everything’s on the line. So just make yourself uncomfortable these next 48 hours — if you were going to make three phone calls, make six. If you were going to knock on five doors, knock on 10 — just do a little bit more than you thought you could do because we have to really engage.”
And so of course, it was like I manifested the same opportunity for myself. I was done with the work, heading home, and got some correspondence from Karen Bass’ campaign about this event with Vice President Harris asking if I thought I could make it. I’d been wanting to do more for the campaign than I’d had the opportunity to do scheduling-wise up until that point … but I was like, I guess this is me pushing myself out of my comfort zone like I’ve asked hundreds of people to do in cities all over the country. It’s my turn. I’m really passionate about this candidate and about her being the right choice for Los Angeles, so I’m going to show up.
How are you feeling now as we wait for the L.A. mayoral race results, particularly as somebody who is so involved in the process?
Honestly, I think part of why I really love doing this work is that it makes me feel like I’m participating in the process with everything that I have to offer. I tend to not sit in front of the TV and watch the results come in because I feel like that part I can’t control. What I can control is my effort, how much of myself I pour into these days, weeks and months beforehand. I can control giving my money, my time and my heart to these issues and to these candidates. But I can’t control the results. It’s in the voters’ hands and it’s in the hands of the people whose job it is to count the votes and protect that process. Poll workers are doing God’s work in this country — they always have but especially now.
It seems like there’s a growing trend of entertainers and celebrities not endorsing political candidates as freely as they did in the past, so your commitment to advocating for who you believe in is notable. Have you had any sort of trepidation surrounding being so vocal with your platform? Does this type of work feel like a risk?
[People have mentioned to me on the road] that it’s not the safe choice, as a person in the public eye, to take a stance on these issues and on these candidates. But I would argue that if we’re talking about safety, supporting candidates who believe in democracy and who believe in upholding equity and justice … that is a world that feels safer to me than the alternative. I think of safety in a more long-term way rather than in the short-term. I try to think about safety as not just what feels comfortable in the moment, and what might feel comfortable in my career in terms of people’s public opinion about me, but I try to think about safety in terms of guaranteeing the safety for the future of my children, of my friends and family.
I’ve also done a lot of research over the years to really measure and understand the impact that people in the public eye like myself have in these processes, because at some point I started to ask myself: “What is the real impact that I’m having as a surrogate out here supporting a candidate?” I have to tell you, and it can be humbling, that I don’t really have that much impact on people’s voting behavior. I have a limited capacity to transform the behavior of a community member or citizen. The most important person that can impact somebody’s behavior change around voting is a close friend or family member. So that’s why when I go into a community to speak, I want to remind people of how powerful they are.
I know that the best thing I can do is remind people of their own power to transform and impact their circle of influence in their communities.
Hollywood seems fairly split on Bass and Caruso. And maybe the city of Los Angeles is too, evidently. Do political views ever cause fault lines in industry circles, or do you feel like you can have open conversations?
To me, a cornerstone of democracy is that you’re able to have conversations and to have a difference of opinion. One of the things that I did when I was in New York on Monday was walk around Central Park with Katie Couric — I couldn’t believe how close that [the New York] governor’s race was polling — so we were out encouraging people to vote in New York and also creating content. It was so fun to be running around with Katie Couric on Election Day.
We talked to people about the issues that were important to them, that were guiding their votes. And a lot of times we would stop somebody who wouldn’t want to tell us who they were voting for and that’s totally fine. We were able to talk to two women who were on complete opposite ends of the spectrum, both from Florida, about how they were able to be in conversation with each other about these issues, because that can be a model for this country right now. It feels like there’s a dwindling capacity in our culture to be able to have meaningful discourse with people who have beliefs that are different from ours. And I think that’s really important in a democracy.
How do you see the next two years unfolding? Specifically in Los Angeles, how do you think the city comes together after a close mayoral race like this?
This idea of really being able to talk to each other and reason things out is really important, I think, to the future survival of offices in this country and in the world, quite frankly. I don’t know exactly how we’ll get there. But I know that me being at home and being quiet and not participating won’t help. We should all be engaging with each other.
There’s no escaping these issues; even though the right to an abortion is still protected in New York, for example, I recently heard from a friend who needs an abortion and was unable to get one in New York because people from surrounding states where abortions are outlawed have taken all the slots. So we’re in this together no matter where we live, no matter who we are. For me in this city, one of the reasons I really support Karen Bass is because of her unwavering, unflinching historic support of a woman’s right to choose. That’s really, really important to me. I also know that she’s invested in community — not just fixing problems, but really dealing with them.
I have high hopes for our ability to come together as a community because I see more and more community engagement, people seeing themselves in this process, and understanding that politics is not just like a game for straight white guys in suits up on a hill somewhere … that politics is about all of us, it’s about our everyday lives. If we don’t show up, then those decisions about our lives are going to be made with or without our consent. Voting is just part of how we write the story of our lives.
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