It was a Thursday night, normally a slow time for churches and synagogues, but the sanctuary of The Source Spiritual Center in Venice was packed.
When a diminutive woman stepped to the front of the room, people paused in their scramble for a chair or purchase of a T-shirt and engulfed her in cheers and applause.
She called for a moment of silence. The audience stilled. She dedicated the evening ahead "to all that is good … to the fulfillment of love" in everyone.
"And so it is," concluded Marianne Williamson — friend of Oprah, associate of Hollywood elites, best-selling author and charismatic spiritual leader.
Williamson has spent three decades offering a path to inner peace for those who seek it. Now she's entering an arena in which inner — and outer — peace seems in particularly short supply: She's challenging Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) for the congressional seat he first won when Gerald Ford was president and the country was preparing to celebrate its bicentennial.
"This is a journey we're all taking together over the next few months," Williamson told the crowd of 200 or so who had shown up that night to volunteer for her campaign. In the cadence of a revival-meeting preacher, she talked of a corrupt system in which the two major parties and the corporations that fund them have "locked out" citizens and ignored some of the country's most pressing problems.
She rattled off a list of her concerns: child poverty, mass incarceration of blacks and Latinos, government spying, a growing gap between haves and have-nots, even the "corruption of our food supply" via genetic modification and high-fructose corn syrup.
Using words that wouldn't be out of place at one of her spirituality lectures, she said that getting involved in the campaign could become "a transformation in your life" and an "act of love" for country and others.
Such comments seem to resonate in parts of Waxman's largely coastal district, which includes some of the nation's wealthiest, most politically active communities, including a good chunk of those in the entertainment industry who have admired Williamson.
Had she followed a more conventional course, Williamson would have run in the district that includes her West Hollywood home, represented by Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank). But candidates for Congress aren't required to live in the districts they seek to represent, and Williamson believes that Waxman's is a better fit.
"This district is filled with some of the most creative people in the country," Williamson said over oatmeal and Earl Grey at a West Hollywood bakery on a recent morning. "It's filled with people who are starting new things, who are known for breaking the mold and initiating new conversations."
"I have an organic, authentic connection to this community....I hear people here, and I feel heard by people here."
Some political observers, including longtime Democratic political strategist Garry South, give Williamson very long odds.
Waxman is vulnerable, said South, who lives in the district and is not working with any of the early candidates. But he said it would take another Democrat to defeat the congressman in the party stronghold. And Williamson recently re-registered with no party affiliation.
"I just don't think that somebody running as an independent in the fall is going to do it," South said of the district, where producer-director Brent Roske is also running as an independent.
Williamson said she registered as an independent because she doesn't believe either mainstream party is capable of remaking the political system. Under the state's new open primary system, in wide use for the first time last year, the two top finishers in a race move on to the general election, regardless of any party affiliation.
Williamson said she would caucus with Democrats if elected and agrees with Waxman on most issues. But she thinks the 74-year-old has been in office too long.
In a recent phone interview, Waxman said his tenure in Washington is an asset.
"I have a long record of accomplishments that I think are very important to the public interest," Waxman said. He cited his leadership on climate change, children's health, tobacco regulation and the Affordable Care Act. "I've been fighting these fights, fighting against a lot of special-interest groups, for years.