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The Influencers

Who do the A-listers call when they want to get things done? They call The Influencers -- a key group of people who have been quietly advising their clients on how to get involved in the political and philanthropic spheres. You might not know their names, but you’re sure to know their Hollywood clients, and the Influencers are the first on the phone list when politicians make their SoCal campaign stops for donations, endorsements and most importantly, the stellar Hollywood network. Find out who the five key Hollywood influencers are in these in-depth interviews and profiles, as they discuss their careers and experiences in Tinseltown’s dalliance with D.C.

The Veteran

Name: Margery Tabankin
Age: 63
Current Role: Executive Director, The Streisand Foundation
Affiliations: Barbra Streisand, Hollywood Women's Political Committee

Sitting in her Santa Monica office at the headquarters of The Streisand Foundation, Margery Tabankin shines with a shrewd sharpness and energy that defy her 63 years of age.

Formerly the executive director of the Hollywood Women’s Political Committee (HWPC) and currently serving as the executive director of Barbra Streisand’s foundation, Tabankin has been tapped into the very core of Hollywood’s relationship with politics for more than three decades.

“It’s the ATM machine for a lot of politicians,” jokes Tabankin, of Hollywood’s unique partnership with Wahington, D.C. “It helps them financially.”

This comment seems pertinent to a discussion of Tabankin’s political past, when she appeared in D.C. to testify on the issue of campaign finance reform to end political action committees, while at the same time serving on the board of the HWPC and heading its PAC from 1988 until the group disbanded in 1997.

“I was for really taking the money out of politics, because I think that it corrupts the political system,” says Tabankin. “I think that we are now in a stage with the most excessive corporate control of the various houses of government that I’ve ever seen in my adult life.”

There are two types of money that come out of Hollywood, each of which has its own agenda and thus imposes a significant impact on influence and power between Hollywood and D.C.

“You have money that is promoting the industry of Hollywood and the issues of Hollywood,” explains the industry veteran, referring to the guilds and the studios and the business of the entertainment industry. 

“Then you have people who work in this industry who tend, more than not, to be liberal, who have an artistic sensibility, who tend to come from other places and really most of them are self-made,” elaborates Tabankin. “Artists over history have always been the plight of the common man, the purpose, the connection to the universal story, to the every-person.” 

Tabankin has been at the forefront of Hollywood money and influence, usually making decisions about where Hollywood money ends up going. In her executive-director role at the HWPC, she was behind the vetting process, choosing the candidates who best represented the interests of the members and donors. 

“We had a very clear set of guidelines and principles that we believed in,” explains Tabankin. “It was a very tough list — some very good people didn’t get our support because they didn’t agree with one or two of those positions.”

In its heyday, the HWPC raised big money, pulling in more than $4 million for Bill Clinton’s re-election campaign in 1996, but it was the large sums of unrestricted soft money that eventually led to the group's disbanding in 1997 in a protest against the role of money in politics.

For Tabankin to have gone to D.C. to speak on the issue is not unusual. The veteran consultant cut her teeth in politics attending anti-war protests in the late ′60s. In 1971, she was elected the first female president of the National Student Association, a group that took a vocal role in opposing the war in Vietnam. Tabankin was also among the first young anti-war activists at the time to travel to North Vietnam.

Her already long-established record of political work caught the attention of President Carter, who picked Tabankin to head the federal anti-poverty program Volunteers in Service to America. Tabankin at the time was the youngest woman to ever have headed a federal program.

She credits former student radical and former California state legislator Tom Hayden for inspiring her political career, after she saw him give a speech on poverty and the city of Newark in her hometown of north New Jersey in the early '60s.

“I am the person that I am because I was exposed to Tom Hayden at the age of 15,” says Tabankin. “I thought, is this is what somebody could do with their life? It was life-changing for me.”

In one of Tabankin’s earliest interviews with the Florida-based Lakeland Ledger in 1978, Tabankin, described by the reporter as “plump, bright-eyed, eager,” was quoted saying: “I think I was perceived to be far more left than I actually am.” 

Tabankin laughs at the memory. “I think I’ve been very consistent,” she says, referring to her political views over the years. “I think the reason I’ve been so consistent is that I just think I’m right. ... I just think you have to be open and try different things.”

Her experience has made a significant impact when it comes to exploring Tinseltown’s relationship with its political counterparts in Washington. Over the years, the media has shed much attention on Tabankin, knowing that any candidate or issue she pinpoints is likely to be the recipient of big Hollywood money.

Bill Zimmerman, a veteran political consultant in Los Angeles, emphasized Tabankin’s role in Hollywood’s political society, especially after the HWPC came into play.

“Marge became a critical player for a lot of women who had money and wanted to be donors,” says Zimmerman. “So everybody goes to her.” 

Working as Barbra Streisand’s foundation director and political adviser, Tabankin understands the influence that Hollywood can have on political issues. 

“Believe me, the amount of people who show up for hearings on the Hill when there’s somebody who is famous in the hearing room, it’s astonishing,” says Tabankin. 

She’s not wrong. Actress Jessica Alba’s recent trip in May to Capitol Hill to speak about chemical safety of products sold in mainstream shops attracted nationwide coverage of a bill that would otherwise not be given the same level of media attention. Actor George Clooney has taken his fight for resolution of Darfur’s conflict to the president directly, as well as rallies and the U.N., again harnessing the power of celebrity to promote coverage of an otherwise undocumented region of Sudan.

However, not all celebrities are willing to take their fight to the same levels of power.

“Washington ultimately is politics, and politics ultimately comes down to the art of what can get passed and get done and what is the compromise,” says Tabankin. 

“Sometimes artists are less comfortable with the compromise and much more comfortable with staking out the position of what they think is right, and then other people will have to make the compromise.”

At 68, Streisand — Tabankin’s boss — has racked up nearly five decades of being politically active and working in the entertainment industry, and as Tabankin explains, it comes from the very core of her persona. 

“I don’t think there’s any artist that has done as much for Democratic causes or campaigns or politicians since 1960 as she has,” says Tabankin. “She’s been doing this since she was 18 or 19 years old; that’s a pretty consistent life of commitment. And she’s still doing it.”

When it comes to money and influence in Hollywood, Streisand is a political powerhouse, regarded by candidates as a fundamental contact on the So-Cal leg of their campaigns. 

“She doesn’t just give her time, she gives her money, and that puts her in a very very small group of people,” says Tabankin, who has worked for Streisand for nearly 25 years now.

Streisand’s name is synonymous with Hollywood politics, mainly due to her support of Democratic candidates or campaigns. Her support doesn’t just stop with raising funds and donating her own money  when she backs a candidate, Streisand makes sure to develop a relationship with them.

“She stays on them all the time. She tends to back people who share her values,” says Tabankin. 

Streisand is not unsophisticated when it comes to knowing how Hollywood works, however. While she understands politics includes compromise, it doesn’t stop her from making her own voice heard. 

“She will argue for her position, she will get a senator on the phone, she will send an e-mail, write a letter, whether it’s to the president or the senator,” reveals Tabankin.

Streisand’s popularity and influence can be measured by the sheer amount of money she has raised, and it continues to grow. On the night of Al Gore’s nomination in 2000, the singer headlined a benefit in Los Angeles that generated $5.2 million for the Democratic National Committee. In 2002, Streisand once again headlined a DNC benefit at Hollywood’s Kodak Theater (executive-produced by Noah Mamet), raising approximately $6 million for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. In 2008, Barack Obama was able to rely on Streisand’s magnetic influence to bring Hollywood’s big spenders to his fundraiser, generating more than $9 million for his campaign.

Tabankin’s skills as a political adviser lie in her deep knowledge of both Hollywood and politics, and it allows her to understand how important it is to educate individuals before they step out on an issue.

“I think pop culture is a statement of the times,” says Tabankin. “I think they have a real obligation to use it responsibly, it makes me crazy when people are not well informed, who try to tell people what to do.

“When you have a megaphone of any sort, you have a very special civic responsibility to be well informed if you are choosing to use it in that arena,” she added.

Having said that, social media has changed the game slightly. Tabankin understands the reach that social media sites like Twitter offer, but she herself admits to being “so inept when it comes to the value of technology.” However, she believes celebrities have to open their lives up willingly in order to spread the message via these methods, something that might not appeal to all celebrities.

“You have to be willing to share those things in your life if you want the other messages to be taken,” says Tabankin. “The only way Ashton Kutcher gets to talk about slavery and trafficking is by being a persona that has that other life on Twitter. Most people I know don’t want to be that open in their lives.”

Twitter or not, Tabankin’s role as adviser to Hollywood’s most powerful makes her a key person to know when it comes to harnessing Hollywood money and influence.

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