From 'Boy Meets World' to the ballot box

WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA-MARCH 8, 2023: Actor Ben Savage, who starred in "Boy Meets World," and is running for Congress, is photographed while being interviewed by reporter in West Hollywood. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Actor Ben Savage, who starred in "Boy Meets World," is running for Congress. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
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Clicking on leads to the campaign website for Ben Savage, the star of a similarly named 1990s network sitcom who is now running for Congress to represent part of Los Angeles County.

The baby-faced 42-year-old, a Democrat, is among a dozen candidates officially vying for the seat held by Rep. Adam B. Schiff, who hopes to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Rivals include a board member of the nation’s second-largest school district, state legislators, a West Hollywood council member and a former Los Angeles city attorney — people who have won elections and governed.

Yet none have received the attention Savage has — a televised interview on "Good Morning America 3," as well as articles in the New York Times, the Washington Post and CNN — even though he came in seventh place in his only prior run for public office. The candidacy of Savage, whose “Boy Meets World” coming-of-age series was particularly popular among millennials, is the latest test of how much celebrity matters in American politics.

There is a long history of famous people running for office, especially in California, with its concentration of actors, musicians and others drawn to the home of showbiz.

While some have had success jumping from entertainment to politics — notably former President Trump, former President Reagan and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — celebrity hardly guarantees a win. Reality television star and former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner placed 13th in the 2021 California gubernatorial recall race, and celebrity television doctor Mehmet Oz lost last year’s U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania.

"What a celebrity brings to the table is name recognition. They bring the ability to generate enthusiasm. They bring the ability to fundraise," said David Jackson, a political science professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio who has studied the impact of celebrity on politics. "However, some of the downsides can include — given that we exist in a highly fragmented entertainment culture — some people can be celebrities within one group but virtually unknown among other people."

Other potential downsides include being viewed as lightweights by voters, political consultants say, or refusing to put in the work necessary to run a competitive campaign, convinced that their celebrity is enough to win.

Savage argues that his life experiences — working as an actor since he was in elementary school, studying political science at Stanford, briefly interning on Capitol Hill and living for many years in California’s 30th District, which includes Burbank, Glendale and West Hollywood — have prepared him to be an effective member of Congress.

“I've been working union jobs my entire career. I've provided jobs for other people. I understood very early on what a hard day's work was,” Savage said during an interview at a juice bar and vegetarian cafe in West Hollywood. “I've been on sets working my entire life, and I don't go home and dive into a Scrooge McDuck gold palace.”

Political strategists say Savage’s celebrity could provide a boost in the multi-candidate field, because of name identification and fundraising potential. But they also argue that its value will quickly fade if he doesn’t capitalize on it, particularly because of the challenges of running for Congress in an enormously expensive media market like Los Angeles.

“There’s an advantage that you have to be careful not to squander,” said Rob Stutzman, a GOP strategist and longtime advisor to Schwarzenegger.

Even with the action-movie star, who was widely known, “we had to do things to [quickly] convince people that this is a guy who is a big businessman who can do big things, not the guy you see on screen,” Stutzman said. "I think Savage’s fame is only a nominal advantage and can be quickly eclipsed if he’s not able to raise money on par with the other candidates.”

Overall, celebrity candidates have a middling record of success.

Winners include musician Sonny Bono, who was mayor of Palm Springs before becoming a congressman; actor Clint Eastwood, who served as mayor of Carmel; and actor Alan Autry, who led Fresno for two terms.

Bob Dornan of Orange County was an actor before being elected to Congress in 1976. Sheila Kuehl, a child star best known for her role on the 1960s sitcom “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” was the first openly gay person elected to the state Legislature and later won a seat on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.

In Minnesota, voters elected professional wrestler Jesse Ventura governor and comedian Al Franken U.S. senator. Wisconsin voters sent MTV “Real World” star Sean Duffy to Congress. Actor Fred Thompson had numerous movie and television roles before and after representing Tennessee for nearly two decades in the U.S. Senate.

But the list of celebrity candidates who have lost is also long.

Actors Shirley Temple, George Takei, Antonio Sabato Jr., Gary Coleman and Kimberlin Brown unsuccessfully sought office in California. “Sex and the City” actress Cynthia Nixon’s bid for governor of New York failed, as did "American Idol" runner-up Clay Aiken’s congressional runs in North Carolina.

The fissure between colleagues on the 1960s television show “The Beverly Hillbillies” appeared especially painful. When Nancy Kulp, who played a bank secretary on the show, ran for Congress in Pennsylvania in 1984, the actor who played millionaire Jed Clampett, Buddy Ebsen, recorded a political ad for her rival. Kulp overwhelmingly lost.

Democratic strategist Garry South, a longtime advisor to Gov. Gray Davis, whom Schwarzenegger ousted in a 2003 recall, said a key question was whether a Hollywood star could deal with the rigors of being a political candidate, particularly in the modern era. Campaigns involve more than hobnobbing with donors at cocktail parties. They can also demand long hours knocking on doors, meeting with voters and navigating a political press corps that is quite different from the entertainment media.

“The real question I have about a celebrity candidate is: Can they really be a candidate and put up with all of the slings and arrows that are directed [their] way?” South said. “Depending on who you’re talking about, celebrities live a pretty gilded life sometimes and are not equipped when a 27-year-old reporter gets in their face."

Savage, who ran for the West Hollywood City Council last year, argues that campaigning as a celebrity has its downsides. When City Council candidates were debating police funding, Savage said, his opponents publicized a picture of him from a TV comedy dressed as an FBI agent to suggest that he is a fascist and a Nazi.

“I find that offensive. I’m Jewish American and lost people in the Holocaust. That needs to be toned down. That is completely inappropriate,” Savage said. “I'm not thin-skinned, but I'm saying we need to inspire people to do better than that.”

Savage still looks like Cory Matthews — the lead character in “Boy Meets World” and in a short-lived sequel — aside from a few crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes. And he has the earnestness of his character, at one point saying during an interview: “Wow. So you're like the political reporter, but you're so nice. We were expecting a little meaner.”

Savage's prospects in the crowded race are unclear. The primary is almost a year away and voters will have at least a dozen candidates to choose from. Several are people they have already seen on their ballots, such as school board member Nick Melvoin, former City Atty. Mike Feuer, state Sen. Anthony Portantino and Assemblymember Laura Friedman.

The district's current congressman, Schiff, is running for higher office after more than two decades in the House, including his star turn in the Trump impeachment trials. A key question for Savage is whether voters will view him as a serious presence in the halls of power or remember him as a flannel-wearing teenager on television.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.