To her Texas supporters, Marianne Williamson has already won

In Texas' liberal enclaves, Williamson has built a small base of support all her own

Published September 13, 2019 3:19PM (EDT)

Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson (AP/Charlie Neibergall)
Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson (AP/Charlie Neibergall)

This article originally appeared on The Texas Tribune.

In her first book, "A Return to Love," Marianne Williamson, the Houston native, best-selling author, spiritual adviser to Oprah, celebrity wedding officiant, Big Pharma skeptic, failed congressional candidate, alleged kook and 2020 Democratic presidential contender, writes that one’s work should always be godly.

She describes walking to her job as a cocktail waitress one night when she has a realization: “Oh, I get it! They think this is a bar!”

As a new student of "A Course in Miracles," a 1,300-page mystical scripture taken as gospel by some devotees, Williamson knows better: “This isn’t a bar, and I’m not a waitress. … Every business is a front for a church, and I’m here to purify the thought forms, to minister to the children of God.”

This is how Serenity Owens, 51, a supporter in Austin, likes to think of Williamson’s run for president, too: “Oh, they think this is a presidential campaign!”

“What’s really happening,” Owens said, “is a conversation for the heart and soul of America. … Are we as a country living up to what we say we are?”

Perhaps it’s why Williamson — who, after failing to demonstrate sufficient support in the polls, will be excluded from the Democratic debate stage in her native city Thursday — appears undaunted by a hit other campaigns interpreted as fatal. Other candidates dropped out; the Williamson campaign declared, “NO MATTER!” in a recent email to supporters, announcing she will host and livestream her own Los Angeles event during and after the debate.

If the political blow doesn’t feel much like a blow, perhaps it’s because her political campaign was never only about politics. Williamson’s project resembles missionary work more than political ascendancy; she is evangelizing for the idea of “love as a political force.” It’s not that she doesn’t have plans — she was the first 2020 Democratic candidate to release a specific plan for issuing reparations — but that plans to her are secondary, sterile. She is attempting to take politics from “You got to dance with the one that brung you” to “I am here to represent Him who sent me.” If she doesn’t win, her supporters insist, she will still have won.

To call Williamson’s campaign a long shot, then, is both to overstate and to understate. There is vanishingly little chance she will win; she may not last through the month. She has shown little strength in national polls, drawing 2% support in only one poll recognized by the Democratic National Committee.

And yet she has made it further than three members of Congress and two governors. She was the most-searched candidate after both debate performances. She raised $3 million in six months, attracting more individual donors than U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. (At least some of those donors were gleeful Republicans, like Jeff Roe, a top political consultant to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz who sarcastically urged conservatives to “keep this vibrant democrat on the debate stage” and “please please #harnesslove”.) If Williamson ups her poll numbers, she could return to the debate stage in October.

The third Texan candidate in this cycle’s Democratic primary may not have the political bona fides of her home-state rivals — Julián Castro, a former Cabinet secretary, and Beto O’Rourke, a former U.S. congressman — nor their support in the polls. But even in Texas, she has a small but mighty base all her own, much of it in the places, like Austin, that resemble her adopted home of California, where her manner is less foreign, more vernacular.

While drawing disdain from the political class, Williamson has galvanized a spiritual community “where people think policy doesn’t mingle well,” said one supporter, Daniela Guthrie, 57, who lives in Austin. Williamson forces that blend; she asked supporters to spend two minutes a day visualizing her campaign as distributing flowers across the world. Her fundraising campaigns ask donors to “Think. Love. Contribute.” Williamson wants to “go to Washington and co-create with you.”

“I’m just shocked that people don’t get it”

For millions of Democrats who turned on the party’s debate June 27, Williamson was a new experience.

Not, however, in the Karlsson household, a tidy, spacious apartment 30 minutes north of downtown Austin, where Williamson was already a presence — in the air, on the bookshelves, on a campaign button on Grecia Karlsson’s altar, where she leads an hourlong guided meditation session every weekday morning, and where she periodically sits throughout the day to pray and visualize: herself as a unicorn sprinkling fire-quenching glitter on the burning Amazon rainforest, or Williamson “with her chest up and her head high, fire in her soul and grace in her heart.”

Seen is Grecia Karlsson holding her Marianne Williamson pin-back button which she places on her meditation shelf in her apartment.
Grecia Karlsson, a life coach in Austin, is a dedicated supporter of Marianne Williamson's 2020 bid for president. Seen is Grecia Karlsson holding her Marianne Williamson pin-back button which she places on her meditation shelf in her apartment. Eddie Gaspar/Texas Tribune
Grecia Karlsson reads one of her favorite passages from
Grecia Karlsson reads one of her favorite passages from "A Return to Love" by presidential candidate and author Marianne Williamson on Aug 30, 2019. Eddie Gaspar/Texas Tribune 

Karlsson, 27, was raised as a Christian and was a pageant queen in her hometown of La Joya. She discovered spiritual teachings, and then Williamson, three years ago, as she struggled with the unexpected death of her father and became disillusioned with her job at an insurance agency. The transition changed her life (“Once you are awake,” she said, “you can’t go back to sleep”), and she believes once she learned, it was her duty to teach (“Now, you be the change, too!”). She quit her job and became a life coach.

Like many of Williamson’s Texas faithful, Karlsson — who, along with her husband, owns four mindful businesses, including one devoted to selling crystals — knew Williamson as a spiritual leader long before she was vying to become a political one.

They learned about her years or decades ago through their friends, counselors or therapists, through Oprah’s TV show or RuPaul’s or Russell Brand’s podcasts. They are drawn to presidential politics because of Williamson, not the other way around. Most are women. Those who voted in Texas last year supported O’Rourke, the Democrat who ran an unexpectedly close race to unseat Cruz, but not with the fervor they have for this campaign. Few had donated money to a candidate, hosted events or even watched a political debate before Williamson ran.

Williamson brought many of them higher levels of awareness and spirituality at dark or desperate times in their lives. Williamson, they feel, has shown up for them. How could they not show up for her?

So this summer, they connected in the Texas for Marianne 2020 Facebook group (24 members) and flocked to the Karlssons’ apartment to join Grecia and Victor Karlsson and their bichon-Chihuahua mix, Ella, for watch parties. On the night of the first debate, the living room was all nervous energy, a pregnant woman’s baby kicking excitedly, spoonfuls of quinoa rising energetically into one attendee’s mouth. The campaign had distributed a debate bingo card; the prize, Grecia Karlsson said, would be a lapis lazuli, the crystal of friendship. (Williamson herself does not use crystals.)

It was a fidgety 27 minutes of top-tier candidates nitpicking one another’s health care plans before Williamson received her first question — a very specific inquiry about how to lower prescription drug prices — and the room held its breath. Cellphones flew up to capture the moment.

“I’m with Sen. [Michael] Bennet and others, but I agree with almost everything here,” Willliamson said, getting that out of the way early.

Then she made her point: “It's really nice if we've got all these plans, but if you think we're going to beat Donald Trump by just having all these plans, you've got another thing coming.”

Williamson speaks with the direct, hypnotic trill of a woman who has made a career of talking. Her voice is throaty, almost seductive; it rumbles raspy, low and deep and trembles with the power of the point she crescendos toward.

“We've got to get deeper than just these superficial fixes, as important as they are,” she went on. “Even if we're just talking about the superficial fixes, ladies and gentlemen, we don't have a health care system in the United States. We have a sickness care system in the United States.”

The political class hurtled, Mach 5, into gleeful mockery.

“Is it just me, or does Marianne Williamson have a purple aura?” asked a prominent White House reporter.

An editorial director for Vice tweeted to “give Marianne the nomination so she can announce her running mate, a Himalayan salt lamp.”

But the Karlssons’ apartment had erupted in squeals.

“She gets it,” Grecia Karlsson said.

“She gets the bigger picture,” added her husband, Victor Karlsson.

“I’m just shocked that people don’t get it,” Estephania LeBaron-Papanicolaou said.

“You don’t care where it lands”

Williamson was a leader in the spiritual community long before she struggled to break into the political class. Born in 1952 in Houston to a father who worked as an immigration lawyer and a stay-at-home mother, Williamson spent two years at Pomona College in California, then dropped out and ultimately landed in New York.

It was there, in 1977, that Williamson discovered A Course in Miracles, which she calls a nondenominational “spiritual psychotherapy”; she went on to be perhaps its most prominent interpreter. She became a successful spiritual lecturer and published more than a dozen books, several of them bestsellers. She opened a metaphysical bookstore in her native Houston — customers remember it having the best coffee and the most titillating events — then moved to Los Angeles, where she led a support group for AIDS patients and later created a nonprofit to deliver them meals. Reportedly an aggressive, particular boss, she told the Los Angeles Times in 1992 that she understands the irony of being “a bitch for God.” She officiated Elizabeth Taylor’s 1991 wedding. In 2014, she ran for Congress as an independent and lost.

Her Texas roots have not translated into broad-based support here; there is significant depth, less breadth. Just 3% of Williamson’s contributions during the first half of this year came from her native state, according to contribution data reported by campaigns and data collected through Act Blue (a data set that includes 94% of all donations made to Democratic candidates). O’Rourke was the top-raising Democratic presidential candidate in Texas, Castro was third and Williamson was 13th. In a recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, Williamson had the support of just 1% of the state’s Democratic voters. She ranked second, after former Vice President Joe Biden, as the candidate voters said they could not support in 2020.

Williamson said in a telephone interview this week that she’s been focused on the early states.

“I’m a long way from having the luxury of thinking I need to strategize about Texas,” Williamson said. “If only! If only!”

The data show that her greatest financial support in the state comes from the capital city (unofficial motto: “Keep Austin Weird”). Events there seem to have drawn the most interest, too.

Elsewhere in the sprawling state, efforts to organize are not always successful, as Anania Tekurio, an Air Force veteran, learned earlier this summer. Tekurio lives in Fate, in North Texas, and tried to host a Dallas-area meet-up. One other person came.

Gerard Martinez tried to launch a San Antonio book club but didn’t muster much interest. On a campaign-made website for volunteers, he pitched the idea of creating a Williamson tarot deck, but no one bit.

Neither was deterred. Martinez said Williamson’s campaign has helped him translate his internal spiritual life into external service. He has begun donating money to eradicate hunger and volunteering at a local food bank.

“What good is having a spiritual path if you’re not actually going to live it? [Williamson] has bridged that for a lot of people,” he said.

And Tekurio convinced her boyfriend to donate to the campaign as a birthday gift to her.

“I do take that principle really to heart about vote for who you want to vote for, not who you think is going to win,” said Tekurio, who volunteered for the Ron Paul campaign in 2008 and 2012 and wrote him in for the 2016 election.

It’s not an uncommon attitude among Williamson supporters: A loss is not really a loss; a win should be more broadly defined.

“To us, just the fact that she is speaking is a win,” Supriya Kini, an Austin life and feminine energy coach, said one evening in July on the Karlssons’ couch. Then she shared an image she had meditated on earlier that day, one so powerful it brought tears to her eyes.

It’s an arrow lodged in a bow. “We pull back the bow as far as we can,” Kini explained. “But when you let go of that bow, you don’t care where it lands. Because you know that you’re showing up.”

“I’m bringing something”

Before the second Democratic debate started earlier this summer, Owens settled into her home office in the West Oak Hill neighborhood of Austin, opened her laptop, clicked onto a conference call and greeted her fellow Williamson supporters. (“Hey, I’m here in from California!” “Hello from Arizona!”) A host read a passage from A Course in Miracles. Then several dozen supporters sat, in collective silence, for about 10 minutes.

(Would-be mockers, Owens said, should learn their history: People have gathered in silence, in the presence of God, for centuries. This is not some quirky New Age routine; this is ancient, she said. She added, “This is a big part of people’s lives, and the fact that it’s not a big part of political life is part of the problem.”)

There is a pervasive sense among supporters, Owens added, that everyone is getting it wrong about Williamson. (“She is so not ‘woo-woo,’” said Janet Bernson, 69, an Austin supporter.) Williamson has spent much of the campaign fending off those who do not consider her serious.

She has been taken seriously, though, for making comments that sound skeptical of vaccines and other medications.

She seemed to suggest last year that the designer Kate Spade’s suicide was influenced by antidepressants and has been skeptical generally of over-prescribing such medications, vaguely blaming “Big Pharma.” At a campaign stop in New Hampshire this year, she called mandatory vaccination “Orwellian” and “draconian.” She soon walked that back, telling reporters she had misspoken and adding that “many vaccines are important and save lives.” She said in 2012 that she sees “both sides” of the vaccine debate and has more recently likened it to the dispute over abortion. In an interview with The Texas Tribune, she said she does not believe that and explained, “Vaccines are about public safety, and abortion is not,” and “The government must come down on the side of public safety.” Decisions about vaccine exemptions should be left up to the states, Williamson said, and she does not take a position on religious exemptions.

Amid criticism, she insists she is “pro-vaccine” and “pro-science.” She is also sick of talking about it: “I have said everything I’m going to say on that topic right now. I have said it all.”

Beyond that scrutiny, Williamson has been mocked for sounding kooky years before she was trying to sound presidential. Her language — not yet mainstream in political circles, even if it is elsewhere — has become a liability. A decade ago, for example, amid an outbreak, she tweeted, “God is BIG, swine flu SMALL. See every cell of your body filled with divine light. Pour God’s love on our immune systems.” Supporters complain that she is treated as wacky instead of being recognized as religious.

Williamson is aware that her politically unconventional language doesn’t help with the gatekeepers, and increasingly, she avoids it.

When she is at her best, she frames policy debates in simple, moral terms, leaving no room for dispute: “When you have, in the richest country in the world, children who go to school hungry asking the teacher, ‘Do you have anything to eat?’ that’s heartless.”

Other times she leans into the language that fueled her spiritual career. And sometimes she loses her patience for those who mock it. Last week, as a hurricane barreled toward the East Coast, she tweeted that “seeing Dorian turn away from land … is a creative use of the power of the mind.” When she saw, as she put it, “the trolls coming out of the woodwork,” she deleted the tweet and offered a more generic politician’s prayer: “May the peace of God be upon them and their hearts be comforted as they endure the storm.”

Later that afternoon, she weighed in one more time: “Millions of people today are praying that Dorian turn away from land, and treating those people with mockery or condescension because they believe it could help is part of how the overly secularized Left has lost lots of voters.”

Some grasped at an easy joke, mocking her for suggesting supporters could simply imagine away a hurricane. Williamson said she was doing nothing more unusual than praying a horrific storm would not harm her fellow Americans. The difference between “prayer” and “visualization” is merely “semantic,” she said.

The original tweet “did leave me open to mockery to those who are looking for any way to mock me. That is my only regret,” she said. “With that tweet, I made it easy for them.”

Outsider candidates have historically pushed establishment candidates to talk about the issues outsiders care most about — or talk about them in the way they want to hear them discussed. (Other times, of course, outsider candidates have won the presidency. Williamson has run as Trump’s opposite, but the comparisons are hard to avoid; several of the groups on her volunteer website bear the tagline “Making Love Great Again!”)

Williamson, crusading for a “politics of love,” knows what an outsider can achieve.

“Jay Inslee made an immeasurable contribution by talking about the climate the way he has,” she said in an MSNBC interview last month, discussing the governor of Washington who had recently ended a long-shot campaign centered around climate change. “His being here was important. Whether or not he continued in the race is not as important as what he brought to it.”

“I’m bringing something,” she said.

“What does a moral uprising look like?”

In July, before it was clear that Williamson wouldn’t make the third debate, supporters gathered in the Karlssons’ Austin apartment to watch the second. Much as they wanted Williamson onstage, they were critical of the exercise.

Their candidate was positioned all the way off at stage right and given little time to speak. She tried to speak after her time ran out, as is customary, and was rebuked. (“OK, I hope you’ll come back to me this time,” she said.) CNN’s Don Lemon got her name wrong.

The moderators “are so fear-minded,” Grecia Karlsson said during one commercial break, shrugging her bare shoulders like, what can you do? The questions, when they did come, were the wrong questions. They’re “mind-based questions,” Kini said, and it’s a “mind-based discussion” — but “the heart of democracy is more important than the mind of democracy.”

Even the other candidates, in their presentations, seemed wrong. LeBaron-Papanicolaou was unimpressed with John Delaney, a former Maryland congressman who had emphasized his experience as a business owner. “That has nothing to do with moral ground,” she said.

They stayed chatting for so long after the debate that Williamson came back on screen, in the spin room with Anderson Cooper, an award-winning reporter who has covered earthquakes and elections but struggled to explain her.

If Sanders wants a political revolution, they established, Williamson wants a “moral uprising.” (“Well, I think we need both, clearly, because remember, I agree with most of the political plans of people such as Sen. Sanders and Sen. Warren,” she said.)

“But what does that look like? What does a moral uprising look like?” Cooper asked.

The living room began to light up because the moral uprising, supporters said, had already come.

The women in this room feel that Williamson has given them a great deal — but running for president is the most audacious, brave, self-sacrificing thing she has done for them yet. Williamson knows, Karlsson said, that “it’s divinely ordained for her to be doing this and leading the way for a lot of us to step up.”

“What Marianne is doing is the ultimate expression of off the mat and into the world, off our meditation cushion and into the world, out of the sanctuary of the sangha and into the world,” Owens said in a recent interview. “Am I willing to be seen and persecuted for my beliefs? And how will the world change if I’m not?”

Karlsson explained that it’s been inspiring to watch Williamson “handle it with so much grace — how she drops her ego, takes off the mask, takes off the mask.”

“And I just know miracles are going to happen because of it,” she said. Williamson’s relentless campaign has inspired Karlsson to take on a new life-coaching challenge, a 21-day stretch without breaks. “I show up differently. I’m gonna be more bold, I’m gonna take up space.”

“I exist!” she exclaimed, arms out, and laughed.

Williamson’s candidacy has opened the door for political activists on the left to talk about “our ethics and our morals and our values,” said Travis Cooper, a former executive director of the Denton County Democrats.

Even if she drops out, “I’m confident that her message will stay in the race,” Martinez said.

Williamson herself is confident that her message has already changed the race.

“I’ve seen some phrases that have made me smile,” she said coyly. “There are some other people out there talking about the ‘soul of America’ all of a sudden.”

In the meantime, the uprising she calls for has materialized in the lives of her Texas supporters.

Guthrie, who works as a civil engineer in Travis County, is teaching her interns transformational leadership. LeBaron-Papanicolaou is talking about translating Williamson’s campaign videos into Spanish. (She’ll have more time, she said, after this month, when she’s organizing a livestreamed convention on alleviating pain with natural therapies). Kini is stretching the bow back as far as it goes, not caring where the arrow lands.

And besides, there’s always the October debate.

“I believe in miracles,” Owens said.

Carla Astudillo contributed data analysis to this story.

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