Amid Crush of Fans, Stars Cast Their Light on NEA Funding

Posted April 1, 2008 at 6:41pm

Congress rolled out the red carpet Tuesday for highly acclaimed musical artists and big-screen stars, who lobbied for increased arts funding, charmed Members and drew throngs of staffers during their quick trip to Capitol Hill.

“This is a different form for me,” five-time Grammy winner John Legend said, perhaps more comfortable performing before millions at the Super Bowl than a few dozen lawmakers at a hearing.

Legend drew big crowds and bright smiles from the suit-and-tie crowd while testifying before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies to push for an increase in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.

The ensemble cast — which also included Academy Award-winning director and actor Robert Redford and actress Kerry Washington — kicked off the day in a more familiar setting, speaking before a crowd of 500 in the sprawling Cannon House Office Building Caucus Room. Hill staffers turned arts advocates joined members of the nonprofit Americans for the Arts, which organized the day of festivities, to get a closer look at Legend and Washington, taking pictures and becoming instant experts on NEA’s funding issues. Americans for the Arts members, representing theater, music and other arts-focused groups throughout the country, were just as thrilled with Kerry Washington as they were with their trip to Washington.

“I love John Legend and I have all his albums,” James Ferguson, staffer for Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) said after elbowing his way through a crowd of fans to get some face time with the singer. “Now it’s back to the office for constituent mail.”

Young staffers and advocates weren’t the only ones star-gazing. Peter Yarrow, the singer-songwriter from the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary, drew the attention of the dozen or so Members at the morning breakfast session, including Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) who called the guitarist “a great friend.” Turning her gaze from Yarrow’s guitar to arts funding, Schakowsky noted that a handful of musicians have gotten behind her Illinois colleague and presidential pick, Sen. Barack Obama (D). “The arts are in campaigns, they’re in politics. It’s important to so many of us.”

Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), who sang in a blues band during her days at the University of Kentucky and is co-chairwoman of the Congressional Arts Caucus, also testified before the subcommittee, calling on its members to boost NEA’s funding by $20 million this fiscal year.

Reps. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.), John Lewis (D-Ga.), Dennis Moore (D-Kan.) and Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) were also on hand to show support for the arts, along with a pair of New England Democratic Senators, Patrick Leahy (Vt.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.). Leahy, who recently took a break from the Senate to film a scene for the upcoming Batman movie, was presented with an award by the arts organization, receiving wild applause from the packed room, which seemed more impressed with the Senator’s acting bonafides than his Judiciary Committee leadership.

“He’s got a really good presence and doesn’t seem camera-shy,” the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance’s Cassandra DePinto observed. “That seems to be important in politics.”

On Tuesday, it was. Staffers had their camera phones at the ready all the way from the Cannon Caucus Room to the Appropriations hearing room in the Rayburn Building. A crowd of supporters filled not only the overflow area next door, but the entire hallway outside.

“I grew up on Southern gospel [and] it was my main ambition in life to be a blues singer,” Slaughter, looking more Margaret Chase Smith than Bessie Smith in her sensible sweater set, said while heading back to work after the star-studded morning. “Instead I decided to run for Congress.”