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Why Washington Is So Sick of Rosario Dawson

Getty/Vittorio Zunino Celotto

Last week, Politico published a list of the fifty "Politicos to Watch." Perhaps the sexiest category on the list (unless you’ve got a thing for “Data Gurus” or “K Street Jumpers”) was “Politically Active Celebrities,” featuring Bradley Cooper, Kerry Washington, Vince Vaughn, and the omnipresent Rosario Dawson, best known for her roles in Rent and Sin City nearly a decade ago. Dawson’s inclusion, for her role with such organizations as Voto Latino, elicited groans among the city’s gossip-columnist ranks. For them, Dawson's not a politico to watch; she’s one they’re pretty damn tired of watching.

“She’s always very nice, but we’re sick of having to write the same story over and over again about her organization,” explains Nikki Schwab, the Yeas and Neas columnist at Red Alert Politics. “She’s always good for a quote, but there’s not much new ground.”

But is the quote ever good? Schwab sighs big and pauses for a while. “Well.… She sort of talks and talks and talks, so if you don't mind transcribing 20 minutes of really fast talking, you can usually grab a soundbite.” Schwab thinks about it a bit more, searching for something more charitable to say. She finally comes up with, “She does take the issues really seriously.” Another gossip columnist, who, like several I spoke to, asked not to be named, was less kind about Dawson’s earnestness. “Like, no one cares about Rosario Dawson's opinion on the Keystone Pipeline.”

Dawson fatigue has been building for a while. Last spring, The Washington Post’s The Reliable Source published an item on how many of the same celebrities appeared to be attending the White House Correspondents' Dinner every year. “John Legend, a guest of Politico last year, is being hosted by NPR this year. Rashida Jones, a guest in 2009 and 2011, is coming back with Fortune, and Rosario Dawson — well, she’s here almost every year now.” A quick search on Politico for Dawson’s name turns up 64 mentions, where the starlet got press for co-hosting an event on Diversity in Media at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, for presenting an award at the Clinton Global Citizen honors, and yes, for a lot of Keystone Pipeline protesting.

Celebrities expounding on subjects that might not be strictly within their core competency is nothing new, of course. Nor is Dawson alone. John Legend is another less-than-A-list star whose name sets off instant eyerolling among the D.C. party-reporter set. America Ferrera and Gary Sinise, too. “There are just so many randos that I have to interview,” complained one gossip columinist. “The ladies from the show 'Dallas' came for Meals on Wheels, Shaq came for some binge-drinking thing. But I really do think of Rosario Dawson as the worst because she is just ... not that famous.” During the Bush years, the city’s Rosario Dawson was Bo Derek, who was "kind of?" a Republican, as one reporter explained. (Maybe D.C. isn’t Hollywood for ugly people, as the hoary saying goes; D.C. is Hollywood for D- and C-list people!)

As sick of her as some might be, Dawson isn’t personally disliked: D.C.’s red-carpet interviewers say she’s pleasant to deal with, and more fun than occasional Beltway glommers-on Mandy Moore (“miserably boring”) or Alexis Bledel (“the most boring person in the world”). It makes sense that such stars whose careers aren’t exactly burning up would come to the District, where they’re guaranteed coverage that wouldn’t be quite as forthcoming in Los Angeles or New York. In D.C. , too, they attract esteemed gawkers. "Any time someone famous is on the Hill, plenty of [Congressmen] come out of their offices and they do the same thing that the interns do: smile, shake hands, and take a photo," one gossip columnist noted. As the Washington Post’s Amy Argetsinger put it, “Maybe they can't open a movie, but they definitely can open a party in Washington.” Or, as a prominent D.C. celebrity wrangler delicately said, “A lot of times celebs who might not be as busy in their actual career have time to choose an issue.” 

And that earns them cred as “serious” celebrities in this post Angelina Jolie-era, when every actress who has so much as given her assistant a day off wonders if that counts as philanthropy (and if so, whether any press will cover it). There may still be simmering embers of celebrity cool surrounding the Obama administration, but A-listers are dropping by Washington less frequently than they used to, so it makes sense that starlets looking to avoid being tagged as “former starlets” book frequent trips there: There’s less competition, now. It’s easier to get airtime as Rosario Dawson in 2013 than it was in 2009. By now, says the wrangler  “[A-list] people have done the D.C. thing, they've been to the White House, they’ve checked that box.” They’re less thrilled to fly into Reagan, in other words. So availability helps, as does familiarity. Of Dawson, the celebrity wrangler explained, “So many people have access to her. I don't even know if she uses an agent. With some of the talent, they have so many D.C. connections that you don't even need to go through a gatekeeper. You can just shoot them a text. It’s so much less complicated with someone like her.” 

Not just any C-lister can hack it, though. The wrangler explained that although CW star Sophia Bush is very eager to get involved with Washington causes, she doesn’t exactly appeal to the older demographic that’s attending fundraisers. “[Bush] couldn't sell tickets to anything in D.C.,” she explained definitively. Then, she thought a bit harder. “Unless it was for children of donors.”

There are diminishing returns for a lesser star making the Washington rounds, no matter how friendly, accessible, and earnest she might be. Appear too often, and not even the most glamour-starved Washingtonians get a thrill from it. “I don't know how big of a draw Rosario is anymore,” she said. “I just don't know if booking her necessarily means raising money for an organization.”

Maybe it doesn’t matter—for Dawson, anyway. Despite her Politico honor, the Post’s Amy Argetsinger noted, Dawson hasn’t been at this year’s spring and summer events quite as much as she had been. One reason, probably, is that her career seems to have picked up a bit. “This year I had hoped to see her because she actually made a movie that I'd seen!” said Argetsinger.

Which one? I wondered.

“Don't ask me that! I can’t remember.” 

Voto Latino Responds:

To the editor,

In a recent The New Republic column titled, “Why Washington is So Sick of Rosario Dawson,” one of your gossip columnist gripes about the actress’s work advocating for issues that are personal to her. The blogger, Noreen Malone, provides anonymous quotes from other D.C. gossip writers—only one person was named—who express irritation over Dawson’s visits to our nation’s capitol to advocate for issues she cares about.

Ms. Malone’s piece seems designed to silence an American civil rights advocate, suggesting that her celebrity should somehow disqualify her from raising her voice in her nation’s capital.

An American Latino of Puerto Rican and Afro-Cuban descent, Dawson’s passion for activism stems from her childhood growing up in poverty in the Lower East Side of New York City, where her family lived in a dilapidated squatter building without running water or electricity. The experience shaped her world perspective and it drove her to be an advocate for human rights and policies that empower people of all backgrounds to be self sufficient. She has been an activist for these issues for two decades.

While her professional interests led to a career in the arts, Dawson’s devotion to civic activism was a motivating factor to co-founding Voto Latino nearly 10 years ago when very few were paying attention to the disenfranchisement of the fastest growing group of Americans.  She has traveled the country, knocking on doors to register Latino voters and speaking out for the rights of immigrants.

In fact, under Ms. Dawson’s leadership, Voto Latino has registered over 100,000 new voters since 2004 and influenced millions more through the organization’s award-winning media efforts. This year, Voto Latino is leading a social media campaign advocating for comprehensive immigration reform, an issue Dawson personally supports.

Dawson’s leadership in helping to empower young American Latinos has not gone unnoticed.  Fast Company included her in its Most Creative list and Politico just recently named her among the 50 Politicos to Watch.  Her thought leadership has been solicited by members of Congress and President Obama. Should she remain silent with so much at stake simply because some unnamed gossip columnists don’t agree with her views?

Fortunately for our democracy, we all have a voice and the right to use it. Ms. Malone chose to criticize an accomplished actress for doing exactly what we all wish more celebrities would do.  Rosario Dawson has chosen to use her voice to advance causes important to our country’s future. For that, she should be celebrated.

Maria Teresa Kumar

President and CEO, Voto Latino

MSNBC Contributor