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Search for democratic light amid 'shadows'

By Sara TerrySpecial correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 16, 2000


At 5 o'clock last Friday, Arianna Huffington - celebrity columnist, political agent provocateur, former Republican turned "progressive populist" - was on the telephone, pinning down the final details for the "shadow convention," the big political bash she's throwing this week in Los Angeles.

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As aides and volunteers crisscrossed the study where she works in her Brentwood home, and a reporter entered the room, she earnestly asked the question of the moment into the telephone: "Do you know where we can get red, white, and blue tablecloths?"

It was an amusing indicator of the attention to detail Ms. Huffington brings to the gatherings she loves to throw. In recent years, she has become a reigning queen of salon-style public policy debates, both here and in Washington, hosting dinners whose participants cut across the political spectrum.

And in recent weeks, she's taken those intimate gatherings to a national level, with the shadow conventions - the first held in Philadelphia during the Republican National Convention, and the second held this week as the Democrats meet in Los Angeles.

Designed to focus attention on public-policy issues ignored by the major parties, the conventions have featured guest lists as eclectic as Huffington's dinner parties - ranging from Arizona Sen. John McCain and the Rev. Jesse Jackson in Philadelphia to Harvard University Prof. Cornel West and Republican Gov. Gary Johnson of New Mexico in Los Angeles.

"I love independent thinkers," said Huffington, who sat curled up on an overstuffed couch, feet tucked underneath her, as if she had no other pressures in the world (patriotic tablecloths notwithstanding). "I love people who are engaged in the debate of our times, who are questioning things, who want to change things. I've always loved getting friends together and staying up all night and debating."

First conceived last February, during a conversation between Huffington and Peter Hirshberg, a friend and Internet entrepreneur, the shadow conventions have drawn together politicians, grass-roots activists, and citizens who are fed up with the nation's status quo. Each meeting has focused on three topics: campaign-finance overhaul, the growing gap between rich and poor, and the need to focus on drug policies that concentrate on treatment rather than incarceration. "These issues don't have financial constituencies supporting them," said Scott Harshbarger, former attorney general of Massachusetts and now president of Common Cause, at the convention's opening session on Sunday.

"But these are issues that matter to the American people."

Mr. Harshbarger and Common Cause got involved after he sent an e-mail to Huffington three months ago, introducing himself and applauding her advocacy of campaign-finance overhaul. She called back immediately and invited him to participate in the conventions.

"She's an amazingly energetic, substantive person who has a tremendous instinct for publicity, which I don't condemn," says Harshbarger. "These issues need it."

Not everyone is so charmed by Huffington's "instinct for publicity."