Pop musician Hall is ready to be a player in the House

Baltimore native a surprise winner in Republican stronghold in N.Y.

November 15, 2006|By Ellen Barry | Ellen Barry,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MOUNT KISCO, N.Y. -- For more than three decades, John Hall has occupied a very specific role in the soft-rock band Orleans: Guitarist, songwriter and insufferable policy wonk.

Hall was the one who, faced with a roomful of fans, would "launch into dissertations about the statistics of how much plutonium was being produced," recalled the band's longtime bass player, Lance Hoppen, 53. The fans, he added, did not always share Hall's enthusiasm for the minutiae of energy policy.

"It was like, `All right, we get it,'" Hoppen said.

Hall, 58, might have finally found his audience. He has spent the past two days in Washington with the rest of Congress's 2007 freshman class, learning House protocol and catching up on sleep. Last week, he pulled off one of the biggest political upsets in the country, defeating Sue W. Kelly, a six-term Republican incumbent, by 4,300 votes in New York's 19th congressional district.

Hall was born in Baltimore and grew up in Elmira, N.Y. After studying at Notre Dame University and Loyola College in Baltimore, Hall began his professional music career in the clubs of Washington, D.C., and New York.

Hall said he was happy but felt "a little daunted by the mess we've been left with," and worried that Republicans will try to ensure their political legacy with last-minute legislation.

Orleans - the band Hall has played in since 1972 - enjoyed a brief star turn in 1976, when it recorded a sweetly harmonized hit called "Still the One," which was destined to be a theme song for Burger King and Applebee's. Its ascent up the pop charts was inhibited only by "Disco Duck," by Rick Dees and His Cast of Idiots.

But Hall was drawn to more serious matters. The son of a Westinghouse engineer and a creative writing professor, he wrote lyrics about the carpet-bombing of Hanoi. When he did interviews, he recalled, "the poor marketing people at the record company would say, `Can't you talk about the record?'"

Many of Hall's central issues - and many of his allies - spring from the '70s. He supports socialized medicine and a swift withdrawal of troops from Iraq. He has proposed a "Marshall Plan" to develop alternative energy sources and "kick our addiction to oil, coal and nuclear."

"The fact that John is both anti-fossil fuel and anti-nuclear is kind of old school, and something I love," said singer-songwriter Dar Williams, who performed alongside Jackson Browne at a fundraiser for Hall this summer.

This might not seem like a recipe for winning the 19th district, a swath of lush suburban towns north of New York City where Republicans outnumber Democrats by 18,000. Kelly had won her past two elections with commanding margins: 60 percent in the 2004 and 67 percent in 2002, and started this year with a campaign fund of $900,000 - to Hall's $57,000.

But this year, every Republican in the area faced stiff odds because of widespread opposition to the war, said Jay Townsend, Kelly's spokesman.

Two years ago, Hall's name popped up out of nowhere, like the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question. President Bush was using "Still the One" as a theme song at campaign events, and Hall was livid. He had his lawyers draft a formal letter of complaint. The incident, he said, was "one more straw on the camel's back."

By then, Hall had run successful Democratic campaigns for county legislature and the local school board. But as late as March of this year, Hall was finding fundraising "so bleak" that he sat down and reviewed concession speeches. His staff worried that Hall would be pilloried for his show-business background or for a stint in rehab 20 years ago.

An unsigned campaign flier showed the candidate on an Orleans album cover as a shirtless, hairy icon of the 1970s - "John Hall, wrong for America," the caption read.

But Hall showed up in pinstripes and wingtips, like a bank president, and talked policy. He thought his musical career carried "built-in advantages that couldn't be assessed at that point." A parade of celebrities - among them Bonnie Raitt, Steve Earle and Roseanne Cash - performed at fundraising events. On the campaign trail, he serenaded pedestrians. On Comedy Central's Colbert Report, Hall harmonized with the delighted host of the satirical news program.

In Congress, Hall hopes to fight for the protection of intellectual property rights, not just for musicians but for software engineers and filmmakers. He also hopes to press for campaign finance reform, so that other political outsiders can run for office.

"The average citizen ought to have a chance," Hall said. "You're missing out on the talent and the energy of a huge segment of the population that would never run for office ... ."

Ellen Barry writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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