When it comes to visiting Washington, celebrities are just like the rest of us. They want to check out the rockets at the National Air & Space Museum, see dollar bills roll off the presses at the Bureau of Engraving & Printing, and get a tour of the White House. Still, there's one thing that sets them apart: While regular folks have to wait in line, they can call Steven Ross.
A 48-year-old former White House advance man who got his start in the mailroom under President Ronald Reagan, Ross runs the Artists & Athletes Alliance, a nonprofit that aims to give entertainment and sports figures more of a say in the political process. Trading on the connections he built up over more than 25 years of handling logistics for Presidential trips and speeches, Ross helps his stable of almost 100 movie stars, athletes, and musicians navigate Washington. "I try to show them what D.C. is all about," he says.
For actor Will Ferrell and his family that meant a private tour of the National Gallery of Art and lunch at the touristy saloon Old Ebbitt Grill. Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl turned to Ross for entrée into a Smithsonian butterfly exhibit with his daughter. And when Cal Ripken Jr. was winding down his Hall of Fame career with the Baltimore Orioles, Ross set him up as the commissioner of President George W. Bush's White House Tee Ball initiative.
Unlike some celebrity wranglers, Ross doesn't charge for his services. All he asks of his members is that they join his board. Artists & Athletes is funded mainly by corporate donors such as United Technologies (UTX), asset management firm Neuberger Berman Group, and energy company Southern (SO). While Hollywood is a liberal bastion, Ross says his shop is nonpartisan. Artists & Athletes doesn't lobby or do fundraisers for politicians.
Ross, who put up his shingle in March 2008, still runs the alliance like a startup. He gets free office space in downtown Washington from a lobbying firm that once employed him. Last year, Artists & Athletes took in $263,000 in donations, Ross says, which covered his $55,000 salary along with educational programs his outfit puts on in Los Angeles. For the seminars, which are held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills and are closed to the press, Ross brings in Washington hands to brief a small group of actors, agents, athletes, producers, and other industry executives on current events. "We say, 'Tell us what you're interested in, and we'll get you up to speed,'" says Ross.
An event in April featured Philippe Cousteau, a conservationist and grandson of the famed marine biologist, who discussed the one-year anniversary of the Gulf oil spill and the environmental consequences from the Japanese disaster. Attendees included two actors from the CSI television shows, Jorja Fox and Omar Benson Miller, as well as former NFL player Marcellus Wiley. Next month, Ross has scheduled Japan's ambassador to the U.S., Ichiro Fujisaki, to give a talk about how his country is handling the crisis and how Americans can help.
Ross's celebrities can also get one-on-one attention. When actress Alicia Witt asked Ross for information on how a food safety bill would impact organic farmers, he compiled a white paper for her. And in 2008, when comedian Bob Saget, whose sister was afflicted with scleroderma, wanted to push for more federal funding for research into the autoimmune disorder, Ross brokered a coffee with then-Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania who was on the subcommittee that sets funding for the National Institutes of Health.
Dave Koz, a Grammy nominated jazz musician who's on the Artists & Athletes advisory board, says Ross "provides an awesome service" that bridges what is often a large gap between Washington and Hollywood. "I like the Washington experience," says Koz. "I'm just glad I don't live there."
The bottom line: Steven Ross offers athletes and actors everything from policy white papers to one-on-one meetings with legislators.