South Carolinians will be celebrating President Barack Obama’s inauguration with cocktails amid the Hope Diamond and dinosaur fossils at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History. Minority government contractors will huddle at a downtown restaurant known as a lobbyists’ hotspot. And the nation’s largest gay rights group is promising a star-studded night at the storied Mayflower Hotel.
And these aren’t even officially part of the inaugural.
With ticket costs reaching into five figures for some of these events — and free for the coveted VIPs, of course — the sideline events throughout inauguration weekend are the big draws for advocates and lobbyists looking to rub elbows with lawmakers and administration officials. The events at restaurants and hotels, museums and mansions are opportunities for anyone willing to write a check to turn a night out into a chance to build a Rolodex of Washington’s powerbrokers.
On the surface, there is nothing nefarious about such celebrations, which are largely sponsored by industry groups or special interests. But access to these movers and shakers is only the swipe of a credit card away; the powerful, similarly, will want to be seen with the right people.
Some groups, such as the State Society of South Carolina, say they simply want to celebrate Obama’s next four years in power and sip bubbly while huddled inside the Smithsonian. Others, such as the National Association of Minority Government Contractors, want to highlight their work in Washington — all while hanging in deep booths at Tuscana West, a restaurant that doubles as the de facto cafeteria for Washington’s K Street lobbying corridor. And the Human Rights Campaign is looking to take a victory lap after its gay and lesbian members helped fund and fulfill Obama’s re-election.
“The ball is always an excellent opportunity for the people of South Carolina to come together to celebrate the newly elected president and to showcase the beauty, importance and success of our great state,” said Robin Muthig, the chair of the South Carolina ball and a former aide to Republican Rep. Gresham Barrett. Muthig started planning the occasion well before a White House winner was declared.
Every four years, these events highlight the booming influence trade in Washington. For a couple hundred dollars, anyone can pay his way into increasingly over-the-top public parties inside some of Washington’s favorite destinations. And other invitations allow interest groups to pack hotel ballrooms with people with whom they want to connect.
Take for instance the Indiaspora Ball, highlighting Indian culture. Hosts include Neera Tanden, a former top Obama and Clinton administration policy official who now serves as president of the liberal Center for American Progress; failed congressional hopeful Raj Goyle of Kansas; and Sonal Shah, who worked both for Google’s philanthropic arm and Obama’s White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation. Tickets to that event at the Mandarin Oriental hotel start at $250, and $1,000 VIP tickets promise “exclusive benefits and special guest access.”
Or look to the U.S. Virgin Islands Friendship Inaugural Ball. For $100 guests can mingle with the islands’ nonvoting member of Congress, Donna Marie Christensen. Ticket prices climb to $10,000 for “four-star sponsors.”
Consider the Hip-Hop Inaugural Ball. Tickets start at $250, and VIP access comes with $2,500 to join music mogul Russell Simmons’ gala just five blocks from the National Mall. Or the Peace Ball, with tickets starting at $135 and a guest list that includes Obama’s former green jobs czar Van Jones. Or the Green Ball, hosted by Bill Stetson, a member of the President’s Advisory Committee on the Arts and husband of Jane Watson Stetson, the Democratic National Committee’s finance chairwoman.
These events are separate from the official ceremony at the Capitol on Jan. 21 and its scaled-back, two-ball celebration that evening. Inaugural officials revealed Monday that low-cost, $60 tickets to Obama’s inaugural ball were mistakenly put on sale a day early and had sold out. They wouldn’t reveal what any other tickets might cost.
Even the official events now allow wide-open corporate money, a reversal from four years ago.
For Obama’s first inaugural celebration, there were some 285 events packed with supporters and courters, according to the Sunlight Foundation, a pro-transparency group that tracks such events. So far, the number of this year’s events is just a fifth that size, reflecting the dimmed enthusiasm for the second term and the slow-to-recover economy. And unlike four years ago, there is not a raft of lawmakers leaving Congress or state houses to join the Cabinet.
But that isn’t to say these parties’ place in official Washington has shrunk. With many administration officials eyeing an exit to the private sector and many on the outside looking for a way in, these black-tie events often double as an informal job fair.