It’s tough being Jim Graham these days. Or at least his scheduler.
“I’m very happy to tell you I’ve gotten invitations to all the sort of things I’m interested in,” he says. “It’s a matter of trying to figure out how to be in many places at once.”
And what is the 10-year D.C. Council vet interested in? “I’m interested in all of our local activities,” he says.
Inauguration time is a complicated time for District politicos. On one hand, the local yokels find themselves at the center of a major international news event—especially this year, with Barack Obama expected to bring millions to the District on and around Jan. 20. But it can take a major international event to remind these folks where they actually stand on the totems of power around here. Which is to say, not too far up.
So when Graham refers to “local activities,” he’s talking about two things. One, the activities put on by local folks to, yes, celebrate the inauguration of a beloved politico they elected with 90 percent of the vote. And two, events whose purpose is to give local big shots a place to strut.
Graham’s says he’s hoping to hit one of the “official” balls, sponsored by the Presidential Inaugural Committee, but call it the exception that proves the rule: That’s the first-ever “Neighborhood Ball” at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, with low-priced tickets reserved for District residents. That shindig is scheduled to get a presidential visit, but it won’t feature the high-powered crowd you’ll see at the Mid-Atlantic Inaugural Ball, where governors, members of Congress, and big-time political donors from the area will be preening.
Such events, Graham says, are “very pricey....I mean, what’s the point? We have plenty of our own events.”
But Graham is taking advantage of one thing he can lord over all those big shots—his first-floor offices in the John A. Wilson Building, facing Pennsylvania Avenue, which gives him a primo, climate-controlled view of the inaugural parade. It’s a perk he shares with Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry, who also has a first-floor suite located just high enough to peer over the crowds.
Other officials in the Wilson Building control fine perches: Offices belonging to CFO Nat Gandhi have prime views of the parade from the second floor; mayoral offices are located on the third. Councilmembers Phil Mendelson, Yvette Alexander, and David Catania all have at least partial views of the parade route.
And make no mistake: These officials will be leveraging their sweet vantage points into political dispensations. Carrie S. Kohns, chief of staff to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, estimates some 3,000 will be in the building during the parade. That includes 1,300 invitees of councilmembers—each member is allowed 100 invitations. To further take advantage of prime real estate, a city contractor is presently finishing up a fully enclosed, heated reviewing stand with room for 150 people—split 75–75 between mayor and council.
Councilmembers will also be getting one ticket apiece—in the prime “orange” zone—to the morning swearing-in ceremony, courtesy of Eleanor Holmes Norton, and they’ll have the rare privilege of watching both that and the parade: Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray is reportedly arranging for a police escort to take councilmembers from city hall to the Capitol and back.
But be warned that being District royalty has its limits. A tipster remembers the time Marion Barry got stuck on the wrong side of Pennsylvania Avenue during Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration. (He tried to cross, the tipster says, “but the soldiers told him no.”) He was forced to watch the parade with the hoi polloi on Freedom Plaza.
And there’s nothing quite as humbling as surveying the local party scene. Wilson Building politicos are associated with several big events, none of which should be held up as examples of seamless planning.
• Fenty is supposedly holding a “Welcome to D.C.” event at the D.C. Armory on Sunday. Why supposedly? Well, mayoral types won’t cough up a single on-the-record fact about this event. On Tuesday afternoon, five days ahead of party time, Fenty told Washington City Paper, “We’re not ready to release any details.” He wouldn’t even confirm that the event would definitely take place.
What’s known about the event is this: It’s on the 18th, it’s at the Armory, and it’s supposed to benefit D.C. schools. All that comes courtesy of leaks to Washington Post reporter David Nakamura, who also reported Fenty’s been trying to woo the likes of Kanye West and Mary J. Blige to the event. But as to how much it costs, how to get tickets, and many other pertinent details, all was unknown.
Fenty political aide John Falcicchio—who is reportedly in charge of planning the event—didn’t return calls or an e-mail.
• What good is the local Democratic cell if it can’t even organize a welcoming event for the incoming Democratic president?
That’s the thinking that birthed Monday night’s “D.C. Presidential Inaugural Gala” scheduled for the fabulous confines of the federal Department of Transportation headquarters down on New Jersey Avenue SE. The event was originally planned as a production of and fundraiser for the D.C. Democratic State Committee.
Indeed, it quickly turned into a classic Democratic State Committee production: a mess.
Problem is, D.C. Dems didn’t decide to roll out the welcome mat until shortly after the election—with most every sizable space in town already booked solid. So Democratic State Committee chair Anita Bonds worked out a deal, reportedly in conjunction with Norton, to secure the brand-new transportation department.
From there, things got complicated. There are two issues: Bonds told local folks that national Democratic organizers had said that individual state parties shouldn’t be hosting their own inaugural events. Rather, the idea was to have groups of states participate in larger, official balls. If that was ever an order, it’s been followed only loosely: At least a dozen states are doing their own galas.
The more complicated issue is that the ball’s being held in a federal office building. The price was right, but the space comes with restrictions. To wit, events there are “Hatched”—subject to the provisions of the federal Hatch Act, which prohibits the commingling of government resources with political activities.
In other words, hosting a big party sponsored by a political party is a no-go.
So Bonds, along with party regulars Marilyn Tyler Brown and Vernon Hawkins, decided to form a nonprofit organization to put the shindig together. According to critics on the state committee, activist Phil Pannell chief among them, they treated those developments like a state secret.
At a meeting of the local Democrats’ executive committee on Jan. 5, party honchos got into a “very heated and intense discussion” about Bonds’ management of the gala, according to a written account obtained by City Paper. (“Catfight” is another word that was used to describe the meeting.) That led to a brokered agreement that the nonprofit would donate all of the event’s proceeds to D.C. Vote in exchange for an official endorsement by the state committee.
In spite of all that, the gala seems to be coming together. The organizers have booked the O’Jays—perfect for partiers of a certain age—and Norton, Fenty, and former mayors Sharon Pratt and Anthony Williams are supposedly attending. They’ll have to pay $144 for the privilege (reduced from $244).
And for that, they don’t even get their names on the invite: Hatch Act restrictions mean that the invites had to be scrubbed on all references to partisan politics or elected officials—save for Obama.
• And then there’s inauguration night itself. That’s the planned date for the “51st State Ball,” slated for the confines of the Wilson Building—an edifice notably unsuited for a “ball” of any type. “The floors are so hard!” one female staffer noted.
Graham had broached the idea of having an inaugural event at the Wilson Building shortly after the election at a council breakfast meeting, and Ward 5’s Harry Thomas Jr. took the idea and ran with it. The reason it’s happening at all is the support of Gray, who’s pushing the event despite grumblings from various folks around the Wilson Building.
Organizers did catch a break when those putting on another locally oriented ball—intended to benefit the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington—were forced to cancel. That “Inaugural D.C.” event, scheduled for the Old Post Office Pavilion, had locked up the one act guaranteed to bring local fans: Chuck Brown.
Allen Tubis, an event planner who organized the Post Office Pavilion benefit (he’s a longtime member of the local Boys & Girls Clubs’ board), says the traffic and security restrictions meant holding the ball at that location would be impossible. “Our situation is, if you can’t load in the food, the sound system, you just can’t do it,” he says. (Another ball held nearby, the MTV ball at the Ronald Reagan Building, was canceled last week for similar reasons.)
Of course, it’s unclear why the Wilson Building bash—a mere three blocks away—isn’t subject to the same logistical concerns; Tubis speculates it’s because the city hall ball is scheduled for later in the evening. In any case, the Boys & Girls Clubs’ loss is the statehood movement’s gain. “A lot of the people coming to our event wanted to see Chuck Brown. So we’ve been notifying them,” Tubin says. “For $51, you can get a ticket to see Chuck Brown.”
Ayawna Chase, a Thomas staffer who’s planning the bash, said Friday she’d sold about 200 tickets so far out of 2,000. Folks from across the country have expressed interest, and Chase—active in the local Young Democrats—says she’s gotten a lot of interest from fellow Young Dems looking for a low-cost party option.
Some roadblocks remain: The organizers reportedly still have to get insurance for the event and logistics still need to be worked out, but Chase says those issues will be resolved soon. Come Jan. 20, she says, expect the Wilson Building to sport a “semi-ballroom kind of feel,” complete with jazz band in the council’s fourth-floor hearing room.
• A mélange of local activist organizations, including D.C. Vote and the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, are sponsoring three days’ worth of activities billed as the “People’s Inaugural.” The festivities, all at the Carnegie Library, kick off with a Friday concert featuring old-school rappers Doug E. Fresh and Kurtis Blow and culminate in a Sunday “gayla” featuring a Barney Frank appearance.
Otherwise, the opportunities for locals to rub shoulders with the national elite are few. Some councilmembers have been invited to a late-night bash, starting at midnight Wednesday morning, thrown by megadeveloper and prodigal son R. Donahue Peebles. But that’s officially in honor of Virginia Sen. Mark Warner. There’s a guy with juice.
Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette M. Alexander says she hopes to make the high-powered afterparty. “I especially want to make sure that with the legislation I passed, I get into at least one place at 4 a.m.” Not that she’ll be imbibing: “I’ll probably have some spring water. What’s that expensive water with the silver cap? I may spring for some Voss.”
There is one person in town who won’t be slumming it. That’s Fenty, who had already been doing plenty of strutting—at Ben’s Chili Bowl with the president-elect, on Meet the Press with Bill Cosby, and at a packed Tuesday press conference with Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.
Hizzoner is tight-lipped on where he’ll be during all the festivities. But Fenty is an honorary co-chair of the Presidential Inaugural Committee, a post that comes with many fabulous perks, starting with prime seats on the rostrum for the swearing-in. He also gets the equivalent of an all-access pass for the official balls later in the evening. Expect him at the Neighborhood Ball and the Mid-Atlantic Ball and other exclusive goings-on.
Says Alexander, with a touch of envy, “I think he’s a man about town.”