For top donors, inauguration means access, influence and angling for next big job
By Marc Fisher and Tom Hamburger,
The voters have spoken, but even after a $2 billion presidential campaign, the quest for dollars in Washington continues. This weekend, the high rollers are paying for inauguration parties that are almost always busts, a ceremony that’s better seen on TV and access that’s not exactly priceless but pretty darn expensive.
For the thousands of high-end donors who pay for the whole thing, the inauguration is about exclusive access to the president and vice president, as well as what insiders call “placement.” (Jobs, they mean.) Goodness knows it’s not the big public balls that lure the visitors; by universal accord, those mega-parties are mostly letdowns — people you don’t know and don’t like, bars you’d need a crowbar to reach, bad food and not enough of it.
“They’ve already written their checks and now they come for the celebration,” said David Rosen, a Chicago Democratic fundraiser who serves as a fixer for wealthy donors on their inauguration trips, making certain their schedule is properly packed with the right parties and the most intimate VIP gatherings. “This weekend is a marker in their lives, so they want to be invited to the White House or the small gathering at the vice president’s house.”
President Obama’s second inauguration is smaller, less emotionally powerful and less transparent than the first. There are fewer balls, fewer tourists and fewer details about the money being raised. Four years ago, promising a new openness, the president banned corporate giving to the inauguration, limited gifts from individuals to $50,000 and released a full accounting of donations.
This year, the sky’s the limit on gifts, corporations are good people and the official roster of donors won’t include addresses or amounts for up to 90 days. The list includes companies such as AT&T, Microsoft and Southern Co., a utility that says it gave $100,000. Individual supporters include donors such as Irwin Jacobs, founder of the tech company Qualcomm, who had already given more than $2 million to groups supporting Obama.
Administration officials have said the loosened donation rules were designed to reach out to businesses whose executives felt spurned in the first term and to ease pressure on Democratic donors who feel squeezed dry after the campaign. After the inaugural celebration’s expenses are paid, the remaining money could be used for an Obama foundation that would support his presidential library and other projects after he leaves office.
“It is just the wrong thing to do,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a nonprofit group that pushes for transparency in government and campaign finance reform. “This is symbolic of doing business as usual in Washington, from an administration that has said it did not want to follow that path. It doesn’t make sense.”
Presidential Inaugural Committee spokesman Cameron French says that although it is taking corporate donations “to make sure we are able to meet our fundraising obligations” without burdening the public, it is not accepting gifts from political-action committees, lobbyists or firms that aren’t current on federal bailout loans from 2009. A committee statement says its “guidelines aren’t just consistent with the law — they are consistent with the president’s commitment to transparency and to reducing the influence of PACs and lobbyists in Washington.”
Inaugural supporters aren’t all high rollers; many on the list didn’t even know they contributed to the inauguration. The first 10 people The Washington Post randomly called from the Presidential Inaugural Committee’s list of donors — 993 at week’s end — said they had no idea they’d made a donation. Some, like Eula Eikerenkoetter, the widow of Rev. Ike, a New York-based TV evangelist who died in 2009, just bought $60 tickets to the Inaugural Ball at the Washington Convention Center, and that got her on the list. The ball she had tickets to four years ago was canceled, so this is her chance to get on the dance floor and see the president and first lady.
And some, like retired D.C. government planner Jill Diskan, simply bought a few items from the committee’s online store.
“I have friends coming in from out of town for the inaugural, and I wanted to give them goodie bags,” she said. “Buttons and cocktail glasses and T-shirts.” Her friends will go see the parade Monday, and they had tickets to hear Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor speak at Lisner Auditorium. They didn’t arrive on any private jets, and they won’t be making any six- or seven-figure donations.
But for an event with a fundraising goal of $50 million — officials said last week they were about $8 million behind the mark — you can’t sell enough T-shirts to reach the target. That’s where the special donors come in: The official list of contributors includes several dozen who have attended White House dinners or parties, and they get all manner of incentives to pony up again.
They could choose from a menu of packages such as the Washington Premium Partner, which for $250,000 per individual ($1 million for institutions) provides tickets to a private reception with a very important official, bleacher seats for the parade and entree to assorted other parties.
But even at that heady price, they don’t get the most coveted perk of the weekend. No, to get a seat at the swearing-in — none of this plebian standing room, please — you need a top-shelf connection in the White House or Congress.
“No one has seated tickets, and people are freaking out,” said a longtime Democratic fundraiser who has been fielding panicked calls seeking that ultimate symbol of access. “These are celebrity types, and they do not stand. But only the highest donors get seats.”
Whether they penetrate that innermost circle or not, top donors will have plenty of chances to see and be seen. These are generally not the people who will end up at Amsterdam Falafel at 3:20 a.m., hungry for a third wind. They are not the partyers who will slip into the Yoga Ball or the Punk-Rock Counter Inauguration Ball and Festival of Resistance at the Warehouse Theater, both on Sunday night.
But this crowd will brave the midnight chill to queue up outside the Hamilton in downtown Washington for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s invitation-only “Midnight Underground” party, featuring Keb’ Mo’ and Buddy Guy. The event sold ticket packages for up to $100,000 each and was underwritten in part with tens of thousands in contributions from the former White House chief of staff’s friends and supporters, according to a person familiar with the party’s organization.
Fundraisers like Rosen horse-trade tickets and invitations to get their younger clients — often the children of donors — into the rooms where the music celebrities will be. “My job is to facilitate that,” to get his donors to the experiences they crave. “So I’ll fund one event and the person running that event will help me get tickets for other events so my people can have a full program,” he said.
The hot ticket right now is the Creative Coalition’s ball at the Shakespeare Theatre on Monday night. The coalition, the folks who arrange for celebrities to push for their pet issues in Washington, is offering a performance by the Goo Goo Dolls and a chance to be in the same room as Paula Abdul, Melissa Leo, Taraji P. Henson, Marlon Wayans and Alan Cumming. Ticket packages ranged from $2,000 to $100,000.
“Celebrities are here because they can be — it’s the stuff money can’t buy,” Rosen said. “They’re nearly all Democrats, the good ones anyway.”
Alternatively, your company could have joined Microsoft, Comcast NBCUniversal and Pfizer in sponsoring Saturday’s OurTime.org party at the American Art Museum, where $250,000 earned a top billing for a brand in the event’s publicity, 115 tickets to the inaugural concert and backstage photo ops with John Legend and Will.I.Am.
“The biggest contingent of celebrities who are going are performing,” said Donna Bojarsky, a public-policy consultant to Hollywood stars who served as entertainment coordinator for the first Clinton inauguration. “People go because they feel grateful and relieved that Obama was reelected. But the inaugural’s not for the faint of heart. It’s an action sport.”
The most generous donors expect face time with celebrities and with top officials, and from Benefactors Brunches to the VIP reception during the candlelight celebration at the National Building Museum, there are opportunities galore for meet and greets — and money helps grease the way to get closer to celebrities and top politicians.
“Jockeying always goes on at these events,” Bojarsky said. “It’s the ultimate networking event.”
For many top donors, what makes this weekend worth the investment is the job potential.
One Democratic fundraiser who has seen a slew of these weekends spells it out — on the condition of anonymity, of course, because the people coming into town are the whales and one does not want to cross them. “The people most willing to help with donations are the ones who are looking for appointments and ambassadorships,” the fundraiser said. “Yes, they’ve already ponied up a lot, but they’re looking to get their placements.”
“Deals do get done this weekend,” another longtime party official said. “These are the people who got us here, and now they get their rewards.”
That’s been a staple of politics almost back to the Founders. In 1829, President Andrew Jackson came into office and removed 919 officials from their posts, replacing them with political loyalists — the birth of the spoils system, named for New York Sen. William Marcy’s explanation that “to the victors belong the spoils.”
But Rosen says it’s not that simple. “Relationships are built over years, and that’s what translates into people being asked to serve,” he said. “If a tippety-top donor isn’t here, that won’t prevent him from getting a job. But if I wanted to serve, I’d come, because to skip it would be weird. This is the celebration after all the work is done and all the checks have been written.”
T.W. Farnam contributed to this report.