House Warming
For Democrats and Deadheads, the Gilded Party

By David Montgomery and J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 5, 2007

Despite the promised "new direction for America," getting the money out of politics and all of that, some facts of Washington life appear immutable and eternal.

"One hundred hours to make this the most honest and open Congress in history," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared at the beginning of a history-making day -- which ended last night with the Democrat from California presiding over a glitzy fundraiser open to anyone with $1,000 for a ticket.

A few folks in the block-long line of partygoers waiting to get into the National Building Museum -- social activists, feminists, union organizers, fat-cat liberals, Hollywood allies and not a few serious Deadheads -- did sense the cognitive dissonance. They promptly dismissed it in a tidal wave of idealism about the future under the nation's first female speaker of the House.

They had waited a long time for this night to party, nibble on goat cheese ravioli with pumpkin and truffle, wipe their lips with paper napkins embossed in gold with "Speaker Pelosi January 4, 2007," listen to former members of the Grateful Dead sing "Truckin' " and Tony Bennett sing "I Left My Heart in San Francisco."

"Democrats are back!" Pelosi said in her remarks during the few minutes reporters were permitted inside. "We are ready to lead, prepared to govern and determined to make you proud."

(A dozen years ago, it must be recalled, Newt Gingrich and the Republicans celebrated their return to power with a $1,000-a-plate dinner. Reporters were allowed in.)

Organizers expected 1,000 to 1,500 guests, with checks to be made out to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Many complimentary tickets were given out, and DCCC spokeswoman Jen Psaki could not immediately say how much money was raised. She said fundraisers are usually closed to the news media, but arrangements were made to allow reporters to hear Pelosi's remarks.

Outside in the line to get in, their faces illuminated by cellphones and BlackBerrys, people had high hopes.

"I am personally such an admirer of Nancy," said Susan Levine, vice president of a private equity firm in Boston. "I'm a working mom; she raised five children before she went into politics. What she said today about breaking the marble ceiling, I feel like I'm trying to do that every day."

"We're feminists and we're celebrating!" exclaimed Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, and Martha Burk, money editor of Ms. Magazine, almost in unison.

"The marble ceiling is certainly not broken, but it's nicely cracked," Burk added.

A long column of leaders and organizers from several labor unions walked from nearby headquarters.

"We're celebrating a change in this country," said Larry Cohen, president of the Communication Workers of America, adding that Americans want a "commitment to economic justice" and are "fed up with their voices not being heard."

But how do those ideals jibe with a fancy affair too pricey for most working families?

"I think it's a good question, actually," Cohen said. "I do think getting the money out and getting the people in is what this is about for us."

Ahead in line, Arthur Fullerton, director of development for Covenant House California, pronounced it "a historic night. . . . I think the voices of everyone in the country get to be heard, not just the privileged few."

Like the few with $1,000 to drop?

"That's true," Fullerton said. But he got comped. "You do have folks like me who get invited."

Actor Joe Pantoliano was on the sidewalk marveling about how "stunning" it would be for his mother to have known an Italian American woman was becoming speaker. And actress Heather Thomas disclosed, "I'm 49, I'm not ashamed to say, so I never had those [female political] role models as a child. If you don't have that in your consciousness, you don't know you can do it."

Phil Angelides was in line, looking pleased, despite his recent loss to Arnold Schwarzenegger in the California governor's race.

And there came musician Wyclef Jean, one of the evening's entertainers, with a special composition in store. "I'm writing a freestyle rap on my BlackBerry," he said, whipping out the device to show his notes. Later, during his performance of "Hot Hot Hot," Pelosi would be inspired to dance, and the musician stepped into the velvet-roped area to dance with her.

The speaker, with a grandchild on her lap, also sang along to Carole King's performance of "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman."

It didn't hurt turnout that the congresswoman from San Francisco invited members of one of her city's most famous rock bands to headline the affair.

"I am here to witness history in the making, the first woman speaker of the House, and to see members of the Grateful Dead perform," said Jersey City Councilman Steve Lipski.

Which was more important?

"I'll let readers be the judge," said Lipski, who also could recall the date of his first Dead show, 35 years ago.

Scott Orellana, 30, an insurance claims processor from Rockville, dressed in a gray suit with his long hair neatly pulled back, was walking up and down the line holding a cardboard sign that said, "I need a miracle," and holding up one finger -- universal parking-lot Dead code for seeking a ticket.

On the other side, his sign said, "Let me see Nancy Pelosi and the DCCC." "I'm excited about the new Congress. I'm excited about Nancy Pelosi being the first woman speaker of the House," Orellana said. "If I had $1,000 I'd definitely give a contribution, but I don't have $1,000."

At the last minute, just as the party was about to begin, a wired Democrat and fellow Dead fan -- who sheepishly would only be identified as a political consultant -- slipped Orellana a ticket.

The Deadhead got his miracle -- and maybe so have the Democrats gotten theirs.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company