Need a Ticket? Take a Number.

By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 22, 2008

With about 55,000 requests for fewer than 400 tickets to Barack Obama's inauguration, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin's staff says he has no choice but to dispense them in a random drawing. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a fellow Maryland Democrat with 35,000 inquiries of her own, made the same decision. So did Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who has logged more than 10,000 calls.

Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D) of Northern Virginia is taking a first-come, first-served approach.

The popularity of Obama and the excitement surrounding the inauguration of the nation's first black president Jan. 20 have led to a demand for tickets the likes of which Washington has never seen. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) can recall giving away passes to both inaugurations for President Bush (R). Even the swearing in of Democrat Bill Clinton, who was popular in his Baltimore-centric district, didn't cause this much of a dust-up, Cummings said.

These factors are putting extraordinary pressure, political and otherwise, on those who can deliver the tickets. And 60 days before the inauguration, lawmakers don't know how many tickets they can give away, except that they expect to have fewer than 400 each.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D), who represents parts of Prince George's County and Southern Maryland, was so overwhelmed by the initial demand that he temporarily suspended requests.

Cummings stopped by his barbershop for a haircut yesterday and was accosted by people seeking tickets. "I got 25 requests from just walking in," said Cummings, who, as chairman of Obama's campaign in Maryland, is considered the state's go-to guy for tickets. "I can't go shopping in a supermarket for food. I usually average 30 requests doing that, so I'm almost afraid to even go into a supermarket now."

Protocol calls for the 240,000 tickets to be dispensed by members of the 111th Congress and the Presidential Inauguration Committee, which Obama will select.

The free ticket provides a spot, not a seat, closer to the Capitol when Obama takes the oath of office. With as many as 4 million people expected for the festivities, several Senate offices report receiving upwards of 50,000 requests. Many House members have logged 5,000 calls or more. Sen. James Webb and his newly elected colleague, Mark R. Warner, both Virginia Democrats, haven't decided how to distribute their tickets, staff members said. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) will use a lottery to dispense tickets to his district, which includes parts of Montgomery County and Prince George's.

Tickets to inaugural events have been a problem before. A Feb. 22, 1901, Washington Post report said the committee for the second inauguration of President William McKinley limited the number of tickets to the ball to 12,000. The officials expected 132,000 to descend on the capital, which was based on estimates of rail, steamboat and trolley travelers.

In a Jan. 13, 1977, report, a member of Congress inundated with requests for inauguration tickets reached out to a lawmaker from a faraway jurisdiction: "Aides to Rep. Joseph L. Fisher (D-Va.) managed to trade 100 congressional calendars for 20 tickets from Rep. Lloyd Meeds (D-Wash.)."

This year, the scarcity has led to desperation. People are offering trades for tickets. They are offering to buy tickets. They are calling in markers all over the country to secure a place to witness history up close.

Demand is especially high in Prince George's, the nation's most affluent majority-black jurisdiction. Many there say they see themselves in Obama and think his success affirms theirs. Others say they want to be at the Capitol to see a black man from modest means reach the pinnacle in U.S. government.

Then there are the volunteers who traveled in droves to Iowa, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Virginia to campaign for Obama; business owners who wrote checks and organized fundraisers; and politicians who put their reputations on the line to support the senator from Illinois when his goal seemed unattainable.

"We have a lot of people in Maryland who gave their blood, sweat and tears since January 2007 who, rightly, call, write me and e-mail me saying, 'I . . . helped to make this happen, and I want to be there to see it,' " Cummings said.

Cody Matthews, 31, of Owings Mills, Md., thought he'd be sure to get a ticket after he e-mailed Cardin and Mikulski in July. He was told that Cardin's office had a significant list but that Mikulski had been contacted by only a few people. "I figured I had a better chance than most," he said. But the decision now relies on a lottery. He called both offices yesterday and was told that nothing could be done.

"If I was the 50,000th person, I'm sure I would have a different perspective," he said. "But I think a certain portion of the tickets should be reserved for those who had the foresight to request tickets early."

Even people with influence are unsure whether they'll be able to snag tickets.

State Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George's) said he has been told that his chances of getting tickets are small. But he's still being besieged by people who think he can get them tickets. "My office is getting calls. My pastor is calling. My neighbors are knocking on my door," he said. "I called Ben Cardin's office, and they told me that my chances are slim, but if I do get a ticket, it would only be one."

Likewise, Prince George's State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey (D), who went to college and law school with Michelle Obama, worries that he and his wife, Jolene, a Maryland delegate, and their five sons, might be watching from home. He said he attended Clinton's second inauguration merely by reaching out to people he knew as a staff member for then-Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

"It was like a few calls were made, and it got done," Ivey said. "I don't think the demand was anyplace close to this."

Although he is glad that the tickets will be dispensed fairly, the random drawing bothers him: "I just finished opposing slots, and now I'm in this 'You gotta play to win' lottery system.' "

Staff writer David Nakamura and researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company