Red Carpet Rolled Out for the Poor

Earl W. Stafford, whose family runs a faith-based group, wants to give disadvantaged people a "front-row seat" for the inauguration celebration.
Earl W. Stafford, whose family runs a faith-based group, wants to give disadvantaged people a "front-row seat" for the inauguration celebration. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
Buy Photo
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 5, 2008

The Stafford Foundation yesterday officially launched its million-dollar project to bring disadvantaged people to President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration next month, and the effort was immediately deluged with interest.

Amid what organizers said was a flood of phone calls and e-mail from potential supporters, volunteers and participants, Virginia businessman Earl W. Stafford announced the start of the initiative to host the needy as well as the sick and forgotten at what he calls "the People's Inaugural."

"Hundreds of contacts have poured in through every possible opening," a Stafford spokesman, Ted Kresse, said in an e-mail. "The calls and emails have been coming in non-stop . . . and we are working to make sure everyone is responded to."

Stafford, 60, whose family runs the faith-based charitable foundation, already has paid $1 million for more than 300 rooms and an array of amenities for his guests at Washington's JW Marriott hotel, on Pennsylvania Avenue at 14th Street NW.

He is also shelling out $600,000 for a prayer breakfast, luncheon and two inaugural balls at the hotel.

Stafford, who kicked off the project at a news conference at the hotel, wants at least 30 percent of his guests to be people in need and is willing to provide gowns, tuxedos and the services of beauticians so they can have an unforgettable experience.

Largely motivated by his Baptist faith, he said his goal is to get deserving people to the inauguration who would not otherwise have the opportunity. The hotel overlooks the Pennsylvania Avenue inaugural parade route and will feature a heated terrace tent for people watching the festivities.

Stafford is a Fairfax County resident who heads a technology firm in Centreville. With him at the news conference were his wife, Amanda, and children Earl Jr., Jessica and Mark.

"The people's inaugural project is a historic investment that allows those who would not . . . have such an opportunity to come to our nation's capital in Washington, D.C., and join in the inauguration and celebration of our president Barack Obama," Stafford said. "We are thrilled to give them a front-row seat."

Cooperating agencies, including the National Urban League and Washington's Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, will help the foundation identify people to be invited and help them get to Washington. Stafford has said he also plans to reach out to homeless shelters, community organizations and military hospitals in search of guests.

Stafford was asked whether Obama might attend the Marriott events. "That certainly would be icing on the cake," he said.

Lavern Chatman, president of the Northern Virginia Urban League, said the idea was not to have all the Stafford guests be disadvantaged. Organizers also want some movers and shakers so the disadvantaged and well-heeled can mingle.

"You want people . . . who [the disadvantaged] look up to," she said. "We want them to be able to say, 'I sat across the table from a muckety-muck in Washington, D.C.' "

She said the Urban League will put out a call to its affiliates seeking candidates. Final selections will be made by the National Urban League, and Urban League staff workers will escort the invitees to Washington.

"It's going to be out of sight, unbelievable, fantastic, awesome," she said. "I don't know any other words. It's really going to be a legacy thing -- something I can tell my nieces, my nephews, that they can tell their children, their grandchildren."

To learn more about the Stafford Foundation visit www.thestaffordfoundation.org.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company