Archive for Thursday, January 15, 2009

Inaugural organizers face financial balancing act

January 15, 2009


From the announcement of Barack Obama's candidacy to the management of his presidential transition, his organization -- including the biggest fundraising operation in U.S. political history -- has rolled forward with seemingly flawless precision.

But for the team trying to pull in more than $40 million to pay for the festivities at next month's inauguration, the process has had some uncharacteristically bumpy moments. Officials expect to meet their budget and underwrite a colossal celebration that they say will be open to more people than ever.

Still, with less than a month to go, organizers have told some supporters that they might not get all the goodies they had expected in exchange for big-bucks donations. And they've scrambled to think up new ways to deal with the insatiable appetite of wealthy supporters not just to attend but to buy themselves VIP status.

An estimated 3 million to 5 million people are expected to squeeze in around the Capitol and onto the National Mall for the Jan. 20 swearing-in. Most will contend with frigid weather, traffic jams, packed subway cars and walks from distant staging areas -- all for a fleeting glimpse of the new president.

Those making big-dollar donations, however, will be rewarded with exclusive tickets, up-front seating and invitations to exclusive events, including a black-tie dinner with Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden for hundreds of the most generous supporters.

Anyone raising $300,000 or more will earn the title "trustee" and get four tickets to every special inaugural event, along with seats to the swearing-in and parade.

Rewarding big-money donors with such favors is nothing new. But the challenge is especially difficult this time.

Many potential givers are experiencing donor fatigue after the long campaign, especially with the economy in a tailspin. And in keeping with Obama's promise of high ethical standards, his canvassers have operated under a limit of $50,000 per contribution from individuals. Obama's camp also banned any donations from corporations, unions and political action committees.

That means more donors were needed -- as were more enticements.

The demand for special treatment has been so great that the inauguration committee faced the possibility of well-heeled supporters being turned away from some of the most sought-after events -- a fundraiser's nightmare. Many donors still don't know whether they will get tickets to coveted inaugural balls such as the one hosted by Obama's home state of Illinois.

"There is frustration because individuals in some cases still do not know what they are getting for their donations," said one fundraiser who is bundling money from several wealthy families and helping to coordinate their travel to the inauguration.

The fundraiser, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the problems were "similar to the way it has been in inaugurations of the past -- only more so. There is more demand than ever for access to special events, but the capacity is the same."

In response, inauguration organizers created a new package for $10,000 givers: Each gets the title of "sponsor" and a more limited set of tickets and party invitations. Sponsors also get two tickets to a late-night party the Saturday before the inauguration, as well as two tickets to a candle-light dinner.

Donors giving the $50,000 maximum are called "finance chairs" and get full access to everything, but they receive fewer tickets to each event than the "trustees."

The inauguration budget four years ago was roughly the same as Obama's, but organizers for President George W. Bush took contributions of up to $250,000 and accepted money and in-kind support from corporations and PACs.

"We have the broadest inaugural fundraising restrictions in history," said Linda Douglass, chief spokeswoman for Obama's inaugural committee. She added that, for the first time, donations are searchable online and are posted shortly after they are received.

The money is necessary, she said, "to make this the most open and accessible inaugural," paying for VIP events as well as jumbo television screens and other amenities for the crowds expected on the Mall.

Howard Gutman, a Washington lawyer and Obama fundraiser, said Americans can "rest at ease" that industries kept at bay during the campaign will not be asked to sponsor the inauguration.

"I guarantee you this inauguration is not about bigwigs," Gutman said. "It's about the millions of people who are going to see the parade and the swearing-in for the price of a Metro ticket."

Campaign finance reform advocates said that the inaugural fundraising is more similar than it is different from previous administrations. Most of Obama's campaign money came from donors giving $1,000 or more, and individuals still have to be wealthy to be able to afford even the minimum tier of exclusive events at the inauguration.

"Obama continues to depend on large donors," says Steve Weissman of the Campaign Finance Institute, a reform advocacy organization.

So far, according to the inaugural committee Web site, $21.9 million has been raised. And while the fundraising system may not have changed much, the makeup of those attending the official inaugural parties will be somewhat different -- and not just because there will be Democrats this year instead of Republicans.

"The traditional K Street network seems to be less important" to fundraising and planning, said John Zive, a lawyer and lobbyist at Bracewell & Giuliani in Washington. Partly because of Obama's insistence on banning lobbyists from donating to the inauguration, "there aren't a tremendous amount of solicitations inside the Beltway."

K Street is not going to be completely left out, however. It is funneling money to parties taking place around town that are not directly tied to the official Obama inaugural committee.

The Bracewell firm, which is based in Texas, will help sponsor the Texas Inaugural Ball and perhaps other activities. The Democratic Governors Association is asking for high-dollar donations from potential sponsors.

Contributing to these events, Zive said, "gives you visibility and access to a black-tie event that is at least in the penumbra of the inauguration."


Chris Ogle 6 years, 10 months ago

And they've scrambled to think up new ways to deal with the insatiable appetite of wealthy supporters not just to attend but to buy themselves VIP status.------------------------------------------------Enough said

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