Steve Kerrigan, head honcho for the 2013 Presidential Inaugural Committee, has a message for carping congressmen, donors and Obama supporters who’ve heard there’s only one official inaugural ball this year and are afraid they won’t make the cut. It’s a mirage.
One of the best-kept secrets in town is that the one public inaugural ball will be a doozy, with upward of 40,000 partying in a single bacchanalia under one roof at the Washington Convention Center. It’s the equivalent of six or seven traditional inaugural balls such as those held four years ago.
That’s only 20 percent less than the 2009 numbers for President Barack Obama’s historic first Inauguration. And it’s not exactly the muted, pint-size inaugural image the committee and Democrats more generally have been promoting to kick off Obama’s second term.
“Lots of people will get to go,” acknowledged Kerrigan in an interview at PIC’s office in Southwest Washington “We haven’t really explained it.”
There’s a good reason for that. The inaugural team made a show of announcing that the festivities to mark Obama’s second Inauguration would be greatly curtailed this year as a nod to tough economic times. Rather than the 10 official balls that the president and first lady zipped around to in 2009, this year there would be only two: the Commander-in-Chief’s Ball, for 4,000 servicemen and -women and families of deployed soldiers, and then another for everyone else.
Left unsaid, however, was that the two balls together would host tens of thousands of people and feature a stout array of high-profile entertainers performing over two floors of the vast convention center. Among them: Stevie Wonder, Usher, Katy Perry, Marc Anthony, John Legend, Smokey Robinson and Alicia Keyes. “So it’s not a 10 [balls] down to two type situation,” concedes Kerrigan.
There are indeed fewer official social events planned for the hundreds of thousands of partygoers set to celebrate Obama’s swearing-in, but what there are have been underplayed. You won’t find listed on any official calendars, for example, an A-list candlelight dinner Sunday night at the Kennedy Center for high rollers and other Democratic hotshots that the president and first lady Michelle Obama are set to attend.
A protégé of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, Kerrigan was asked to be president and CEO of PIC after orchestrating Obama’s successful convention in Charlotte, N.C., last summer. He was chief of staff for Obama’s historic first Inauguration in 2009, in which 10 official balls were held, a massive concert at the Lincoln Memorial drew 400,000 people, and 2 million folks descended on Washington. And that was just the official schedule.
But Kerrigan’s current mandate is to create a more populist event with less of the dazzle, celebrity and hysteria that defined Obama’s first inaugural festivities.
“We want to make sure the focus is on the right things,” said Kerrigan. “Service to our neighbors and our country, and supporting those who serve us.” To that end, PIC has developed a complex plan for Saturday’s National Day of Service across the country and multiple events to honor the military. There will be a concert for the children of deployed military on Saturday night, the president and first lady will lay a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery on Sunday, and the military ball will take place Monday.
Kerrigan, 40, who once studied to join the Xaverian Brothers, exudes a preternatural calm and humor amid the chaos. On this particular day, a half-dozen people literally stand in the hall outside his office lined up to see him. Associates say no detail is too small for him, from where the police horses drop their manure to mandating the length for parade floats so they can make the hairpin turn on 15th Street. “It’s where we get the biggest bottleneck of floats,” he explains, like a man who has spent much time on this one issue.
And colleagues say he’s a stickler on certain things: Men must show up for work in jackets and ties; women in the female equivalent.
Raising private money may be Kerrigan’s biggest headache, sources say, despite the fact that PIC reversed course from four years ago — and from the Democratic convention — and is accepting unlimited amounts of corporate money. After scrounging mightily to fund the Democratic convention when Obama barred corporations and lobbyists from contributing, team Obama did an about-face to ease pressure on the inaugural.
“When isn’t money a problem?” said Kerrigan, who has become extremely skilled at dodging funding questions. “Inaugurals are tricky times. Right after the election, right after the holidays.”
One of his favorite deflections: “We’re on track.”
But PIC had hoped to raise about $40 million to $50 million in private funds for this scaled-down inaugural — $53 million was raised in 2009 — and sources say it has fallen far short of that goal. It is offering breathtaking $1 million corporate packages, which, according to The Associated Press, provide ball tickets, invitations to the candlelight dinner, prime seating for the swearing-in, a meeting with the president’s finance team and other perks. But sources say they aren’t flying off the shelves. So far the PIC has posted the names of about 1,000 donors — individual and corporate — but with no indication of their donation amounts. By this time four years ago, about 20,000 donors had been revealed. So far, there are only eight businesses on the list.
“The business community isn’t going to step up after feeling disregarded by this administration,” said one Democratic activist with close ties to the business community. “Not going to happen.”
Despite downplayed crowd estimates for the ceremony and parade, organizers privately say they are quietly planning for attendance rivaling 2009’s historic 2 million attendees.
Kerrigan coyly estimates that attendance will fall somewhere between the 2005 inaugural (250,000) and the record-breaking event four years ago, when PIC opened the full length of the National Mall for the first time in history. The committee will again have that expanse available. “There is the potential — if the weather is good and based on the requests for tickets we are seeing — that President Obama could have two of the best-attended inaugurals in history,” said one official.
Despite the pressure for ball tickets, Kerrigan says there will not be any last-minute changes or additions.
“There are fewer tickets, so everybody is taking a little bit of a haircut,” he says. “It is what it is.”
“We are comfortable with where we are. It will allow the people attending [the two balls] to actually really enjoy themselves. It’s an opportunity for everybody to be at the same place celebrating the inaugural together.”