It is not quite 9 a.m. on Monday morning, the day before the inauguration, and Georgia state Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, is ducking out of a Morehouse College breakfast just off Capitol Hill.
He grabs a cup of coffee and a pastry and sits down in the lobby of a historic Washington hotel with a reporter to discuss the madness that is the Obama inauguration ticket distribution process.
“I’m trying to do all I can to help a lot of people who came here with hopes of trying to see something of this historic moment,” Smyre says sternly, as celebrities, national politicians and television cameras set the backdrop.
Without his knowledge or intent, Smyre seems to have become the unofficial clearinghouse for Columbus-area ticket requests for the Obama inauguration. He denies any special access and blanches at the word “broker.”
As he gets up to take a car to Capitol Hill, he waits a few arm-lengths away from actress Jamie Lee Curtis, who is planting light kisses on the cheeks of two men nearby.
Why is Smyre so busy and stressed this morning? His phone is ringing off the hook with last-minute requests. A pair of tickets to one of the four official “ticketed” events — The Welcome, the Swearing In, the Parade or one of the ten official Inaugural Balls — is the hottest ticket in town.
Of the 240,000 tickets, members of Congress have been given 125,000 to distribute. The rest of the tickets went to the Presidential Inaugural Committee.
While not illegal to sell the tickets, eBay and its subsidiary StubHub banned the practice. The Senate passed Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s bill to criminalize sale or forgery of inaugural tickets last week, but no similar bill reached a vote in the House. Constituents who were promised tickets picked them up on Monday, the day before the inauguration.
So how does a state lawmaker with no official access to his own store of tickets succeed in making good on an estimated 22 of the 50 constituents who asked? He credits Georgia Congressmen Lynn Westmoreland and Sanford Bishop and the Presidential Inaugural Committee with making it happen.
“Any time I come to Washington, I call on both sides of the aisle,” he says.
A few hours later, Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., is holding court in his office, Room 120 of the Russell Building, which houses U.S. senators on Capitol Hill. The senator’s office has received more than 100,000 ticket requests from 21,000 Georgia residents, said deputy chief of staff Joan Kirchner.
Problem is, Isakson had only 393 tickets, the allotment for senators. Members of the House got 198 apiece.
“We started getting requests in January 2008,” Isakson said. “People said, ‘I don’t care who the winner is, I’m coming.’”
Isakson said his staff set up a Web site to take the requests, and the response was overwhelming. His approach to distributing tickets was simple: First he made a list of community leaders he believed should be at the event; then he distributed the rest on a first-come basis.
Generally, Isakson said, when he called to offer the tickets to a requesting party, they already had made travel arrangements. “I had more than one person literally burst into tears,” Isakson said.
Isakson flew into Washington about 11 a.m. on Monday and went straight to his office to begin taking photos with the hometown folks coming in to claim their inauguration packets.
The packets came in two parts: First, a heavy cream-colored envelope with an elaborate invitation, and second, the actual tickets.
The invitation envelope contains:
Ÿ An embossed presidential seal with the words: “Inauguration Ceremonies Program/The Capitol of the United States of America/January twentieth/Two thousand and nine.” Inside there is a program, a photo of the Lincoln Memorial and a written five-page tribute to Lincoln.
Ÿ A formal invitation that looks like a fancy dinner invitation, with single-card large photos of Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden. An embossed ribbon runs the length of the invitation.
The second envelope has the actual ticket. It is a more traditional manila envelope, with a letter from Isakson and a map telling citizens where they will sit or stand in the complex grid for the 240,000 tickets. You are advised that the gates open at 8 a.m. for the 11 a.m. program. (Isakson’s folks threw in a lot of tourist material plus a guide to Washington, which did not come in the standard package).
By the end of the day, Isakson had had his photo taken with 136 constituents.
Bishop left the Morehouse morning event before 9 a.m. Monday to meet with constituents and distribute tickets. Joined by his wife, Columbus Municipal Court Clerk Vivian Creighton Bishop, Bishop said his office was abuzz with local Georgians in a festive atmosphere.
Bishop said he regretted not being able to grant more constituents’ desires for tickets. “We did the best we could,” he said.