WASHINGTON – Forget the auto bailout, the national debt or the recession. Perhaps no issue in Washington has vexed members of Congress so much as the decision on how each will distribute their precious Obama inauguration tickets.
But this week, lucky political junkies around North Carolina are getting calls that they will get seats – or, most likely, standing-room space – to President-elect Barack Obama’s swearing-in ceremony Jan. 20.
“This has been among the most difficult and time-consuming things we’ve ever done,” said U.S. Rep. Mel Watt, a Charlotte Democrat, on Wednesday.
Across Capitol Hill, congressional offices of both parties have been struggling to accommodate thousands of requests from constituents, figuring out the best way to dole out tickets.
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Watt titled his press release: “Inaugural Tickets – An Impossible Task.”
Rep. Brad Miller felt so bad about turning people away that he’s showing the inaugural ceremonies live at a local theater for those who didn’t get tickets.
And some lawmakers don’t yet know what to do.
“Rep. Etheridge has not distributed his tickets and he has not made a decision at this time about what process he will use, given the overwhelming demand,” read an e-mail from the office of Bob Etheridge of Lillington.
The demand has been overwhelming. Rep. David Price of Chapel Hill was asked for 25,000 tickets. Sen. Richard Burr and Sen.-elect Kay Hagan each had requests for more than 15,000.
A cousin called Watt and asked to crash on his couch; the cousin was denied. Miller will host two relatives on air mattresses in his Capitol Hill apartment. They received tickets, but he denied one of his best friends from law school.
Miller saved fewer than 10 tickets for family and close friends. A few more went to elected officials or community leaders who had sought tickets. Most names were chosen by a computer lottery this week, and a worker in Miller’s Raleigh office began calling up voters.
“We tried to do the best we could,” Miller said.
Darlene Hamilton, who owns a small home health care business in Greensboro, was so thrilled at the call that she screamed.
“Words cannot express how elated I am,” said Hamilton, 33, whose mother was one of the first to integrate a high school in Baltimore. “Being an African American, it just melts my heart to know he’s been able to accomplish this.”
Hamilton said that when she was called by Miller’s staffer, “my first question to her was, ‘Did I win the lottery?’”
The odds might have been about as good.
Each of North Carolina’s 13 House members received 198 tickets. Burr and Hagan each received 393 – and those include tickets for the lawmakers and their spouses.
With thousands of constituents calling each office, members were faced with the queasy reality that they were going to have to tell a lot of constituents, “no.”
“We wish we could accommodate them all. We really do,” said Burr’s spokesman, Chris Walker. “We like to say ‘yes’ a lot more often.”
Burr, a Winston-Salem Republican, picked off fewer than one-fourth of his tickets for elected officials, ministers and other community leaders around North Carolina.
He called four schools from across the state – his office won’t disclose which schools or where they are – and gave each 20 tickets. One of the schools had called back in December 2007 with its request.
The rest of the tickets were distributed based on the first callers who asked for tickets.
Watt, whose district curls across six counties, pro-rated the counties based on population, then held six separate lotteries. Constituents in Mecklenburg County received 44 tickets; Cabarrus County received two.
He also gave 70 tickets to elected officials and community leaders.
“We’ve gotten a lot of grief about who’s on the 70-ticket list and a lot of grief about the lottery,” Watt said. “At the end of the conversation I say, ‘Look, I can’t give away something I don’t have.’”
For some who did get tickets, the joy was quickly overtaken by concern.
Doland Brand, 39, of Raleigh was excited to get his call Wednesday morning from Miller’s office.
But then he realized he had to pick up the tickets Jan. 19 in Washington, that he would have to drive up a day early, take an extra day off from his warehouse job, spend more money for the extra day in Washington, figure out how to get around.
He also had wanted to bring both his wife and his teenage daughter, but he received just two tickets.
“I’m happy. I’m overjoyed,” Brand said. “It’s just, I’m a little bit chapped at all the logistical hoops. As of now, it’s Mission Impossible 3.”
Some offices have yet to distribute their tickets. Price, a Chapel Hill Democrat, will hold his lottery late this week. Hagan, a Greensboro Democrat, will make her decisions “in a few weeks,” said her spokeswoman, Colleen Flanagan.
Eventually, most offices will send letters or emails to those people who didn’t get tickets at all.
The tickets are good for one of some 240,000 close-in spots to President-elect Barack Obama’s swearing-in ceremony on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol. Most spaces are standing-room-only.
But every member of Congress has been reminding constituents over and over: Outside the ticketed perimeter, the National Mall will be opened to accommodate an expected 1 million to 4 million people. No tickets are required.
Watt said he’s tried to encourage people to come up while warning them about the cold, the misery of standing for hours, the traffic and the crowds.
“It’s going to be a historic event, and people will love the fact they can go home and say, ‘I was there,’” Watt said.
“But a lot will be saying to themselves: ‘What in the world was I thinking?’”