WASHINGTON — When Stacy Ritter shows up at Florida's official presidential inaugural ball in the nation's capital, she'll be wearing a gown she purchased eight years ago.
And not because she's being thrifty in a shaky economy: The Broward County mayor bought the dress to wear to Al Gore's inauguration in 2000. A razor-thin election in Florida and a U.S. Supreme Court decision nixed those plans.
''I wasn't going to wear it to anything but an inauguration,'' Ritter said of the cream Zola Keller gown that has been stored in a special bag in her closet. "I'd pull it out -- it's still a gorgeous dress — and my daughter would say, 'When are you going to wear it?' I thought maybe 2004. But now I can say: January 20, 2009.''
Floridians at the state's official ball will share a dance floor with 10 other states in a cavernous National Guard Armory that doubles as the home of the DC Rollergirls, the city's all-female roller derby team.
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Swank it's not. Lines for the coat check at inaugural events are notoriously long -- and partygoers are advised to wear flats and bring their own snacks.
But Democratic activists, who haven't been the belles of the ball in 12 years, say the venue and the crowds matter little.
''It's been such a long dry spell for Democrats it doesn't matter where it is,'' said Ritter, who is having her dress — a little roomy after eight years — slightly altered. "We elected a Democratic president of the United States. That's all that matters.''
Florida will cut the rug with Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas at one of five regional inaugural balls.
The armory venue -- which the city says ''can be readily transformed into an elegant setting for formal social affairs'' -- holds 10,000 and boasts a rich history: Frank Sinatra produced John F. Kennedy's inauguration gala there in 1961.
Tampa activist Ana Cruz is enthused, even about sharing a dance floor.
''We're all family. No matter if you're from Florida or South Carolina, we're there to celebrate,'' Cruz said. ``This is about celebrating not just Obama's success but our own.''
The Southern states' soiree is among 10 official inaugural balls that the newly minted president and first lady will attend, following the swearing-in and the parade -- and for many attendees that's reason enough to be there.
Rep. Kendrick Meek and his wife Leslie attended a private, unofficial ball at one of the Smithsonian museums in 2005, but they didn't make the official inauguration party.
`A CATTLE CALL'
Though the setting was glamorous, Leslie Meek has declared that the official inaugural ball this year is not to be missed. She said she's undaunted by warnings from Republican friends who describe the official balls as a bit of a mob scene.
''They said it was a cattle call, people are pushing, the only thing left to eat is a few crunched-up potato chips,'' she said, laughing. ``I figure it might just be like that, but I am all about the experience. If it's a cattle call, just call me Bessie. I want to see it all, and I want to be front and center.
''When I'm 98 years old I want to be able to tell people what it was like when we saw the first African-American president inaugurated,'' she said.
The Washington Post on Sunday published an advice column that warned ballgoers they would ``stand all night. There are long lines for security, coat check, bars and restrooms, and no place to sit down, except the floor.''
Meek said she took the warning to heart.
''It's got me thinking flats,'' she said of her shoe choice.
The officially sanctioned events are far from the only shindigs: Dozens of additional balls will be held across the city, with two aimed at Floridians. The Florida State Society -- one of a number of nonpartisan state societies that have hosted inaugural events since 1861 -- is teaming up with Florida House, the state's Washington ''embassy,'' to put on a dance and dinner at the upscale Corcoran Gallery of Art. Also on tap: a gala billed as the ''Florida Inaugural Celebration,'' to be held at the National Museum of the American Indian.
The two ''unofficial'' events won't feature visits by the president-elect, though members of Florida's congressional delegation, who traditionally get free tickets, are expected to make appearances.
Hayes & Associates, a public-relations firm that organizes the party at the museum, said it began the private parties after hearing complaints about the official balls.
''If you've ever been to an official ball, they have no food, you have to stand in line to get drinks, you may lose your coat, there's not even valet parking,'' said founder Leslie Hayes.
`PAY TO PLAY'
Obama's campaign has capped donors to the inauguration at $50,000 and banned lobbyists and corporations from contributing to inaugural events. Corporate donors like Florida Power & Light and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida have contributed to private parties, though.
Critics note that most contributors to the presidential inaugural committee and the private parties are well-connected political donors.
''This really is pay to play,'' Craig Holman of the watchdog group Public Citizen said of gala financing.
Bart Hudson, executive director at Florida House, says the same companies that keep Florida House running are contributing to the inaugural event -- allowing Floridians to party together.
''There's not a penny of tax dollars spent,'' Hudson said. ``All of us have a right to celebrate, and this is an opportunity for Floridians to do so among fellow Floridians.''
CLOSER TO HOME
Floridians who can't make the trip north have alternatives. The Miami-Dade Democratic Party is hosting a party at the Rusty Pelican on the Rickenbacker Causeway and Broward Democrats have hired a band to entertain at the Deicke Auditorium in Plantation.
''A lot of people can't go, but they want to be part of it,'' said Mitch Ceasar, the Broward party chair.
State Sen. Frederica Wilson, an Obama elector, has seats for the inauguration. But she isn't yet sure which ball she's going to attend -- she has a number of invitations. The Miami Democrat famed for her fabulous hats already has a dress. Gold. And hat to match, natch.
''We're going to be standing in Washington watching an African-American man installed as president, and we'll be watching him in front of a building that was constructed with slave labor,'' Wilson said. ``I can't think of any place more important to be than in Washington on that day.''