Donors big and small headed to Washington for inaugurationby Brett Neely, Minnesota Public Radio
WASHINGTON — When President Barack Obama's second inauguration begins Monday, as many as 800,000 people are expected gather on the National Mall.
Among them will be some of the president's biggest campaign contributors, and Minnesotans of modest means. They include Sheri Smith and her husband Doug, who are traveling from St. Paul just for the inauguration.
The Smiths, who worked as volunteers for the president's re-election campaign, gave what money they could, but Sheri Smith said it wasn't a lot.
The payoff, she said, will come when the president is sworn in for a second term.
"We got Barack Obama re-elected," she said. "It's really important to celebrate."
The couple also came to the nation's capitol for the president's first inauguration four years ago. Doug Smith's family is from the Washington area, so they have a free place to stay.
Plane tickets also weren't a problem.
When one of the airlines came out with an email with a good price, we grabbed it," Sheri Smith said.
But not everyone coming to the festivities is doing so on a budget. Dulles International Airport is reserving one of its runways for private jets flying in for the event. Hotels are offering pricey packages that run into the thousands of dollars.
On the Inaugural Committee's website, a page lists special packages for donors willing to give as much as a $1 million. Those donors receive special perks, such as front row tickets to the Inaugural Parade and special access to the events.
Unlike in 2009, corporations can donate unlimited amounts. Planners of this year's inauguration hope to raise $50 million from those donors — but the inaugural committee is coming up short, according to some media reports.
The emphasis on fundraising disappoints Bob Edgar, president of the group Common Cause, which lobbies for less money in politics.
"This would have been a great opportunity for the president to simply affirm that average, ordinary citizens are the ones that should be given access," Edgar said.
The Inaugural Committee is not required to release any information on contributions until 60 days after the inauguration. The committee has released the names of some of its donors, but not how much they've given.
Several Minnesotans who were active in Obama's presidential campaign are on the list. They include philanthropist Alida Messinger, who backed the liberal group Alliance for a Better Minnesota, which helped the DFL recapture control of the state Legislature last year.
Minneapolis lawyer Stacey Mills Heins is also on the list. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, she and her husband Sam Heins helped Obama raise at least $500,000.
Neither Messinger nor Heins responded to interview requests.
When asked whether she was concerned about the influence of big donors, Sheri Smith was clearly torn.
"You know, I try not to think about that," she said.
Smith said she didn't want to resent Obama, who she thinks is a great president.
Edgar, of Common Cause, said he's mostly concerned about corporate donations from firms such as Microsoft and Genentech, because those companies will surely have dealings with the second Obama administration. As for wealthy donors like Heins and Messinger who can raise large amounts through their network of friends, Edgar is less worried.
"The bundlers have already bought access," he said. "They bought access in the current, legal funding of campaigns."
Ultimately, the issue of how the inauguration is paid for is secondary for ardent Obama supporters like Sheri Smith.
"He won because of the grassroots and I feel like part of the grassroots," she said. "I'm going to go there and celebrate that average people had their voice heard and that we won."
Having already been to one inauguration, she learned an important lesson about how to survive the long lines and large crowds: this time, she's bringing a stool so she won't have to stand for hours.