Thousands of Californians making the pilgrimage East for inauguration

January 17, 2009 

WASHINGTON -- Jeremiah Williams is a realist. The Modesto cabinet store owner knows what to expect amid the upcoming inaugural pomp and circumstance: "Just getting from point A to point B will be a chore," Williams said.

But this is a good problem for the 44-year-old Williams and thousands of other Californians like him now swarming the nation's capital for Barack Obama's presidential swearing-in.

Change is coming, perhaps, but gridlock is arriving for sure.

"Our kids are excited, they can't wait," said Kim Hodges, who's leading a contingent of 37 students, two teachers and three parents from Fresno's San Joaquin Memorial High School, "but I don't know if they really understand the magnitude of this." Magnitude meaning living history, of course, as Obama becomes the nation's first African-American president. Magnitude meaning, as well, crowds expected to swell well beyond 1 million, with all that entails. Endless lines. Jammed Metro trains. Five thousand port-a-potties, twice as many as 2005 but still, some fear, insufficient to the task.

House members each were provided 198 free tickets to distribute as they saw fit. Senators were given 393. Ticket demand trumped partisanship. Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, provided tickets to Democrat T.J. Cox, who ran against him in 2006. San Joaquin Valley congressional office staffers say they know of many other people arriving sans tickets, hoping for the best.

"It's going to be a zoo," said Andrew House, spokesman for Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia.

Yes. Yes it will be. And it is beginning right now, often with a distinctly California flavor.

Some inaugural celebrators began arriving several days ago, like former Modesto City Councilman Balvino Irizarry and his wife. They are staying with relatives in Alexandria, Va., across the Potomac River from Washington. Fresno resident Christine Dunton and her 14-year-old son Josh likewise arrived Wednesday, their inaugural tickets provided by Radanovich carrying special meaning.

Josh is not well. The Rio Vista Middle School student has already endured nine heart surgeries, including three open-heart procedures, during one of which, he suffered a stroke. The doctors, Christine Dunton said, did not expect him to live this long.

"This is one place I wanted him to see before he died," Dunton said Friday. "That sounds terrible, but that's how we have lived our lives." Many others are arriving today or Sunday. The word pilgrimage comes to mind. Hodges and her group, for instance, were scheduled to board charter buses in Fresno at 4:45 a.m. Saturday, for the ride to San Francisco airport.

The pre-partying starts now. Tonight, in the magnificently marbled Library of Congress, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein is hosting a reception for several hundred visiting Californians. Feinstein is also chairwoman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, so the reception is just one of several parties she is responsible for.

"She wanted to do something special for the people who have come to town," said Feinstein spokesman Gil Duran.

Then, on Sunday, some 750 guests, lobbyists and Golden State politicians will be attending a sold-out inaugural fashion show sponsored by the California State Society and the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. Corporate sponsors like Exxon and Pacific Gas and Electric are paying up to $50,000 for a group of tables, where the sartorially disparate likes of former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and current Modesto Mayor Jim Ridenour are expected to attend.

"A lot of the men wouldn't miss it," said Norine Fuller, executive director of the fashion institute's Washington office.

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearingin will be in town for the inauguration and a mayoral meeting, but the fashion show is not currently on her itinerary.

At least some post-fashion show celebrants will roll out the door of the Ritz Carlton Hotel and, later that night, find themselves at the California Democratic Party's sold-out "Fly Me to the Moon" bash at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum. Smaller parties of more regional focus will convene Monday, when many San Joaquin Valley residents will swing by Capitol Hill offices to pick up their inaugural tickets.

Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, for instance, will be hosting some of the more politically experienced Californians at his suburban Maryland home, in an afternoon reception honoring in part Darrell Steinberg, the president pro tem of the California state Senate.

At just about the same time Monday, Hodges and three of her students will be helping lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery. For Tuesday, she is still figuring out exactly what to do with the two tickets she has to cover her entire group.

"I'm still not sure if I'm going to use them," Hodges said.

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