For Californians, even the parties are about politics

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 18, 2009 

WASHINGTON -- The presidential inaugural fashion show is so completely happening early Sunday afternoon, and inquiring minds want to know: Modesto Mayor Jim Ridenour, who are you wearing?

Ridenour, a crew-cut Republican and squared-away former paramedic, looks puzzled.

“You have to look inside your coat,” the mayor’s wife, Renee, counsels.

Ridenour opens the gray coat, and finds the label. Versini.

“That’s what I’m wearing,” Ridenour says, pointing.

Then California Attorney General Jerry Brown shows up for a chat. Brown jokingly chastises a reporter who asks him who he’s wearing. This may be the California State Society’s Presidential Inaugural Luncheon and Fashion Show but, Brown says, surely there is something more substantive to write about as well.

Perhaps. But in the celebratory spirit surrounding Barack Obama's inauguration, policy substance and political maneuvering co-exist with partying that can range from stately to the slightly mad cap. Cards get swapped at parties. Relationships are formed. Courtesies are traded: it's work.

There is the inaugural ball itself, of course. This year, California is tossed in with 12 other Western states plus Guam for a regional ball held at the fortress-like Washington Convention Center. Jennifer Lopez's husband, Marc Anthony -- a “Latin singing sensation,” according to the Presidential Inaugural Committee – is billed as the entertainment. Inaugural veterans, burned by experience, know such official balls often disappoint.

But with one ticket-selling Web site identifying at least 58 different inaugural balls and galas scheduled between Saturday and Tuesday, in addition to many more unique gatherings, the party-hearty should find something to their liking. Some are tailored for specific demographics – the “Hey, America Feels Cool Again Inaugural Gala” at a nightspot called the 9:30 Club – and others target specific states.

"Well, hello California," Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein called out Sunday afternoon. "It's great to have you here."

A busy bee, Feinstein on Saturday night had thrown open the Great Hall of the Library of Congress for a reception welcoming lawmakers and Golden State visitors. Hundreds squeezed into the marbled room. The people-watching was decent, if not quite Hollywood caliber.

There were rumors that actress Sharon Stone might show. Billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad and Supreme Court associate justice and San Francisco native Stephen Breyer circulated. Around Feinstein herself, schmoozing-gridlock eventually developed.

And, say, isn't that Jordan's Queen Noor over there?

Some of the same celebrants joined Feinstein about 16 hours later, at the California fashion show co-sponsored by the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. Some 750 guests attended, sipping E&J Gallo chardonnay and taking in a show that was not limited to the willowy models on the runway.

"A good time is had by all," said D.C.-based lobbyist Paul Sweet, whose clients include San Joaquin County.

Lobbyists were omnipresent Sunday. It was their party, too. The financial underwriters of the lunch and fashion show included the Painters and Allied Trades International Union -- billed as a "platinum presidential debut sponsor" – as well as Kaiser Permanente, Safeway and PG&E, among others.

Joe Findaro, whose clients include the giant Westlands Water District, was offering introductions to Sacramento-based attorney Darcie L. Houck. Houck’s clients include the Me-Wuk Indians of Tuolumne County and the Chukchansi Indians of Fresno County. Findaro then disappeared into the crowd for a minute, and returned accompanied by Portugal’s ambassador to the United States, Joao de Vallera.

"California is very important," de Vallera said, when asked why he was attending. "There is a big Portuguese constituency."

He cited Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno; one of three Portuguese-American members of the House from the San Joaquin Valley and, as it happens, is vice-chairman of the California State Society. Costa gave the invocation Sunday.

"I thought I’d begin first by praying for my state to have a budget," Costa said, "but I’m not sure divine intervention would help."

Political subtext was never far below the surface; everyone was in on the jokes. When Feinstein introduced Jerry Brown, she described him as "attorney general and who knows?" The rhetorical question invoked Brown's potential gubernatorial bid in 2010. Other potential candidates, too, worked the room, including San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Elsewhere in D.C., lieutenant governor and declared 2010 gubernatorial candidate John Garamendi was keeping busy. It just went to show that one president’s inauguration doesn’t end the political strivings of others; if anything, the opposite is true.

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