Jill Q. Citizen does D.C. — A local Democrat’s diary of the inauguration

Guest Contributor

Editor’s Note: Denver Democrat Halisi Vinson attended President Barack Obama’s inaugural ceremony and many of the festivities surrounding the event along with her husband, Ricardo Crawley, and chronicled the historic occasion for The Colorado Statesman. A delegate to the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, she is the assistant secretary of the Denver Democratic Party and is the only announced candidate for secretary at next month’s reorg. She is one of the owners of A New Dawn, a local media and marketing company.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — When vapor and heat are drawn up towards the center of storm clouds, that saturated air is temporarily removed from the space below the clouds as it accumulates and spills up and over the clouds. This process compresses the air, making the air below warmer and drier — this is the calm before the storm.
And so it was in Washington, D.C., on Friday, three days before the second inauguration ceremony of President Barack Obama.

The crowd gathers on the Capitol lawn on the morning of President Barack Obama’s second inauguration on Jan. 21 in Washington.
Photo by Halisi Vinson

We were excited and on our way to pick up our inaugural tickets from Congresswoman Diana DeGette’s office then make our way to Union Station to catch a 10:45 bus to Manhattan. If you’ve ever traveled downtown D.C. by Metrorail, then you know it’s a bit more confusing than Denver’s light rail system. First of all, there is a different fee for each stop, so you must know exactly where you’re going, which we did not. Thankfully, there was an attendant to help us with the purchase and tell us where to go: “Federal something or other.” A glance at the map told us it was either Federal station or Federal Triangle. We got off at Federal Triangle but quickly found out we should’ve gotten off at Federal station.

Colorado Democratic Party chairman Rick Palacio and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar catch up at a reception on inaugural weekend Jan. 20 in Washington.
Photo by Halisi Vinson

Exiting the Federal Triangle stop, we were overwhelmed by the impressive columned structures that surrounded us, by the sense of gravitas. Straight ahead was the Herbert C. Hoover building and on either side were the Robert F. Ken-nedy Department of Justice, the Internal Revenue Service and the Environmental Protection Agency. The Federal Triangle includes the corners of Constitution Avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue, and 15th Street. I wanted to take a moment to study the architecture and read the informational plaques, but we were running late and couldn’t dawdle.

U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette and former U.S. Rep. Betsy Markey enjoy a reception for Coloradans on the day before President Barack Obama’s second inauguration on Jan. 20 at a Washington home.
Photo by Halisi Vinson

It was either $4 to ride the train back two stops to get to DeGette’s office, or twice that for a cab ride to save precious time. We chose the latter. We hoofed it down Pennsylvania Avenue, away from the White House and towards the Capitol building, pulling luggage and cameras and trying to find a cab, but it seemed every cab was taken. Finally, after 10 minutes of walking and lugging we found an empty cab and $12 later we were disrobing for the guards at The Rayburn House Office Building, named after Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn.

Colorado Democratic Party vice chair Beverly Ryken and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock talk on Jan. 20 at a reception on inaugural weekend in Washington.
Photo by Halisi Vinson

We studied the directory to see which office housed DeGette. Racing around the H-shaped building, we finally found the right office number, only to discover that office didn’t belong to DeGette, it belonged to Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. The nice aide in his office offered us a chocolate chip cookie and let us know (I’m sure the first of many times that day), that DeGette’s office had moved and is now on the opposite side of the building. The sprint had become a marathon — the Rayburn building spans over two million square feet!

Naquetta Ricks and Timothy Tribbett are among the guests at a reception for Coloradans on inaugural weekend held Jan. 20 in Washington.
Photo by Halisi Vinson

When we finally made it to the right office, perspiration glistening on our foreheads, we were graciously greeted by Sara and Trish, who offered us coffee, donuts, and a look at DeGette’s office. The inaugural packets weren’t quite ready. I glanced at my watch, smiled politely, and followed Trish into the congresswoman’s office. DeGette wasn’t there, but it was exciting to see where the needs of CD 1 and the nation began to take the form of potential legislation. Five minutes later we were handed inaugural ceremony tickets but no inaugural ball tickets. It’s not that I expected ball tickets, but a girl can hope. I asked Sara if she knew of any way that I might get inaugural ball tickets and I swear I saw her stifle a laugh. Even though I’m just Jill Q. Citizen, I figured I would ask anyone and everyone if they knew a way that I could get my hands on a couple of tickets.

State Rep. Angela Williams, D-Denver, former Denver City Council President Elbra Wedgeworth and April Washington celebrate President Barack Obama’s second inauguration at a reception on Jan. 20 in Washington.
Photo by Halisi Vinson

We had 20 minutes to make it to Union Station — so we gritted our teeth and forked over another $12 to go the four blocks. Comfortably ensconced in our seats, we embarked on our way to a day-long jaunt in New York. Behind us, the calm was holding, for now.

The next evening, when we returned to D.C., the calm was clearly dissipating. We were on the Metrorail and the cars were crowded with tuxedoed and gowned passengers on their way to an evening of formal fun. I spoke to a few of the passengers, asking if they had any idea how to get tickets to the official inaugural ball. No one laughed, but we quickly learned that everyone was trying to find tickets.

Inaugural weekend was much like the Democratic National Convention — late nights and early mornings. On Sunday morning we attended a VIP brunch hosted by the Colorado Democratic Party, Cathy Carlson and Tom Galloway. By this time we felt we had mastered the Metro system and navigating D.C. proper. We confidently hopped on the train, made the appropriate transfers and arrived at the correct stop with no delays. My iPhone’s navigation informed me that the house was one-quarter mile from the rail station. Blue jeans were the official attire for the brunch, so we were well prepared to make the quarter-mile hike, or so we thought.

We turned off the main boulevard and into the residential area, so far so good. Then I looked at the addresses. We were at 2900 and the address was in the 2400s. The further we travelled from the main boulevard the larger the lots got and the slower the house numbers seemed to descend. By the time we reached the 2700 block we were in a wooded hilly area that reminded me of the hills of Beverly Hills. Grand columned and some modern houses were set two lots back from the street; surrounded by fully matured trees, manicured lawns and tended gardens. Moms with jogging strollers and bikers in full riding regalia passed us as we trekked, in full civilian clothing, down the winding road.

Thirty minutes, and two bunions later, we arrived at a beautiful turn-of-the-century stone house. We were greeted with mimosas and Alec Garnett, executive director of the Colorado Democratic Party. The house was amazing without being ostentatious, with pearl white furniture surrounded by chunky farmhouse end tables. Gleaming old wood floors mirrored the exposed wooden beams overhead. Smiling, energetic faces set the tone for a few hours of spirited conversation.

The party was not only to celebrate President Obama’s inauguration but also to thank Interior Secretary Ken Salazar for a job well done. The invitation was not hyperbole, this was indeed a VIP party. We were able to personally thank Congresswoman DeGette for the inaugural tickets. I learned that former Congresswoman Betsy Markey has been working with Homeland Security and we had a lengthy conversation with Senator Michael Bennet and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock. By the time Secretary Salazar arrived, I wasn’t feeling much like Jill Q. Citizen. I started asking my fellow guests if they knew where I could obtain a couple of tickets to the inaugural ball. Yes, some did laugh but most just looked at me with pity and shook their heads.

The three-hour brunch felt more like thirty minutes and before we knew it, the crowd was thinning. Some were going to other events and some were going home to prepare for one of the night’s many unofficial balls. We had a ball to attend but first we wanted to go to U Street and try the famous Ben’s Chili Bowl, frequented by Hollywood legends from Duke Ellington to Bill Cosby. That could be why Jill Q. Citizen did not get to sample the delicacy. When we arrived the line to get in the restaurant was literally around the block. We settled for another unknown eatery then hustled home to primp for our ball. That night, we attended the Jack and Jill Ball, thrown by the stalwart African-American service organization, in nearby Silver Spring, Maryland. The sold-out semi-formal gala featured a separate ball for children and the dancing went on into the night.

Monday morning, the day of the inauguration, arrived quickly. We popped up at 5:30 a.m. with three hours of sleep and groggily put on our layers for a chilly four-hour wait to hear the president. The Metrorail was packed. We weren’t the only ones trying to get the best vantage point and by the time we got to our stop it was so crowded that the conductor refused to stop and made us exit at the next stop.

It was a 20-minute walk past our stop and the storm was in full force. Swarms of eager citizens moved in groups in the streets, on the sidewalks and anywhere else that would allow passage. The energy was at a fever pitch and smiles were abundant.

We finally made it to the entrance and were greeted by a long ticket line to pass security. Liquids were not allowed into the area and electronics had to be turned on and operated to prove that they were indeed what they appeared to be. The line moved surprisingly fast and we made or way to the front of the Capitol building. The lawn was already filled but we found an elevated spot as near the center as we could get. Time passed quickly, as we were entertained by a man in a tree with an anti-abortion sign who was not only yelling out anti-abortion slogans but also assured everyone that “Obama is the Antichrist.” Every so often he would climb a bit higher and try a branch that was too frail to hold his weight. We gasped as the branch broke and he slipped a bit before finding secure footing.

By the time the ceremony began we figured the Man in the Tree had grown hoarse, because we hadn’t heard from him in awhile. The police had surrounded the tree and made several failed attempts to extract him. The Man in the Tree wasn’t the only rude soul with a green ticket. As the ceremony progressed, spectators tried to crowd into our space, but we held firm. Soon, we were cheering for the first family, Dr. Biden, Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor and others who support our president. We made sure Newt Gingrich and Paul Ryan were booed accordingly.

Finally, after much fanfare — and numbed toes — our president arrived to rousing applause, cheers, chants. The Man in the Tree wasted no time injecting his commentary to the president’s speech. One of the first sentences uttered by President Obama was, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” The Man in the Tree counted with, “How about life and liberty for the unborn baby?” And so it continued throughout the entire speech.

The crowd, however, was enthralled with this historical moment, with the powerful words of one of the most eloquent speakers in modern history, and with the energy of the storm which was sweeping the crowd. The Man in the Tree quickly faded into the background as we listened to the vision of equality for all, protection for the vulnerable, and the ideals that America always espouses but doesn’t always live up to. Some cheered and some cried but there was a sense that all held tight to the belief that we could achieve this vision if only we would work hard and persevere.

After Kelly Clarkson (who supported Mitt Romney) and Beyoncé Knowles (who supported Obama) sang and the benediction was complete, the storm passed. Filled with renewed hope, we gathered our belongings and made our way to the exit. Our president turned and looked at his supporters, more than a million who braved the cold and paid the price to witness history. I was overwhelmed as I realized this is the last time that a first African American president will be sworn in to office.

After all, I didn’t get any inaugural ball tickets — I’m just Jill Q. Citizen. But I left downtown Washington with the realization that I love my country and will work hard to restore and maintain the values of our Constitution, reminded by the president what this political process is really all about.