As Biden raises funds for virtual grand opening, lobbyists brace for scaled-down schmooze-fest

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But not this year.

With the coronavirus pandemic sweeping across the country, President-elect Joe Biden and congressional inauguration planners have closed most traditional access routes. Instead of receiving the typical 200,000 tickets to share with voters eager to see Biden sworn in on the Western Front of the U.S. Capitol, members of Congress will receive tickets for themselves and a single guest.

And Washington lobbyists are struggling to adjust to the new reality.

“Usually with openings everyone is fighting to get a ticket,” said Dan Turton, a veteran lobbyist. “The tickets become a certification of your worth in this city: do you have tickets? What is the quality of the tickets? Are they in the first row? Did you get the ticket for the hot ball? “

Across the nation’s capital, just as a new administration and Congress were taking hold, corporate lobbyists, trade associations and other influential industry players have had to give up the usual tools of their trade. .
The Associated General Contractors of America, for example, typically holds an open house at its Capitol Hill townhouse on the day of the opening, said Jimmy Christianson, who oversees government relations for the industry group of construction.

But these days, the group is connecting its members to lawmakers in virtual gatherings.

Resize

Even before a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Biden’s inaugural committee was working to keep crowds in Washington to a minimum to prevent the virus from spreading. The post-inaugural parade that typically draws crowds down Pennsylvania Avenue to see the newly installed CEO and an array of high school marching bands, veteran groups and others celebrating the transfer of power.

It will be replaced by a televised virtual parade featuring performances from across the country – much like the online programming of the Democratic National Convention last summer.

Formal balls are also over. President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama flew among 10 official balls in 2009; President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump attended three meetings in 2017 after taking the oath.

But despite the cut, Biden’s inaugural committee still strives to raise big money to secure its online programming, accepting donations of up to $ 500,000 from individuals and $ 1 million from businesses. The committee refused to release a budget.

But a number of companies have already pledged their support.

Airline manufacturing giant Boeing plans to donate $ 1 million, reflecting the scale of the contributions it made to Trump’s festivities and those that honored Obama in 2013 (Obama did not accept corporate contributions for his first investiture in 2009.)

“We are doing the same thing that we have done in all areas over the years… to support this American celebration,” Gordon Johndroe, vice president of global media relations at Boeing recently told CNN. No other Boeing executive is expected to participate in events “like we’ve done in the past,” given the smaller scale of the inauguration, he added.

Bank of America, which contributed to the inaugural Trump and Obama committees, is also expected to donate to Biden’s committee, company spokesman Bill Halldin said.

Global market

Other donors include Barbra Streisand, Microsoft, telecommunications giant Comcast and Missouri-based health insurer Centene Management Company, according to a list of contributors released by the committee on Saturday night. The list of over 950 donors includes the names and source states of donors who have contributed more than $ 200, but does not disclose their employers or the amount of their donations.

Under federal law, the nonprofit inaugural committee does not have to reveal fundraising details until 90 days after the event, and the law places no limit on the size of inaugural donations. . Biden, however, has capped their size and banned direct contributions from federal lobbyists, the fossil fuel industry, and those registered to represent foreign governments.

The committee offers a menu of benefits to attract donors and has held at least two calls with members of Washington’s circles of influence to encourage attendance, including one Tuesday.

These benefits include invitations to virtual events with President-elect and new Vice-President Kamala Harris and their spouses, as well as “Preferred Viewing for Virtual Inauguration” and VIP access to a virtual concert.

A Washington insider, who is in contact with officials of the inaugural committee, said the virtual offerings should not sway many potential donors. “Even if it’s only 30 or 40 people on the call, you’ll be a thumbnail on Zoom,” the person said. “It doesn’t earn you much. ”

Bigger donor packages also include VIP tickets to a future in-person event, according to a fundraising document sent to potential sponsors.

The promise of a face-to-face future will be a “key selling point” for those who want to get downstairs with the new administration, said Chris Vest, a key spokesperson for the American Society of Association Executives, which has approximately 48,000 members across the country.

“It is above all … to have the opportunity to establish a fundamental link with the administration,” he said.

Lobbyists say there remains a bright spot for an industry left out of the traditional inaugural schmooze-fest: Biden and the dozens of Washington veterans preparing to return to government in his administration are well known to the influential world from Washington.

“Of course, people prefer casual encounters at a party. It’s so much better than brewing a “Zoom” drink, said a Washington-area company official. “But a representative from Washington – if he has done his job right – already knows most of these people. ”

On many levels, the pandemic has made “the strong stronger and the weak weaker,” said a lobbyist for a Top 20 lobbying firm. “And people who don’t yet have relationships with people ( de Biden) will be weaker. They will be denied the unique opportunity over the several days around the grand opening to establish, or in some cases, reaffirm connections. ”

Virtual world

Still, other lobbyists interviewed in recent days say Biden’s virtual approach fits the moment.

Turton, who said he actually enjoys the mad rush for tickets, praised Biden for turning the grand opening into an event “millions of Americans could experience.”

And Jonathan Adelstein, president and CEO of the Wireless Infrastructure Association, said Biden’s decision to host a national memorial on January 19 to remember and honor the life cut short by Covid-19 will give the country a moment ” late “to” reflect on the profound loss we have all experienced. ”

Adelstein said he hoped the tone and accessible format of Biden’s inauguration “would bring a divided country together.”

The pandemic has also changed the unofficial lunches, receptions and parties that usually accompany the installation of a new president.

The Creative Coalition, for example, holds a celebrity ball every four years at an arts center in downtown Washington to raise funds for its efforts to promote the arts. Sting, Elvis Costello, and the Goo Goo Dolls all performed for the new administration and lawmakers.

But this month, the coalition’s event will go virtual. Famous guests include Keegan-Michael Key, Alyssa Milano and Ellen Burstyn. Participants in its online gathering will receive home cooked dinners and exchange virtual “tables” between each class, said Robin Bronk, CEO of the coalition.

“I love the table talk at our events,” Bronk said of the in-person galas. “There is a lot of business there. ”

But, she argued, virtual gatherings also have distinct advantages.

“You have these much more intimate moments; people don’t come and distract you, ”she says. “The media don’t take pictures of you eating. And business cards don’t get lost in your tuxedo pocket because you forgot to take them out. ”

This story has been updated with additional information.

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