Big Ticket Items

If they don't have their passes already, Bush supporters will have to be ready to reach deep into their pockets to gain entry to many inaugural events.

January 09, 2001|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Dean Bonney had big plans this inaugural. He and his wife were going to leave their infant daughter with a babysitter and hit the Texas Black Tie and Boots ball, the big-ticket event feting George W. Bush and his high-powered friends. But before Bonney could squeeze into his tux, he ran into a little problem.

"My wife felt like the election was stolen," he groused. "We had a pretty big argument. I sold the tickets - the hottest ticket in town."

After putting an ad in the paper to sell off his tickets, Bonney found himself in the middle of a bidding war. Yesterday morning, friends of Bush were calling Bonney's home in Arlington, Va., desperate for tickets to the bash - sponsored by the Texas State Society and featuring Clint Black, Tanya Tucker and truckloads of barbecue. Offers for Bonney's two seats, which he purchased for a total $250 as a member of the Texas State Society, opened at $1,700 and soon climbed. Finally, an Austin political operative nabbed them through a Washington friend for $2,500.

Around Baltimore these days, few tickets might be as precious as one to a Ravens playoff game, but the same cannot be said for the capital. Here, inaugural-ball, not football, is the rage. Whether through want-ads, on Internet auction sites or via a multitude of ticket brokers, political operators are snatching up seats to festivities for sky-high sums.

"I'm sure I could have sold them for more," said Bonney, a financial consultant who along with his wife voted for Vice President Al Gore. "I probably could have gotten really greedy. But that would have been very Republican."

In fact, one broker, Skip Pemper at Deluxe Tickets in Milwaukee, quoted $1,750 yesterday for a single ticket to the Black Tie and Boots ball. "That's the biggie of all biggies," said Pemper.

The mad scramble for tickets for a variety of events began as soon as details of the inaugural schedule were announced last week. Many outsiders face stiff competition for tickets through official channels, so they are switching strategies - combing want-ads and bombarding ticket holders.

"Our Web site crashed last Monday with 56,000 hits in a two-hour period," said Ricky Rae, special events director for Ticket Outlet Inc., a Washington ticket broker that offers seats online. "That's when we knew we had a Super Bowl here."

Anger on Capitol Hill

Ticket brokers are even auctioning off entry to public ceremonies that, while requiring tickets, nevertheless are free. Ticket Outlet is asking $2,000 for a great seat at the Jan. 20 swearing-in on the back steps of the Capitol and $400 for VIP seats along the parade route. Rae won't disclose where he gets his tickets. "Trade secret," he said. The fact that invited guests are selling their free tickets to these events has infuriated some on Capitol Hill.

"This is appalling," said Tamara Somerville, chief of staff of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies. "It's appalling that someone is profiteering on this public ceremony."

Last week, Nebraska Republican Rep. Lee Terry suspended his chief of staff without pay for two weeks and denied him his pay raise after learning that the aide had tried to auction two free tickets to the swearing-in on eBay.

The hype over the inaugural is leading to some questionable pricing. Ticket Outlet is selling seats to the Millennium Arts Center's "Artists' Inaugural Ball" for $350 each, even though the sponsor is offering tickets for as low as $35.

Most of the black-tie parties are sold out. Tickets to the eight official balls, sponsored by various state societies, have not been released yet, but brokers already are promising those spots.

Ticket brokers are mysterious about where they find their cache, although many tickets come from Democrats - members of state societies like the Bonneys who are uninterested in celebrating the new president. Lawmakers also receive a stash. While ethics rules bar them from re-selling, some staffers have been known to break the rules - and there is nothing stopping profiteering by private citizens who receive the 27,500 tickets from lawmakers.

Making good on deals

Ticket brokers consider their clients a relatively polished crowd.

"This is more of a sophisticated type crowd - an older, more politically active group than, say, our typical 'N Sync or Backstreet Boys client," Marc Matthews, spokesman for the Washington Area Ticket Brokers Association, said of the people calling brokers with tickets for sale. "You typically don't see anybody in a tuxedo or an evening gown trying to hawk a ticket on a street corner."

This year, brokers say, demand is intense. After all, a new cadre of Republican revelers is partying for the first time since 1989, when the elder Bush celebrated his inaugural. Brokers are even selling seats to nonofficial events that won't necessarily draw a Republican crowd, like the World Wrestling Federation "Smackdown Your Vote" ball Jan. 19.

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