Tricky Call for New Governors: Price of Their Inaugurals
To warm up the Florida crowds for his inauguration as governor, Rick Scott has been flying around the state this week on a seven-city “appreciation” tour. For the main event on Tuesday, he will lead a parade featuring 26 marching bands, followed by a black-tie dinner for 2,100 people, with oysters Rockefeller and fried calamari served in mini-martini glasses. “Real classy,” said Christy Noftz, who is overseeing the catering.
After their election night victory speeches, the nation’s 26 new governors have had to wrestle with a symbolically rich decision that could set the tone for their time in office: how big a party to give for themselves.
It is always a tricky call. Penny-pinching can convey pessimism and impotence. Lavish celebrations may telegraph triumphalism and insensitivity in these budget-crunched times (“Out of touch,” groused a Democratic Party official in Florida about Mr. Scott’s inaugural plans. “Inexcusable,” grumbled one local editorial.)
But after an election rife with messages about voter anger and mistrust, the risks of an off-key bash are higher this inauguration season, and the governors-elect have starkly different answers to the question of how much party to put into party politics.
Or several parties, in some cases. In Nevada, Brian Sandoval, a Republican, will host back-to-back $1,000-a-head V.I.P. receptions, one of them at the Wynn Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip.
In Oklahoma, Mary Fallin, also a Republican, has organized two “preinaugural balls,” not to be confused with the inaugural ball itself, which will be held later at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.
Others are embracing conspicuous frugality. In New York, Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, is having a small preinauguration dinner for close friends at the governor’s mansion, and has parceled out so few invitations to his no-frills swearing-in ceremony that even some top aides have not made the cut.
Jerry Brown of California has issued guidelines: no paid entertainment (a school choir will sing) and a rent-free evening reception (in a state-owned building). To highlight his thrift, Mr. Brown, a Democrat, plans to stop at a cookout after he takes the oath to snack on hot dogs and chips.
The extremes seem to reflect the uncertain economic times: shoppers may have returned to their prerecession ways during the holidays, but state budget deficits are ballooning, and there are persistent mutterings about the deep repair work that is needed to fix the economy.
What is certain is that the new chief executives and their staffs, no matter the party, are carefully considering the optics of opulence.
“They are pros who understand what a high-stakes gamble it is,” said Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin who has written extensively about political transitions.
“It’s awkward because it’s self-promotion. Whatever you do, somebody will think it’s insufficient, or too much. So you want to alienate the fewest and capture the attention and respect of the most.”
Not everyone succeeds. Take two of Florida’s governors. In 1995, Lawton Chiles shot off a homemade potato gun during his inaugural, grazing a car. Twelve years later, Charlie Christ refused to sing the state’s official song, “Old Folks at Home,” citing the racially insensitive lyrics. Some Floridians found it disrespectful.
This year, some incoming governors say they are being sensitive to the financial plight of their constituents. In New York, which recently slashed $40 billion from its budget, “people are disillusioned and disappointed,” Mr. Cuomo said in an interview.
As his staff sat down to plan a celebration, the governor-elect said he told them there was nothing to celebrate. “No balls, no concerts, no parades — no fanfare,” he said. “I think it would be discordant to the feeling of the body politic.”
Mark Dayton, the Democratic governor-elect in Minnesota, said he considered canceling his party, which is scheduled for Jan. 8. Instead, he has authorized a “Blue Jeans to Black Tie” ball with a loose dress code and a flexible ticket price. He plans to show up in jeans and an old hockey jersey.
Then there is Mr. Scott in Florida, whose multiday, multicity inauguration has become known wryly in political circles here as the “coronation.”
Preparations began shortly after Election Day with a prodigious fund-raising drive. Mr. Scott, a wealthy former health-care executive who dug into his own pocket to finance his campaign, received donations of $25,000 each from dozens of major state employers like Disney, Office Depot and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida, collecting nearly $3 million.
Good-government groups complained about potential conflicts of interest. (A spokeswoman for Mr. Scott said that in return for the donations companies would receive “nothing more than a series of events honoring and celebrating the people of this state.”)
Eyebrows rose anew when Mr. Scott, relying on the donated use of private planes, took his inauguration on the road. He started in the north on Monday, hitting Jacksonville, and made his way south to Miami by Wednesday.
That night, in the Little Havana neighborhood, Mr. Scott treated a largely Cuban-American crowd to giant platters of roasted pig, brown rice and boiled yucca. A procession of local politicians introduced and reintroduced Mr. Scott, extolling his financial acumen and management skills.
On Tuesday, for his official inauguration, Mr. Scott will hold a two-hour prayer breakfast with no fewer than 10 speakers; an afternoon concert featuring the country singers Lee Greenwood and Rockie Lynne; and a parade befitting Disney World’s home state.
Mr. Scott’s aides published the packed schedule on what amounted to almost 10 single-spaced pages on his Web site. Among the highlights: a rendering of the stage being built for Mr. Scott’s inaugural ball.
Democrats, especially, detected hypocrisy, and pounced. Mr. Scott, after all, campaigned on a platform of fiscal restraint and small government. Businessmen like himself, he declared shortly after the election, “accept austerity as the price for dramatic turnarounds.”
Pressed about the scale of the festivities, Mr. Scott said: “It absolutely is fitting for these times. We need to celebrate how we are going to change this state.”
As criticism mounted, his aides began pushing back. They produced data that suggested the inauguration would generate millions of dollars in economic activity, and they vowed that after covering the costs of the festivities, they would donate any money left over to a nonprofit group that aids wounded military veterans.
Most of the events, they said, are free to the public. Tickets to the ball, however, start at $95. Which may explain that elaborate spread of food, like a “Fresh Florida Gulf Display” that will include grilled Key West shrimp with a Florida avocado dipping sauce.
Why not limit the menu to hamburgers and hot dogs? The caterer said the menu was in sync with the tenor of the evening. “It’s a high-dollar ticket,” she said. Besides, a budget buffet “wouldn’t be very attractive.”