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DeSantis inauguration planned to give donors special treatment. They got long lines, few seats

Miami Herald logo Miami Herald 1/5/2023 Mary Ellen Klas, Lawrence Mower, Miami Herald

Riding high on a wave of national attention, Gov. Ron DeSantis proclaimed to a crowd of about 250 people at a candlelight dinner for donors Monday night that his swearing-in ceremony was “the most requested ticket” of any inauguration in state history.

By Tuesday, they believed it. Organizers sold more tickets than there were seats for the swearing-in, leaving numerous people — including the CEO of Publix and the future speaker of the Florida House — without a place to sit.

At the inaugural ball hours later, ticket holders waited in long lines to show a photo ID and pass through a security check-in. The ball’s VIP section was elbow-to-elbow and photos with the governor and first lady were cut short before everyone could have their picture taken.

Event organizers said the crowds were a testament to the popularity of the governor, whose national stature as a prospective GOP presidential candidate has generated widespread excitement.

“The ball was heavily attended. Monday night was beautiful, and everything was top-notch without a doubt,” said Jeff Hartley, of governmental relations firm Smith, Bryan & Myers, and one of four co-chairpersons of the inaugural events. “But there was a demand for the seating for the swearing-in.”

Hartley estimated that the crowd at the ball was nearly the same size as the 3,000 people who attended the inaugural ceremony. He said guests were told there was no reserved seating at either event and it was first-come, first-served.

But the treatment of the VIPs also left egos bruised as high-worth individuals, many of whom paid between $25,000 and $1 million for sponsorship packages that included seats to the VIP section for the swearing-in ceremony and tickets to the inaugural ball.

Unlike four years ago, when the inaugural events were announced a month in advance, plans for this year’s events weren’t announced to the public until Tuesday morning. Also, unlike previous governors’ inaugurations, reporters were only allowed to attend the swearing-in, in front of the steps of the Historic Capitol, and details about who was invited and how much was raised were not disclosed to the public.

When a Herald/Times reporter arrived at the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center to talk to DeSantis supporters in the parking lot as they waited to enter the inaugural ball that was being held inside, event organizers ordered them off the public property. They said they had rented the entire space, and reporters were not allowed. Police officers let them stay briefly.

Attendees, however, did not hold their tongues. Those relegated to the overflow space for the swearing-in ceremony jokingly referred to it as the “mosh pit.”

By Thursday, guests were still chattering about how the CEO of Publix, Todd Jones, a major sponsor of the inauguration, was forced to stand in the back of the grandstand for the inaugural ceremony. (The company did not respond to a request for comment.) Legislative leaders such as Rep. Daniel Perez, R-Miami, Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Melbourne, and lobbyists, like Ron Book (who was another inauguration sponsor), were also seen scrambling to find seats for the 30-minute event.

Sources described the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center as beautifully decorated, with careful attention to providing quality food and alcohol. But while they commended the organizers for their attention to those details, they lamented the lack of attention to logistics. However, as is common with anyone close to the media-averse governor, no one would speak on the record.

“They were so angry,” said one guest and sponsor. “I can’t imagine spending that money and not having a place to sit.”

Inaugural co-chairperson Brian Ballard, a lobbyist who has led or helped lead four previous inauguration ceremonies for Florida governors, acknowledged they may have oversold the event but noted that no inauguration in recent history has had such demand.

“Ron DeSantis is uniquely situated in American politics, where he gets presidential-level demand,” he said. Ballard said he didn’t receive complaints from attendees but some people showed up late and couldn’t get a seat.

“I’m not disputing that there were some hiccups, like there are in any of these types of events,” he said. “There are physical limitations. Sometimes photo lines get too unwieldy.”

The organizers would not disclose how much was raised for the Republican Party of Florida, which can direct funds to a future presidential campaign if DeSantis decides to run. The governor raised an unprecedented $203 million for his reelection campaign and, Ballard said, “is a fundraising machine.”

According to pictures provided to the Times/Herald by one guest, attendees were handed a program that featured three pages listing the inaugural sponsors, details that both the Republican Party of Florida and the Team DeSantis campaign have refused to release to the public.

The sponsor list includes co-chairpersons Hartley and Ballard, Nick Iarossi of Capital City Consulting and Bill Rubin of Rubin, Turnbull & Associates. Other prominent sponsors included Florida Power & Light, the Seminole Tribe of Florida, Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Brodie, and Craig Mateer, an Orlando entrepreneur and a member of the state Board of Governors.

Some of the state’s largest businesses — from law firms and lobbying associations whose clients have obtained some of the largest contracts in state government, to tobacco companies, healthcare providers, retailers, auto dealers and insurance companies — also were listed as sponsors.

Like other inaugurals balls, VIP guests were ushered into a side room after they arrived, where they waited in line for a photo in front of a U.S. flag and Florida flag with the governor and first lady Casey DeSantis. Attendees were prohibited from using their cellphones as they waited in line. And although the line moved quickly, it was not fast enough to get through the hundreds in line, sources said.

The British tabloid, the Daily Mail, posted a positive review of the inaugural ball but noted that some people complained that they saw too little of the governor and first lady, who were introduced briefly and then danced on stage to Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon” as guests watched. One attendee reportedly called the crowded room a “fire hazard.”

VIP sponsors were handed a “commemorative inaugural gift package”: a ribbon-wrapped box with a gold coaster, a spiral notebook, a hand towel and a lapel pin all stamped with the words: “The Free State of Florida” and “Gov. Ron DeSantis Inauguration 2023.” The box also included a blue ball cap with an American flag.

Both Ballard and Hartley commended the governor’s campaign staff, who worked with the Republican Party of Florida to organize the event.

“It was a small crew and they did it all themselves,” Hartley said. “They did an unbelievable job of pulling this together over the holidays.”

Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau reporters Romy Ellenbogen and Ana Ceballos contributed to this report.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com and @MaryEllenKlas

©2023 Miami Herald. Visit miamiherald.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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