With the right connections, their view of history is better

Staff WriterJanuary 21, 2009 

— How do you get front-row seats to history?

Several people with North Carolina ties found their way to the steps of the U.S. Capitol for President Barack Obama's inauguration Tuesday.

The only people with better seats were members of Congress, former vice presidents and other dignitaries on the platform.

For Lenai Butterfield, the connection was family.

The Raleigh resident's father is U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a Wilson Democrat who was the first member of North Carolina's delegation to back Obama.

Butterfield sat with her father; her mother, state Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield; state Rep. Annie Mobley of Ahoskie and former state Rep. Linda Coleman of Knightdale.

"I think it's great to be here," she said. "It's a momentous occasion."

Dan Levitan is a Democratic donor.

A venture capitalist from Seattle, he graduated from Duke University in 1979 and still goes back for basketball games. He's also a regular at Coach Mike Krzyzewski's four-day "fantasy camps" each summer.

Tuesday wasn't the closest he's come to Obama, either.

Levitan spoke briefly with Obama during a private fundraiser shortly before Oregon's primary. He asked Obama how his assistant, former Duke player Reggie Love, felt about shooting hoops with the UNC-Chapel Hill team before the North Carolina primary.

"Reggie told me he can't believe that they played at UNC," he said, "and Barack told me he doesn't understand why Reggie's still upset about it."

Levitan and his wife got tickets from another major donor. Campaign-finance records show the couple gave more than $24,000 to Democratic candidates last year.

Sometimes it pays to be a celebrity -- or at least related to one.

Dannett Bassett of Charlotte came to the inauguration with her older sister, actress Angela Bassett.

Still, Bassett, 48, an employee of US Airways, wasn't sure until the last minute that her sister had scored tickets from California Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

"I'm overjoyed," she said.

A few rows away, Pauletta Pearson Washington sat with her three children and her husband, actor Denzel Washington.

Pauletta Washington, who grew up in Newton in Catawba County, said her grandparents, John and Kate Smallwood, worked at the White House as a butler and a chef during the Truman administration.

She has visited the White House a number of times.

"But never have I felt as excited about it as I do today, standing here and seeing the flags," she said. "How proud I am to be an American. How proud I am."

A distant connection paid off for Soraya Kaloudis.

An employee of Bank of America in Charlotte, Kaloudis never thought she would go to a presidential inauguration. "I've never been politically involved in any way, but when my niece said she had tickets, I couldn't turn it down," she said.

At Monday's Arab-American inaugural ball, her niece, Mariam Al-Shawaf, told her just how good the seats were.

Al-Shawaf's roommate, who works for Feinstein, sent her an e-mail a year ago offering tickets. Now, she said she finally has one on her aunt.

"She shows us up every year with the best Christmas presents, and my mom is always like, 'Man, I'm not as creative as my sister,'" she said. "This time, we totally trumped her. We win for life now."

ryan.teague.beckwith@newsobserver.com or 919-812-4955

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