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Capitol dressed to nines for ball

Inaugural tradition precedes hard budget work

OLYMPIA – Thursday, state lawmakers will resume their pick-and-shovel work with the state budget, trying to find the least painful ways to bridge a $6 billion budget shortfall.

But first, some tapenade with smoked tomato crostini.

In a tradition dating to the mid-1800s, thousands of gown- and tuxedo-clad revelers will flock to the Capitol tonight for Gov. Chris Gregoire’s second inaugural ball.

Three ice-carving companies have been called in for the occasion, along with hundreds of volunteers to serve up a long list of hors d’oeuvres, including Moroccan lamb tagine, crab mousse, grass-fed beef carpaccio and tartlets. Shellfish companies are offering up raw geoduck and four types of oysters. A Yakima Valley company made a wine especially for the ball.

“It’s lots of beautiful gowns and men in tuxes,” said Lisa Cosmillo, a volunteer spokeswoman for the ball. “It’s really just a beautiful event.”

Asked about the contrast between the spectacle and the reality of the state’s budget crisis – which includes looming layoffs, cuts to health care and a leaner social safety net – organizers note that the $225,000 event is paid for by corporate donations and the $100-a-person tickets.

“It’s not something that is in any way paid for by taxpayer dollars,” Cosmillo said, “so it’s not anything that we felt obligated to cancel …  The ball goes on, no matter what.”

The ball’s roots date to 1853, when Olympia residents organized a welcome dinner at a local hotel for newly arrived territorial Gov. Isaac Stevens. In the 1930s, the balls were held at a local American Legion hall, and later, at a National Guard armory, hotels and a college. Since 1985, the balls have been held at the state Capitol.

Not all lawmakers attend.

“I don’t look good in a tuxedo, and my wife isn’t interested in going,” said Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville. He’s only been to one inaugural ball, for former Gov. Mike Lowry.

Said Schoesler, the Senate Republican floor leader, “Twenty-eight years of Democratic governors is not really our cause for celebration.”

In a nod to the nation’s recession, Gregoire asked participants to donate to local food banks. “These are tough times and our challenges are many,” the governor wrote in the official program. “But in partnership with all of you, and in a spirit of hope, determination and generosity, we will emerge stronger than ever. Tonight, let’s celebrate. Let’s celebrate how far we’ve come, and our bright future ahead in One Washington.”

“There’s never been any thoughts of canceling it,” said ball President Dan Neuhauser. “It went on during the Great Depression. We’ve got a lot of tradition to go forth with it.”

Besides, he said, canceling the popular event would leave many people unhappy. “It’s always sort of a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t sort of deal,” he said. “You catch it either way.”

Richard Roesler can be reached at (360) 664-2598 or by e-mail at