One after another, they stepped into the oversized costume. The cloak and crown were a perfect match all around, but the glittery pantsuit smothered nearly everyone it touched, which is a mighty task for a roomful of Louisiana men raised on butter-laced etouffe and heavenly tasso dishes. Each tried with enough determination to draw Excalibur from its stone, but practically all failed to fill the king's special suit. That is, until New Orleans Congressman F. Edward Hebert slipped on the bulky garment and, by dumb luck and virtual default, became the first king of the Washington Mardi Gras Ball in 1944.
It was a simple affair compared to the modern-day blowout that stretches over three jam-packed days of luncheons, conferences, meetings, parties, ceremony and networking. The 2007 fete was held this past weekend (Thursday through Saturday) and was attended by more than 3,000 people, about 90 percent of whom traveled from Louisiana.
And why not? All of the attendees received full access to the state's most powerful -- and soon-to-be-powerful -- politicians. Many organizations and companies actually dedicate portions of their marketing or outreach budgets to attending the bash.
The ball is considered one of the hottest D.C. networking events and, in classic Louisiana fashion, provides a working example of how lawmakers and lobbyists can dodge those pesky gift rules. (The event enjoys an exception from the ethics code). A swinging party shares the tableau with rounds of intense politicking, complete with fresh seafood from the Gulf of Mexico and other bayou treats produced by the state's most talented chefs. Zydeco and jazz are staples of the event, as are miniature floats and original throws at Saturday's parade and ball -- all held indoors at the Washington Hilton Hotel, which boasts the Potomac's largest ballroom.
For a few days on the Hill, people from outside Louisiana get it, while the locals just grin and look for their next introduction.
Members of Louisiana's congressional delegation take turns chairing the ball. Cajun giants like Sen. John Breaux and Rep. Billy Tauzin -- both now high-powered lobbyists -- built their personas and careers in part via the Washington Mardi Gras, which is an invitation-only affair. Unlike Mardi Gras in New Orleans, where social standing and ancestry dictate who rules the Carnival roost, the Washington Mardi Gras is a celebration of power, influence and, of course, money.
This year, Sen. David Vitter of Metairie is chairing the ball for the first time. Because of Congress' heavy workload these days, he has recruited his wife, staffers and other volunteers to help carry the load. "It's been a fair amount of work," Vitter says. "More than I ever expected."
The twisted sisters of 2005 -- Katrina and Rita -- did little to help Vitter's role as the new chair. The storms killed at least 1,800 people and uprooted entire communities. People were still wrapping their minds around the devastation when last year's ball rolled around, and a political celebration couldn't be justified. The event was canceled.
But this is an election year in Louisiana, and you can't keep a good thing down, says Vitter. Once the news was leaked that the party was back on -- just in time for the 50th anniversary -- tickets sold out before the end of 2006. "This is the strongest demand we've seen as a krewe, and it is a solid statement that people are ready for this," Vitter says. "I think it is the surest evidence that the time is right."
Vitter chose "There's No Place Like Home" as the theme and commissioned an artist to depict the cast from Oz in masks and krewe costumes. The image is emblazoned on posters and other swag and depicts the group huddling on a yellow brick road between Capitol Hill and the State Capitol.
There is also a charitable side to Washington Mardi Gras this year. The krewe is pushing for donations to the Louisiana Emergency Mobile Units, or LEMU, a nonprofit based in Lafayette that provides medical care to underserved areas during a disaster.
It's a noble effort that addresses the needs of people who could never attend Washington Mardi Gras. Individual tickets for the various events and activities range from $175 to $700, and a corporate sponsorship of the annual "Louisiana Alive" party on Thursday night reportedly runs upwards of $6,000, according to the Washington Monthly. Mix in flight and hotel reservations and meals at some of Washington's better restaurants, and the total can grow by an additional $1,500 or more. Then again, price isn't an issue when you consider the opportunities to network, get close to power and push an agenda.
Of course, so-called gift rules purport to limit how much money corporate honchos and lobbyists can spend on lawmakers and their staffs, but Washington Mardi Gras enjoys a special exemption in the ethics code because it is considered a "widely attended" gathering that is rigidly structured.
Mary Boyle, a spokesperson for the accountability watchdog Common Cause, says it's a loophole that does nothing to serve the average taxpayer in Louisiana.
"The concern in general is these people are spending a lot of money to come up to D.C. and buy some access and influence and corner members of Congress," she says. "The underlying concern is Joe Q. Public probably cannot do that. The money is buying them access and I don't think it's a level playing field."
To be fair, anyone can book a room at the event hotel and spend as much time as he or she wants in the hotel bar, where most of the deals and rumors are hatched, without ever buying a ticket or seeking an invitation.
Representation for a voiceless issue is what sent Wendell Curole, head of the Louisiana Association of Levee Boards, trekking to Washington Mardi Gras several times. Curole has long been at the forefront of the move to link together coastal restoration, levee maintenance and hurricane protection under one umbrella. It's an issue he pushed with various Louisiana officials at past events, and he contends the strategy has helped build the credibility of his association and the cause.
Taking full advantage of Washington Mardi Gras requires a strategy -- so many parties, so little time. "As frivolous as some might think this to be, you can get to representatives, senators and aides and spend as much as 30 minutes with them," Curole says. "You can make all the contacts you need in a couple of nights, and they'll likely remember you when you come calling."
Jeremy Alford can be reached at email@example.com.