The surprises, the notable guests, and the rules …
By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
President Obama might not have been present at our community dinner honoring U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary and Mona Locke in Seattle’s Chinatown. But his fingerprints were all over the place.
The June 20 event was a reflection of Obama’s governing style. Held at the House of Hong Restaurant, even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was consulted at one point during the preparation process to resolve a small crisis.
You would think that a community event would not need to involve someone from Obama’s cabinet. However, it did because we weren’t honoring just anyone. We were honoring someone who is tenth in line to succeed the president.
A publisher like me honoring Locke can arouse suspicions. The White House is cautious with the media because Obama and his administration are constantly being scrutinized. The media can demonize a decent story and the Internet could spin anything out of control.
To prevent such instances, the Department of Commerce (DOC) staff, appointed by Obama, established a parameter of ethics principles for our planning committee, which was made up of seven community members.
Never mind that I have already planned many of Locke’s celebrations. By now, you’d think people would know that I have a lot of experience in organizing events. In all fairness, it wasn’t just me. Anyone who proposes to put on an event for Locke has to go through the same process. The Wing Luke Asian Museum, for example, gave Locke a reception on May 31.
At first, I was a bit frustrated with Obama’s restrictions. However, as the event planning proceeded, I was surprised to find that Obama’s guidelines did not stifle us. They actually helped us thrive. Here’s how.
When Locke completed his second term as governor of Washington state, his donors list had more than a thousand people on it.
So why weren’t all of Locke’s supporters invited?
Why wasn’t the event held at an upscale downtown venue so that it didn’t have to turn people away?
Before I answer those questions, it is important to understand Obama’s sensitivity toward corporate and special political interest groups.
Many congressmen have been accused of being “over friendly” with lobbyists. He does not want anyone to be able to buy access to high government officials such as Locke.
The first rule for throwing an event like this is that no fund raising is allowed. It is written in DOC code of ethics that “lobbyists and lobbying organizations should not host or organize the event.”
Our event had no secret agenda. Our goal was to highlight Locke’s appointment and bid the Locke family farewell in a heartwarming manner. It was also important to honor his wife Mona, who had done a superior job as the first lady of Washington state, as the founder of the Early Learning Center, and as the executive director of Susan G. Komen Foundation.
Another limitation we faced was that the gala had to be organized without the Locke family. The Lockes were not to provide us with a mailing list. More importantly, they could not be considered hosts.
One planning committee member thought he was clever when he said he knew who had Locke’s list. Another member immediately cut him short She argued that it would be unethical to use that list. She was right.
Without the Locke family’s input, we had to search for all the potential attendees on our own. Without a corporate sponsorship, using an expensive facility was out of the question. Without a guest list, the committee simply could not fill a thousand-person venue in less than two months of planning.
Obama favors little guys
At Locke’s gala, there were quite a few hidden dragons who asked to be placed close to the Lockes. When we could not grant them their wish, they appeared insulted. In Obama’s eyes, they were categorized as “corporate.” It would be a nightmare if the public incorrectly thought that the Lockes were rubbing shoulders with “corporate” executives. If only they knew the position we were in.
Everyone had to pay the same amount for the ticket: $45 in advance and $50 for latecomers to cover the expense of the dinner. Even Lockes’ family had to pay.
This reminded me of how Obama raised funds during his campaign last year. Remember the small donations of $5 or $10 that he asked for in presidential contributions rather than requesting a lump sum sponsored by a few big corporations or special interest groups?
In the past, some VIPs often asked for complimentary seats. With Obama’s mandate, we denied such privileges.
A recent Asian community event had as many as 70 people who didn’t pay for their tickets, creating a deficit for the organization. For us to be able to collect fees from all of our guests is an accomplishment, one community leader said.
To ensure that there was no corporate influence, only personal and nonprofit organizations’ names were printed on the program.
No lobbyists or corporate officials were invited to speak on stage. We managed to fill the restaurant without consulting the Lockes during the planning process.
Everyone was allowed to bring his or her own camera. If he or she waited in line, all guests were entitled to a full-color program, Locke’s autograph, and a handshake from Locke.
It saved a lot of time and energy to not have to find rich sponsors, which is good for us because many sponsors are cutting back on their spending.
Instead, we focused our time in seeking out those who really wanted to participate and celebrate the Lockes’ achievements.
No gifts please
One guest asked what gift the Lockes would receive at the gala.
“Nothing,” I responded. Any gifts would be inappropriate. Not even a plaque.
In 2004, I organized an appreciation dinner for Locke when he ended his governorship. More than $150,000 was raised so that we could endow a scholarship in his name at the University of Washington, as well as additional funds for scholarships for Washington State University and foster children. That was then.
This time, any expensive gifts would break Obama’s rules. The challenge was to find the right gift from the heart that was inexpensive.
We lucked out. Mike Kreiger came to the Northwest Asian Weekly office one day to interview me for his class project. Gary Locke’s name came up when I asked Kreiger what his story was about.
Kreiger told me that he’s a recipient of Gov. Gary Locke Scholarship Promise and was grateful for the scholarship. I thought that Kreiger would be the perfect person to write a thank-you letter to present to Locke.
We would give the same gift to Mona, a thank-you letter from a cancer survivor, who she met and worked with at the Susan G. Komen Foundation.
Our definition of community turned out to be quite different from Obama’s interpretation. Seattle’s consul generals are frequent participants in community events. In fact, Consul General of Japan Mitsunori Namba holds community events in his residence almost every week.
Locke is in the area of commerce. It seems logical to invite consul generals whose countries have strong trade relationships with the U.S. like Japan, South Korea, China, and Taiwan.
We consider these people to be members of the community, though I didn’t expected both the Chinese and Taiwan officials to respond yes to the invitation. The Chinese Deputy Consul General Lu Wenxiang from San Francisco flew in to attend the event.
Director General of Taipei Economic and Cultural Affairs Daniel Liao is stationed in Seattle and is a regular at community functions.
Acording to Obama’s officials, having these officials under one roof raises red flags. They must have thought I was either crazy or naïve. The U.S. government does not have diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
Inviting Chinese and Taiwan officials posed a diplomatic issue for the DOC, which was a crisis for us.
Upon learning the situation, they consulted the State Department and the Secretary of State. We never planned for this to go all the way to Secretary Clinton.
Past experiences have shown that when Chinese and Taiwan officials are together in one room, it results in rivalry and bitterness.
The White House also views the consul generals as diplomats. Protocols must be followed when diplomats are present. They can also be classified as political groups because they are from foreign countries.
The State Department sent me recommendations to ease the crisis. No diplomats were allowed to sit with the Lockes at the head table. I arranged each consul general to sit at a different table with different community leaders.
None of the guests were aware of the drama that the organizers had gone through. In the end, Chinese and Taiwan officials greeted each other with courtesy.
They even shook hands. Despite our initial fears, it was a historical event for Seattle’s Chinese community.
The evening went smoothly because we treated the consul generals with respect. It was crucial that no one lost face. We informed both the Chinese and Taiwan officials that the other party was coming and about their seating arrangement.
Everyone was being introduced according to the U.S. Government protocol. No diplomat was part of the program. There were no surprises for these officials.
Other political elements
Our past events always introduced candidates running for office. However, we did not do so at Locke’s dinner. There were nine political candidates in the room in addition to 10 elected officials.
In accordance with Obama’s interests, we explained our situation to them prior to the dinner, and none of them campaigned.
A couple of them waited to have photos with Locke, but they were reminded that they could not use it for political campaign purposes.
Some restaurants really wanted to host Locke’s dinner. We picked the House of Hong because it was the site where Locke hosted many of his earlier fundraising events as a legislator. On the night of the gala, it came full circle for Locke, who said goodbye to his fans in the same place that he started his career 28 years ago.
Fortune cookies are a wonderful way to celebrate events. Officials from the Tsue Chong Noodle Company said they were willing to donate the cookies if we provided them with the fortunes. So we created 10 different fortunes at the dinner and decorated them with funny labels. They had fortunes such as “Congratulations to Gary Locke, the gateway to $$$ for America.”
My son advised me not to write this article. He asked, “What if Obama penalizes you in the future?”
If that happens, Obama is not the man I thought he was. He should really thank me. This behind-the-scenes peek at Locke’s event actually explains the ethical standards of his administration.
I am not afraid of the consequences, if there are any. I’m only telling the truth. ♦
Assunta Ng can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.