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Utahns attending — and absent from — Obama's big day

Published January 22, 2013 7:57 am

Politics • All three GOP House members skip the inauguration; but Orrin Hatch shows up decked out in cowboy hat.
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Washington • All three of Utah's Republican House members skipped Monday's inauguration, preferring to spend time with family back home.

Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee and Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson did represent the state on the inaugural stage for the festivities that were largely ceremonial but historically important.

In his defense for missing the big event, Rep. Jason Chaffetz noted the legal inauguration took place on Sunday, the day prescribed in the Constitution.

"I elected to skip the party and hoopla and not attend Monday's event," he wrote on Facebook. "I honor the Office of the President of the United States, but my presence is not needed."

Freshman Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, was flying to Washington during the morning gathering, which drew hundreds of thousands of people. And Rep. Rob Bishop's staff said he also missed the event.

A second try • Utah Democratic activist Weston Clark staked out his spot on the Capitol lawn by 5 a.m., a full six hours before the festivities began.

"I didn't want to have happen this year what happened last time," said Weston, the former chairman of the Salt Lake County Democrats. "I wanted to be here as early as possible."

In 2009, Weston was one of the thousands of people who got stuck in security lines and missed the moment when Obama became the first black president of the United States. The crowd surged forward when Obama began to speak and he worried that the masses might try to overtake the security stations.

"You could just feel a collective devastation," he said. "That was frustrating."

He eventually found a spot on the Mall to hear the tail end of his first inaugural address and still calls that 2009 trip "an amazing experience."

It also strengthened his resolve to see Obama's second inauguration, even if he did have to wake up early.

Sarah Waters, a Bountiful resident who made it through security at the 2009 inauguration, also perhaps overcompensated just in case she faced similar crowds, getting up at 3 a.m. and arriving at the Capitol before the gates opened at 5:30 a.m.

"We learned our lesson from last time," she said. "You could definitely say that."

Switching hats • Sen. Orrin Hatch was spotted wearing a bright white Stetson "Stallion" cowboy hat before and during the inauguration ceremony, while outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was pictured in a baseball cap featuring the Interior Department logo. Perhaps Hatch was filling in for Salazar, a former Colorado senator who wore his trademark white cowboy hat at Obama's 2009 inauguration and many public appearances.

Four years ago • Then-Sen. Bob Bennett got a prime speaking spot at Obama's first inauguration, introducing then-Associate Justice John Paul Stevens to give the oath to incoming Vice President Joe Biden. This time, Sen. Lamar Alexander offered a similar speech to Bennett's, talking about the peaceful way America elects and installs its leaders.

"We do this in a peaceful, orderly way," the Tennessee Republican said. "There is no mob, no coup, no insurrection. This is a moment when millions stop and watch."

Utahns up close • The jobs of three Utah natives brought them within yards of the president as he addressed the mammoth crowd.

Jason Arballo, 25, is a member of the U.S. Coast Guard's honor guard and as such helped escort guests to their seats. A native of American Fork, he agreed that not many people in his hometown are Obama fans, but says he is politically neutral.

"Whoever it is is my boss. You got to support him," he said. Arballo's wife Holly and his four-month old daughter Charlee watched comfortably from their temporary home in Arlington, Va., where he often participates in military funerals.

Staff Sgt. Brian Rust, from Vernal, is a spokesman for the United States Marine Band and was "thrilled to be a part" of the American tradition, while his colleagues played patriotic tunes just below the presidential podium.

The Public Health Service's Slade Flitton, of Cottonwood Heights, was stationed close to the podium to assist anyone with a medical condition.

Students on the Mall • Sabey Lefler, a 17-year-old senior at Logan High School who traveled to Washington to perform with her school choir, said she doesn't follow politics much but was struck by the exuberant, patriotic crowd.

"Just to see so many people in one place supporting the country whether they were for or against Obama, was a special thing to me," she said, adding it was amazing "to see everyone just loving America."

Lefler was one of 133 students from the Cache Valley school who pounced on a National Mall spot just 15 minutes before police shut the gates. A first time visitor to Washington, Lefler was decked out in five layers of clothes to face the bitter cold weather and woke up in the pre-dawn hours to reach her group's unticketed spot.

"Looking back, I'd say it was worth it," she said.

Logan High Band Director Chris Rasmussen said, he too, was emotional about witnessing history, especially with the backdrop of the Capitol and various marbled buildings.

"What a majestic place to see what just happened," Rasmussen said.

Sam Johnson, 21, was part of the 30 choir students from Salt Lake Community College who came to D.C. to participate in an inaugural music festival and attend the president's swearing in.

"This trip has been very good for me because it combines my majors and my two passions, music and political science," he said.

Johnson is a Democratic activist and he estimated that about 10 of the SLCC group were Obama supporters. He said the students stood about a half mile from the inaugural stage, watching the event from large video screens on either side of the National Mall. Johnson described the crowd as happy and hopeful, though it was hard to hear the president speak.

"I'm going to end up re-reading it," he said.






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