California Republicans celebrate Trump's inauguration: 'In L.A., you can't even put a bumper sticker on your car'

Shannon, a 48-year-old accountant from Encino, didn’t tell her co-workers she was traveling all the way across the country to get a great view of President Donald Trump’s swearing-in. She told them she was going skiing. 

“It’s a bucket list,” said Shannon, who didn’t want The Times to use her last name, lest she be outed. Standing amid throngs of like-minded people celebrating a Republican win, Shannon marveled at her freedom to be herself. “I can wear a Trump sweatshirt without getting hoots and hollers. In L.A., you can’t even put a bumper sticker on your car — it would be keyed in a second.”

For California Republicans, Trump’s improbable election was a rare taste of victory. The GOP has not won a statewide election in more than a decade. The party failed to field a viable candidate for the Senate in 2016, the first time a seat in the upper house had been vacant in nearly a quarter century. Voter registration for the party that gave birth to Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon appears to be at a historic low.

“Victories like this are few and far between and very sweet for us, much more so than someone from Texas who is used to winning all the time,” said Harmeet Dhillon, a Republican National Committee member from San Francisco who attended the swearing-in ceremony with her husband and parents. The ceremony was chilly and rainy, but that didn’t dampen the rally-like mood among the GOP faithful ready to have their moment.

“The last time I was able to celebrate an inauguration was when [former California Gov. Arnold] Schwarzenegger was inaugurated. That was many years ago, and now, it’s correct, we are certainly not used to winning victories at this level.”

The number of Californians who ventured to the nation’s capital for the festivities is unknown. Unlike the heyday under President Reagan — when the official California ball was the most coveted ticket in town and attended by Hollywood royalty — there is no longer a central gathering spot.

But this week, there were several events aimed at the state’s visitors. More than 140 Californians bought seated tickets for Thursday night’s All American Ball, the official ball of the Virginia GOP. The state’s well-heeled donors dined Thursday at the Lincoln Club of Northern California’s soiree at the exclusive Cosmos Club on Embassy Row.

Earlier Thursday, more than 600 Californians and expats living in Washington attended a lunch at the Ritz-Carlton featuring the state’s wines, produce and entertainers organized by the nonpartisan California State Society.

Members of Congress held receptions and dinners throughout the week. Orange County Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s formal ball at the Library of Congress was expected to be a popular post-inauguration fete on Saturday.

“It’s better. It’s nice to be amongst all friends,” said Cynthia Bryant of Elk Grove, the state GOP’s executive director, comparing the nation’s capital with her home state. “Everyone in D.C. right now is a Trump supporter. I find it exciting because there’s a lot of people getting along, celebrating the victory. It seems like such a happy time.”

Given the distance between California and Washington, it has also been an incredibly expensive time. Tickets to balls cost a couple hundred dollars, airfare cost several hundred more and basic hotels started in the high three-figures per night. Many Californians stayed in the capital for a few days to enjoy the sights in addition to the inaugural festivities, which usually require renting or buying ball gowns and tuxedos.

“It’s a lot of money,” said Celeste Greig, a longtime GOP activist from Northridge who shared a basic hotel room with two others for $700 a night near the White House. This was the fifth Republican inauguration the 69-year-old has attended. “This is my Christmas gift from me to me, my Mother’s Day gift from me to me and my birthday gift from me to me.”

“It’s history, it’s being part of history, and the fact that he was not supposed to be our nominee, the fact he was not supposed to win the November election, the fact that he is so hated by some people and loved by others — it’s history,” she said.

Trump was not Greig’s first choice; she preferred former Texas Gov. Rick Perry. She also liked Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. But once Trump became the nominee, Greig and her friend, Nancy Eisenhart of Woodland Hills, went all out volunteering for him. They traveled twice to Nevada on their own dime to try to sway voters in that battleground state.

“That’s when we saw America join us, and it was beautiful,” said Eisenhart, tearing up on the chilly grounds of the nation’s capital waiting for Trump’s swearing-in as she recalled the diverse group that supported Trump in Nevada, including minorities, the disabled and the elderly. Trump ultimately lost the state to Clinton by 2.4 percentage points.

Still, the retirees were not alone in bragging about the amount of energy volunteers in California expended on Trump’s behalf. Though both sides knew Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton would overwhelmingly win California’s election, Trump got nearly 4.5 million votes in the state, along with many volunteers who called or traveled to more competitive states on his behalf.

“In Sacramento, our call center made more phone calls than the Trump Tower. Not everyone realized that about California, what California did for the Trump campaign,” said West Walker, a middle school teacher from Stockton, as he watched a Trump celebration concert featuring Lee Greenwood, Toby Keith and 3 Doors Down on Thursday night.

“It’s nice to see common people with a common passion who are more about the United States as opposed to dividing the country,” Walker said, recalling that California Republicans were beaten during a Trump rally in San Jose before the state’s primary. “We weren’t the ones attacking other people. We’ve been victimized; we’ve been literally beaten up when we go to a rally to hear a Trump speech. People [in California] are afraid to come out and speak. So it’s nice to see people with a common passion.”

seema.mehta@latimes.com

For the latest on national and California politics, follow @LATSeema on Twitter.

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