- Associated Press - Sunday, January 20, 2013

WASHINGTON (AP) - For all the talk about fewer celebrities making it to Washington this time for the inauguration, you would have had a hard time not bumping into one _ literally _ at a packed downtown restaurant Sunday evening.

Munching on traditional Russian food at the “night before” dinner party thrown by the Creative Coalition, a high-profile arts advocacy group with an emphasis on arts education, were Paula Abdul, David Arquette, Tim Daly, Alfre Woodard, Giancarlo Esposito, John Leguizamo, Taraji P. Henson, Lynn Whitfield, Melissa Leo, Richard Kind, Marlon Wayans and others _ even Newman from “Seinfeld,” Wayne Knight.

As they sampled beef stroganoff, blini with salmon roe, pickled vegetables and vodka infused with flavors like horseradish, pineapple and honey, many guests discussed how excited they were to be in Washington for President Barack Obama’s second inauguration.

“It’s my first time _ because I wasn’t invited last year,” quipped film actor Leguizamo. “So I’m really thrilled.”

An ardent supporter of Barack Obama, Leguizamo said he was also thrilled that the president won re-election. “I wasn’t sure it would happen,” he said. “There was that first debate, and then Romney’s numbers went up, and it was terrifying. But now the president has the chance to do so many things, and he’s going to do them: gun control, raising taxes on the rich, regulating Wall Street.”

Like other guests, Leguizamo said he had a particular interest in keeping the arts alive for young people _ “the arts saved me,” he said _ a key mission of the Creative Coalition, a non-partisan group that held major fundraisers at both conventions over the summer.

The group’s president, actor Tim Daly, said the goal is “to get people in positions of power to start recognizing the importance of the arts _ particularly arts education.” He said the president was a promoter of the arts, “but we want him to use his bully pulpit more.”

Most of the 200 people packed into the Mari Vanna eatery seemed to be planning to attend the president’s swearing-in Monday, no matter the weather. “I was here four years ago and it was an exhilarating experience,” said Esposito, of the new series “Revolution.” “I have mixed-race children, so we had the feeling that the world was changing not just for us, but for them.”

This year, he said, it’s natural that there’s a different feeling. “There’s only one first,” he said, referring to the historic nature of the 2009 inauguration, with the swearing-in of the first black president. “But we can’t fall into complacency. We can’t lose hope.” He joked that he still supported Obama even though “I’m in his tax-bracket target, and I have four kids!”

The dinner was just the beginning of the festivities. The coalition is hosting a ball on Monday night, featuring even more celebrities and a performance by the Goo Goo Dolls.

“Hollywood is the greatest messenger,” said the coalition’s CEO, Robin Bronk. “We’re harnessing the power of celebrity here.”

But before the ball, Leguizamo had to worry about Monday’s weather. He said he hadn’t heard of, or prepared for, the expected lowering of temperatures in the capital.

“Yikes, I only have, like, this suit,” he said. “I’m gonna have to wear a lot of extra T-shirts.”