Valerie Jarrett with daughter Laura on election day, Nov. 4, 2008. Photo by Lynn Sweet
By Lynn Sweet
Sun-Times Washington Bureau Chief
WASHINGTON — Friday night, President-elect Barack Obama and wife Michelle headed toward Chicago’s Gold Coast to attend a birthday party for Valerie Jarrett hosted by another pal, Desiree Rogers. Earlier in the day, she got her gift: In Obama’s White House, Jarrett will be a senior adviser and assistant to the president for intergovernment relations and public liaison.
Jarrett, who turned 52 Friday, gets a portfolio that will allow her to advise the Obamas while overseeing the administration’s relations with other elected officials, traditional interest groups and the “movement” that Obama nurtured during his presidential campaign and wants to keep alive during his tenure.
In tapping Jarrett — the official announcement came Saturday — Obama keeps in the West Wing a close personal friend who played a key role in his presidential campaign and his quick political rise from the Illinois Senate to the presidency in just four years. Currently one of three Obama transition co-chairs, Jarrett will join Rep. Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s incoming chief of staff, and David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist expected to become part of the administration, in making 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. a “Chicago White House.”
While Jarrett’s national profile has skyrocketed because of her association with Obama’s presidential campaign, Chicagoans have known her for years because she is one of the best-connected people in the city, a fixture in the city’s elite corporate, civic and social life. She is an early-morning regular at the East Bank Club.
Jarrett, once a summer tour guide at the Museum of Science and Industry while a kid, is now a trustee on the museum board. Once a clinic coordinator (a clerk) at the University of Chicago Medical Center — another summer job — Jarrett is now the chairwoman of the University of Chicago Medical Center Board of Trustees.
During the campaign, in which she frequently traveled with Obama on his plane, Jarrett continued as president and chief executive officer of the Habitat Co., one of Chicago’s largest real estate firms.
Jarrett played a hybrid role in the campaign: She was one of Obama’s South Side pals, along with Marty Nesbitt and Eric Whitaker, who cheered him up and kept him loose and lunched with him before a debate; she was also a member of the inner campaign circle, a troubleshooter without portfolio, trusted by Barack and Michelle. She was also the highest ranking female and African American in the Obama campaign, a roaming firefighter dousing political flames around the country.
She enters the White House battle tested as a veteran of eight years in Chicago’s City Hall, most under Mayor Daley, rising to planning and development commissioner. Between October 1995 and August 2003, she was chairwoman of the CTA. As a survivor of Chicago’s brutal political culture — Jarrett has had her share of personal clashes — Obama’s “no drama” campaign operation, even with its obvious higher and more significant stakes, may have seemed sedate.
“Valerie cut her teeth on policy and politics at City Hall,” said Paula Wolff, a friend and colleague on a variety of boards, who lives down the street from the Obamas’ Kenwood home and the house where Jarrett spent much of her youth and where her parents, Barbara and James Bowman, still live.
Jarrett has her own unusual biography. Divorced, her former father-in-law is the late Vernon Jarrett, who was a venerated Chicago Sun-Times columnist, one of the few highly visible African Americans in the Chicago media establishment. Jarrett’s daughter, Laura, 23, is a Harvard Law School student.
Jarrett was born in Shirz, Iran and lived there until the ago of 5; her father, a physician, was working with U.S. and Iranian doctors. After a year in London after Iran, the Bowmans settled in Chicago, where on her mother’s side, she has a storied pedigree. Jarrett’s grandfather, Robert Taylor, was a pioneering Chicago Housing Authority chairman for whom the infamous high-rise projects were later named
In Chicago, Jarrett attended the U. of C. Lab School — where the Obama daughters go now, transferring to the Northfield-Mount Hermon prep school in Massachusetts for the last two years of high school. From there, Jarrett attended Standford University, earning a law degree from the University of Michigan.
For three years, between 1981 and 1984, she was an associate at Ballard, Shepard and Pole Ltd., moving on to a real estate practice at Sonnenschein, Carlin, Nath and Rosenthal.
But Jarrett “wasn’t happy with private practice,” Judd Miner recalled Friday, “. . . and she wanted to get involved in the Washington administration.” The corporation counsel under the late Mayor Harold Washington, Miner recruited Jarrett to the city’s Law Department.
A few years later, back in private practice, Miner would make another recruiting coup: a young Harvard Law School graduate named Barack Obama. And over at City Hall, Jarrett, Daley’s deputy chief of staff, would hire another lawyer fleeing corporate life, Michelle Robinson, Obama’s then-fiancee.