In 2007 I invited Valerie Jarrett to the spring Gridiron Dinner in Washington. I knew her from Chicago politics and it seemed clear that she was destined to play a big role on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. I worried—good hostess that I am—that she might be at loose ends before the dinner. But when I checked in with her, she said not to fret, she was hanging out with a cousin.
The cousin turned out to be Ann Jordan, wife of Vernon Jordan, the civil rights leader, powerhouse lawyer, Democratic activist, and Iraq Study Group member, who served as chairman of the Clinton presidential transition team in 1992. Ann Dibble Jordan is a former Chicagoan with deep ties to the University of Chicago, where she is a trustee emeritus.
Like the Jordans, Jarrett is one of those people, back home in Chicago, linked to everyone important. She is part of an elite civic, social, business and political crowd whose lives criss-cross and often intersect at the University of Chicago, where Obama taught law between 1992 and his Senate election in 2004.
It’s from her mother that Jarrett gets her pedigree as a member of Chicago’s African-American royalty… President-elect Obama and Michelle are part of this network. But Jarrett was there first and they belong to it partly because of her.
President-elect Obama and Michelle are part of this network. But Jarrett was there first and they belong to it partly because of her.
Jarrett met Obama when she wanted to hire his then fiancé, Michelle Robinson, for a job in Mayor Daley’s City Hall. That story has now been much repeated: Michelle told Jarrett, then Daley’s deputy chief of staff, Obama would have to check her out first and Jarrett went to dinner with the couple.
Fast forward: Jarrett is one of three co-chairs of Obama’s presidential transition team. On Nov. 14, word came that Obama tapped Jarrett to be a senior advisor and assistant to the president for intergovernment relations and public liaison. Obama and Michelle topped that day by attending Jarrett’s 52nd birthday party at the Gold Coast home of Desiree Rogers. Rogers was tapped by the Obama's on Monday to be the new White House Social Secretary.
Jarrett’s story starts in Iran, born in Shiraz, the daughter of Americans, Barbara Taylor Bowman and James Edward Bowman. Her father, a doctor who specialized in genetics and pathology, helped found the first hospital in that city. When Jarrett was five, the Bowmans and their only child moved to England and a year later to Chicago. The Bowmans bought the home they still live in on South Greenwood Avenue in the Kenwood Historic District a block away from the Obama house.
Jarrett’s mother—Ann Jordan’s cousin—Barbara Bowman, with a degree from Sarah Lawrence and a master’s from the University of Chicago, is a well known expert in early childhood education who co-founded the internationally known Erikson Institute. Dr. Bowman, a professor emeritus at the U of C, was the first African-American to get tenure in the biological sciences division.
It’s from her mother that Jarrett gets her pedigree as a member of Chicago’s African-American royalty. Bowman’s dad was Robert Taylor—the first African-American to chair the Chicago Housing Authority. His name is familiar to generations of Chicagoans because one of the city’s notorious housing developments—now demolished—was named after him. Ironically, he quit the post in protest when the CHA balked at building low-income housing in white wards.
Jarrett’s great grandfather, architect Robert Robinson Taylor, was the first African-American to graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His father, Henry Taylor, the son of a white slave owner and black mother, was a businessman.
In the manner of privileged Hyde Park-Kenwood children from smart families, Jarrett went to the exclusive University of Chicago Lab School before transferring to her mother’s alma mater, Northfield Mt. Hermon, in western Massachusetts for the last two years of high school. From prep school it was on to Stanford, then a law degree from the University of Michigan.
Back in Chicago she joined the law firm Ballard, Shepard and Pole, Ltd., then moved on to a real estate practice at Sonnenschein, Carlin, Nath and Rosenthal. But the life of a corporate lawyer was not for her. “She just wasn’t happy,” said her friend and co-worker Susan Sher. “She wanted to do public service.”
Her timing couldn’t have been better. Harold Washington had become the city’s first African-American mayor and Jarrett wanted to be part of his administration. Judd Miner, then Washington’s Corporation Counsel, recruited Jarrett to the city’s law department. A few years later, after he’d returned to his law firm, Miner would make another hiring coup, recruiting the president of the Harvard Law Review, Barack Obama. Miner, in fact, was one of Obama’s earliest connections to an assortment of wealthy Jewish and African-American Chicago Democrats who would assist him at every stage of his political career.
After Harold Washington’s sudden death from a heart attack in 1987, Jarrett stayed on in City Hall, rising under Mayor Richard M. Daley to Deputy Chief of Staff, then Commissioner of Planning and Development. Her buddy, Susan Sher, became the Corporation Counsel; both of their kids went to the Lab School (where the Obama children were enrolled) and both served stints on the Lab School Board.
Jarrett’s daughter Laura was the product of her five-year marriage with Dr. William Jarrett, who died in 1988 a few years after they were divorced. Dr. Jarrett came from a well-known Chicago family: His father was Vernon Jarrett, the late, agenda-setting Chicago Sun-Times columnist.
Daley’s management style fostered conflict and Jarrett left City Hall in 1995 caught in some cross fire. As long-time Chicago Sun-Times City Hall reporter Fran Spielman wrote, “Daley denied that Jarrett had been forced out and sought to play down the pressure of developers who complained that projects languished too long in her department.”
She found the perfect place to land at Chicago’s Habitat Company, a real estate development firm chaired by Daniel Levin, cousin of two Michigan brothers in Congress: Sander Levin in the House, Carl Levin in the Senate.
Activist public affairs consultant with close ties to City Hall Marilyn Katz introduced Jarrett to Levin, and the granddaughter of Robert Taylor became executive vice-president of the company that was the court appointed receiver for the CHA’s scattered site housing. She would become Habitat president on Jan. 31, 2007.
Katz and Bettylu Saltzman would go on, a few years later, to organize the October 2002 rally at the Federal Plaza in the Loop where Obama made his now famous speech opposing the Iraq war. (Saltzman, a supporter of Obama from his start, is a Chicago doyenne, the daughter of the late real estate mogul Philip Klutznick, who was President Carter’s Secretary of Commerce.)
Daley wouldn’t let go of Jarrett, though. On the day she announced her departure from City Hall, Daley tapped her as the highly visible Chairman of the Chicago Transit Authority, which she served until 2003.
Jarrett’s close ties to the Daley camp continued as she became more involved in Obama’s political operation. Daley named her to Chicago’s 2016 Olympic Committee. She was finance chair for Obama’s 2004 senate campaign and treasurer of his HOPEFUND political action committee created in 2005. She joined the boards of the Museum of Science and Industry (she was a tour guide there as a kid), the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, USG Corporation, Navigant Consulting and RREEF America II. She chaired the Chicago Stock Exchange.
She was also deepening involvement with the University of Chicago, ground zero for so many of the interlocking relationships that would come together to help propel Obama to the White House. Jarrett joined the U of C Board in 2001 and became chair of the Medical Center Board in 2006. Michelle Obama, who started working at the U of C in 1996, moved over to the Medical Center in 2002, promoted to vice-president for community and external affairs in 2005.
What makes Jarrett unusual in the Obama world is that she is a friend and confidant of both Michelle and Barack. At first Jarrett had an informal campaign role, but then she stepped up her activity last September, formalizing her role as advisor and emissary to special interest groups and fund-raising surrogate.
When I saw Jarrett on Election Day, she seemed excited that her daughter, now 23 and a second year law student at Harvard, was at her side on the historic day. Jarrett and daughter flew on the Obama campaign plane for the short trip from Chicago’s Midway Airport to Indianapolis, where Obama did phone banking from a union hall. Back at Midway, I saw Obama’s Chicago pals deplane—the Jarrett women in sunglasses. Soon, Jarrett will be flying with Obama on Air Force One.
Lynn Sweet is the Chicago Sun-Times Washington Bureau Chief. Visit her blog.