Prominent Chicagoan Takes National Stage

Valerie Jarrett

Valerie Jarrett talks to Tell Me More at Wishbone restaurant in Chicago. Lee Hill, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Lee Hill, NPR

Valerie Jarrett is a big name in the Windy City. She's been involved in Chicago politics and civic life for years. And now she's a senior advisor to Barack Obama's campaign. Jarrett reflects on how she found her way to politics, and what a win for Obama could mean for her and the country.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. A Chicago mover and shaker, some people are good at grabbing the headlines, others are good at getting things done. Valerie Jarrett is part of that second group. She's been a key aide to three Chicago mayors, served as chairman of the board of the Chicago stock exchange, chairman of the Chicago transit authority, as co-chair of the committee trying to bring the 2016 Olympics to Chicago, and she is the CEO of a real estate development firm.

She is also in the spotlight as a close advisor to Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama. Valerie Jarrett was kind enough to join us at Wishbone. Thank you for stopping.

Ms. VALERIE JARRETT (Senior Advisor to Barack Obama): It's a pleasure. Welcome to Chicago, and welcome to one of my favorite restaurants in the city of Chicago. You obviously have very good taste.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. I've got to ask you, how did it happen that a nice lady from Hyde Park was born in Iran?

Ms. JARRETT: That's a very good story. My mother was there. We could start with that. My father is a physician, and he was over there in Shiraz, Iran working to help start a new hospital, and so my parents had been there for about a year. I was the second baby born in the hospital, and we lived there til I was about five, when my father returned the United States and joined the University of Chicago.

MARTIN: Do you remember anything about it?

Ms. JARRETT: I do have memories of it. Beautiful weather, not like Chicago in the winter time. So a day like this in Chicago is the kind of weather I remember as a child.

And they were very welcoming. There were American physicians who were coming over in droves, and they were working together with Iranian physicians to collaborate and share expertise. And so those early years were good years.

MARTIN: I mentioned that you worked in and around politics for much of your adult life. I mean you've worked with...

Ms. JARRETT: Yes. 1987 was when I joined city government, when Harold Washington was Mayor of Chicago. And you mentioned I had been there with three mayors, Mayor Sawyer and then Mayor Daley. I practiced law in Chicago when I first came out of law school.

MARTIN: What got you interested in getting into politics? I mean, some people just want to run in the opposite direction.

Ms. JARRETT: That's very interesting. I think, you know, I love Chicago. This is a city that I spent, you know, most of my childhood formative years, my adulthood. My mother grew up here. My grandfather was here. He was very involved in public service. My grandfather was Robert Taylor, who was chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority during the 40s, and they named the infamous Robert Taylor homes after him. And notwithstanding that, our family has always had a strong commitment to the city and to make it do what we can do to help make as vibrant and robust as it is today.

And so giving something back was interesting to me. I was kind of bored practicing law in the private sector. And Harold Washington was a part of this progressive movement, and I had a lot of friends who said, look, why don't you come on in and join. If you don't like it, you can always leave. Well, I ended up spending eight years full time, another eight years part-time, as chair of the transit authority. So those are 16 of the best years of my life.

MARTIN: You've had this very interesting career, as you have just kind of pointed out. You've been connected to some of the most important civic functions that a city provides, like transportation, housing, business. How do you decide what projects to take on? Do you find them, or do they find you?

Ms. JARRETT: Oh, that's easy. Well, a little bit of both, but it's easy. I do what I care passionately about. So, you know, I said I love the city, and so I've tried to get involved in issues that are important of the city we can actually make a difference or I think I can actually make a difference. I don't want to just be there and kind of be another person at the table. I want do it where I can actually think I can lend some expertise.

When the mayor asked me to chair the transit authority board, when I left and stepped down as being commissioner of the department of planning and development, it seemed like a natural progression because I'd been looking at physical planning for the whole city. And public trend is such an integral part of that. So, you know, it kind of made sense. So sometimes opportunities find me, and sometimes I look for them.

MARTIN: Newsweek called you the insider-outsider. Do you like that characterization? Is that how you see yourself?

Ms. JARRETT: Oh, I've been called worse.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JARRETT: It's fine. I don't know exactly what it means. I think one thing I do is that I straddle a lot of different areas, so I'm a member of the business community. Our business community in Chicago, this is something I want everybody to know, is I think it's extraordinary. Everyone here is engaged in the civic life. Everyone gives back, and, you know, we find whatever your interest is, whether it's the symphony or the opera, in my case, the hospitals and museums. And you'll find it's a very collaborative cohesive business community, and so it's easy to be a part of that community and then also be a part of both politics and also the not-for-profit public center.

MARTIN: If you're just tuning in, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. Our guest for today's newsmaker interview is business and political leader Valerie Jarrett. She's also a senior advisor to the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. You're CEO of Habitat Company, a real estate company. Part of your portfolio, as I understand it, is to desegregate public housing.

Ms. JARRETT: Yes, we were appointed the receiver for the Chicago Housing Authority back in 1987 by Federal Judge Aspen as a part of a continuation of a consent to create called the Gautreaux case, which was designed to try to disperse public housing residents throughout the city and take them out of areas that had been historically predominantly African American. And so our goal was to build housing, have it blend in to the architecture of the surrounding community, so it didn't stick out. And the residents who lived there weren't stigmatized by the bricks and mortar that they live in.

And that program has evolved over the years. It started out a scattered site program, where we would build go, you know, one, two, three units, for example, on a block. And now, as a result of the mayor's leadership under this whole transformation program, where the housing authority is tearing down these, you know, large tracks of public housing that have been dilapidated over the years, including the Robert Taylor homes named after my granddad, and building back in place mixed income communities.

And so we are responsible at Habitat for overseeing the family housing component of that program, and our whole goal is to integrate public housing residents back into the urban fabric, have them move towards self sufficiency and build communities that are racially and economically integrated.

MARTIN: And, of course, you know that one of the criticisms is that you are limiting the number of units for poor people on these individual projects at a time when there's an affordability crisis, I think, across the board. You know, it's always going to be harder to serve people with less clout, less visibility, less economics and viability. How do you maintain and keep the interests of the most vulnerable people at the forefront and also sort of balancing the concerns of other stake holders who have more of that clout than they do?

Ms. JARRETT: It's a very fair question. I think you have to - let's start with what existed. You know, when residents of public housing were living in isolation, in 100 percent low income neighborhoods, they were moved from jobs. They were moved from services, social services. They were disconnected.

And so the vision is we need to bring them back into the urban fabric, and the chances of moving towards self sufficiency improve if you are a part of a healthy, self sustaining community. And there is a natural tension between just simply building units of housing very quickly for low income families, and there is a demand in Chicago for affordable housing, as there is across the nation, versus creating a healthy community. And our premise is that the communities that exist that house the populations were not healthy, and so we're trying to break that cycle of poverty. And so...

MARTIN: But how do you avoid the impression that what you're really saying is that there is something wrong with these people?

Ms. JARRETT: There's nothing wrong with them. There's nothing wrong with them, other than they've been living in isolation. And so the goal is, if you - I mean, if you look back at the reason why public housing was created to begin with, it was to provide a weigh station for people to stay for a period of time until they could get themselves back on their feet.

You know, I spend all day long with the residents of public housing, and what they say is, look, I want a job. I want to have the appropriate training. I want to have the education I need. If my family has challenges, I want the social services I need to move towards self sufficiency.

You can't accomplish that if you live in isolation, and the theory is, if people are living next door to people who know about job opportunities, whose children are going to school every day, who have parks and recreation and grocery stores and shopping centers, everything that you find in a neighborhood that has a market-rate housing mean, you're going to draw a shopping center if you have the market rate housing. You're not going to draw a shopping center if you're living in isolation.

And so we want the residents of public housing to have all of the amenities that anyone else would have who could choose where they want to live. And there is a natural tension there, Michel, but I think the goal is to try to create these healthy communities.

MARTIN: Can we talk some politics for a minute there - we knew that one, right.

Ms. JARRETT: Of course.

MARTIN: But you're known as a senior advisor to the Obama campaign. There's a Wall Street Journal story today that suggests that this presidential campaign is essentially his to lose, but that more Americans say they identify with John McCain's background and values by a big margin. What are you going to do about that?

Ms. JARRETT: Well, we don't really look at the polls because, if you looked at the polls this time last year, Senator Obama was behind by double digits. And so his job everyday is to get up and work hard to introduce himself to the American people. He is a newcomer to the scene. John McCain certainly has been around for a very long time, so he looks at it as that's the burden that he carries, is to allow people to get to know him, to understand his track record over the last 20 years in public service, and to win their confidence and their support.

And this has been an extraordinary campaign. I think anyone would concede that we haven't seen anything like this, certainly in my lifetime, in the United States. The kind of accolades he's receiving as he's been on his overseas trip are second to none. And so he's going to work every day to win the support of the American people from here until the election. And I'm confident that he will, and he will prevail.

MARTIN: What do you think is the essential issue here that people - the essential question that the voters are trying to answer? Is it connected to race? Is it connected to his education? Is it connected to his name?

Ms. JARRETT: You know, what I think, as I have travelled around the country, and I've listened to people over the last 18 months, what I hear more than anything, Michel, is people want to know who's going to make sure their job is secure, that they have a pension after they've worked a lifetime, and it doesn't evaporate, that their job doesn't go overseas. Who's going to make sure that they have healthcare, so they're not having to choose between paying rent and buying prescription drugs for their children? Who's going to help them, you know, with this horrible crisis with the mortgage.

People care about their lives. That's what they're interested in, and they want to know, does this person, does he have leadership qualities, the judgment to bring this country together? And I'm convinced that Senator Obama has those qualities.

MARTIN: What about your life? If Senator Obama wins, can we expect to see you in Washington?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JARRETT: You know what? I love Chicago. We talked before the program started, this will always be my home, and I always say, let's get through the day. That's our challenge.

MARTIN: We have some nice rentals.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JARRETT: I'm sure you do. It's a terrific town.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Would housing - what would be your portfolio?

Ms. JARRETT: Listen. I'm serious. We're working on the campaign. We don't take anything for granted. I have a terrific job. I'm the president and CEO of a great company. And so let's take it one day at a time.

MARTIN: Valerie Jarrett is the CEO of the Habitat Company. She's also senior advisor to the Obama campaign. She was kind enough to join us here at Wishbone restaurant. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. JARRETT: Welcome, enjoy your stay in Chicago.

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