NEWS

  /  

November 7, 2008

Obama, former law prof, wins presidency

[img id="76962" align="alignleft"] Barack Obama accepted the 44th Presidency of the United States in a speech in Grant Park Tuesday night, surrounded by tens of thousands of supporters.

Obama will become the first black president in the nation’s history. He is a first-term senator from IL and a former professor at the University’s Law School.

Obama’s victory speech brought together a proud and exhilarated Chicago as the world watched and visitors poured into the city limits to experience the competitive national race turn into a local victory.

U of C students and Hyde Park residents began a migration to Grant Park in the late afternoon on Tuesday, riding the north-bound Metra in droves. The festivities spread downtown after the speech, where supporters flooded Michigan Avenue to celebrate the victory.

Obama’s speech featured the oratory for which he has been admired and criticized, repeating what has become a rallying cry and reassuring chord to his supporters, “Yes we can.”

He used the story of a 106-year-old woman who voted for him to connect the current economic crisis to Depression Era hardship and the need to endure.

“And tonight, I think about all that she’s seen throughout her century in America—the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can’t, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes we can,” he said.

Tickets to the event were scarce this week, with only 75,000 passes allocated to supporters nationwide. A ticket granted access to the area around the stage, but estimates placed the number of people who flocked downtown to surround the event’s periphery at over a million.

In Hyde Park, the victory translated into weeklong speculation over which University-affiliates could staff an Obama White House, prompted by the appointment of University trustee and Medical School board member Valerie Jarrett to help lead the president-elect’s transition team.

One of Obama’s longest-serving advisers and mentors, Jarrett played a key role in the campaign, offering advice at critical junctures, including when racially inflammatory rhetoric by Obama’s former pastor Jeremiah Wright proved controversial in March.

Others with University connections who may follow Obama to the White House include Chicago Booth School of Business professor Austan Goolsbee, a key campaign economic adviser, and former Law School professors Cass Sunstein, an Obama legal adviser, and Elena Kagan, a possible Supreme Court nominee. David Axelrod, the Obama campaign’s chief strategist and University of Chicago graduate, has already accepted a position as Obama’s senior advisor.

The New York Times reported Wednesday that Jarrett may be considered for the Secretary of Housing or Transportation posts, but will more likely be asked to serve as a White House adviser. She has also been mentioned as a possible replacement for Obama in the Senate.

Born to one of Chicago’s most prominent black families, Jarrett has served the city in many roles, including nearly a decade of service to Mayors Harold Washington and Richard Daley, beginning in the late 1980s. She has also chaired the Chicago Transit Authority and the board of the Chicago Stock Exchange, and has directed the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.

In one of her more controversial roles, Jarrett served as president and CEO of the Habitat Company, a real-estate firm with a court-appointed duty to manage Chicago public housing. Habitat has been faulted by neighborhood groups such as Southsiders Together Organizing for Power (STOP) and the national media for the mismanagement of public housing, including Grove Parc Plaza in Woodlawn.

Lonnie Richardson, leader of both STOP and the Grove Parc Tenants Association, said his concerns with Jarrett are largely in the past, since management of the property was transferred from Habitat earlier this year. As an advocate against the displacement of South Side residents, however, Richardson remains skeptical of the redevelopment plans of the Chicago 2016 Olympic committee on which Jarrett sits.

“Me personally, I don’t see what she’s going to do for public housing,” Richardson said. “In every administration, high office has never done the grassroots people any good, in my opinion.”

Despite this conviction, Richardson sees Jarrett’s possible future in the capitol as no more of a threat than any other politician’s.

“We’re way ahead of the game with her,” Richardson said. “We’ve been to Washington, we’ve set up meetings with Obama’s top aides, we’ve worked with Dick Durbin’s office…. If she gets to be in charge of housing or something else, we just have to find out what her position is and work from there.”

Not all Southsiders, however, view the possibility of Jarrett’s appointment as something to be swallowed. Shirley Newsome, chair of the North Kenwood–Oakland Community Conservation Council, has been a friend of Jarrett since working with her on development issues in the early 1980s. She serves with Jarrett on Chicago’s Olympic committee.

Newsome described Jarrett as “the ideal person” for Obama’s transitional team.

“She’s been called the other half of Obama’s brain,” Newsome said. “I don’t think she particularly likes that comparison, but she is a total sounding board for his ideas.”

Though she described Jarrett as sweet and sympathetic, Newsome said her friend is fully capable of toughening up when necessary.

“I think she’s the kind of person you don’t want to challenge unless you’re up to the challenge,” Newsome said. “She’s been around for a long time, so she’s very streetsavvy. She knows how to deal with people.”

Citing Jarrett’s experience and civic-mindedness, Newsome said she welcomed the possibility of a cabinet role for Jarrett.

“I think she would be ideal, and, extenuating circumstances taken into consideration, I think she would accept a position wherever the president needed her most,” Newsome said. “I hope that in fact she does receive an appointment where she can give all that she can. That’s what she’s about—being a civil servant.”

Additional reporting by Sara Jerome and Michael Lipkin.