The Valerie Jarrett Incident You Have Probably Never Heard About

An early photo of Jarrett. (Photo: Chicago Defender)

It’s no secret that close Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett can be a fiery figure. In fact, while researching her past work in Chicago, it quickly became obvious that her tenacious, and controversial, attitude was present long before her days in the White House. No story illustrates that better than when she used the press to lambaste a business for an innocuous omission that she saw as a racial slight.

While serving as the Department of Planning and Development Commissioner, Jarrett once harassed a white business owner for not paying sufficient deference in print to the memory of the city’s first black mayor in the mid-90s. As Ellie Monty, one of two white owners of the small firm targeted by Jarrett saw it, it was a contrived racial incident. And while she maintains there was “never intended to be a political agenda,” Jarrett saw otherwise.

Jarrett told The Chicago Defender, a local black newspaper, that she was  “completely outraged” and was “thinking of seeking legal redress” against the company for failing to mention Mayor Harold Washington in an ad book for the city.

“They printed this ad book that included the city logo, giving the impression that it was done with our consent when we did not,” Jarrett told The Defender’s Chinta Strausberg, who described Jarrett as “irate.” “What they have done is offensive and tantamount to fraud.” (Chinta Strausberg, “City Outraged Over ‘Bogus’ Ad Book,” The Chicago Defender, November 3, 1994.)

“The book mentioned that in 1979 Jane M. Byrne was listed as the first female elected mayor but neither listed the late Mayor Harold Washington as the city’s first Black elected mayor, nor the fact that Haitain-born[sic] Jean Baptiste Pointe du Stable founded the city,” wrote Strausberg.

But Ellie Monty, president of the small firm, told Strausberg then and me in 2012 that there was nothing political about the ad book. “It had no agenda,” she told me.

“It was never intended to be a political agenda. The only reason [we] mentioned Jane Byrne was in 1979 it was pretty unusual for a woman to be mayor,” Monty told Strausberg.

Another early photo of Jarrett from the Chicago Defender.

“There was no intention of eliminating anything. It was a total random thing. I had a page to fill. It was an interesting exercise in Chicago history. The city never saw it. I’m being held accountable for things I did not say rather than what I did,” Monty said.

“Monty said she was shocked to learn about the outrage and denied her company falsely used the city seal in obtaining ads,” wrote Strausberg in the article.

“It was for a commemorative program. We were trying to position the city in a positive, not negative light for 1,500 people” who reportedly will be relocated in the area.

Monty said she spoke with Jarrett’s office and said: “We did not do anything without their approval. We hosted an event for corporate mobility. It was a relocation agenda…had nothing to do with politics.”

That didn’t stop Alderman Robert Shaw and DuSable Museum Charles Branham, who are both black, from bringing the perceived slight to Jarettt’s attention. “The oversight of not listing Washington and listing John Kinzie as the father of Chicago might be seen by African Americans as a slap in the face. We’re concerned that history be presented accurately,” Branham told Strausberg. Kinzie, the article notes, was white.

While Byrne was eventually added, the ad book excluded any mention of mayors Eugene Sawyer, Richard M. Daley, or his father, Richard J. Daley. According to Jarrett and her then-spokesperson, Gregg Longhini, Monty offered the city a free ad in its book to promote Chicago as a business location to Chicago Employee Relocation Conference.

Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to US President Barack Obama, waits on the tarmac at San Francisco International Airport on October 8, 2012. Obama is on a three-day trip during which he will campaign in California and Ohio as well as attend the establishment of the Cesar Chavez National Monument. Credit: AFP/Getty Images 

This wasn’t the only scandal that marked Jarrett’s tenure as commissioner for the Department of Planning and Development. “Some of Mayor Daley’s aides were critical of her handling of some projects, including some projects, including the recommendation of a West Side movie deal the mayor later dropped after he learned of the alleged mob ties of the developers,” wrote Strausberg in a September 1995 article about Jarrett’s resignation.

After Jarrett’s resignation, she was CEO for The Habitat Company, a housing company that thrived in large measure thanks to the generous housing subsidies sent its way by politicians like Barack Obama.

At minimum, Jarrett’s treatment of Byrne over the perceived slight of a black mayor seems to show the singlemindedness that so many in the White House have noticed (as both Ed Klein’s book “The Amateur” and Jodi Kantor’s book “The Obamas” points out). But it also could point to an obsessive focus on race that both her boss, Barack Obama, and his wife seemed to have demonstrated earlier on in their lives.