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Obama mentor makes history

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A black single working mother will be part of the White House inner circle for the first time in the nation's history.

To President-elect Barack Obama, Valerie Jarrett, 52, is a longtime mentor and likely his closest personal friend among his political advisers. To her fans, her elevation to senior adviser in the White House is a significant milestone in an administration built on groundbreaking moments.

"It's a very big thing. This is a continuation of black women's growth and development in the political arena," said Cathy Hughes, founder of the Maryland-based Radio One conglomerate.

Leana Flowers, an executive vice president at Chicago-based ShoreBank, said she thinks Mrs. Jarrett's promotion will offset the influence of "negative images" young black people absorb in rap-music videos and other forms of media.

"As a black professional with two grandchildren, it's huge that we can hold her up as a model," Miss Flowers said. "Our children are exposed to a lot of negative images."

Mrs. Jarrett is one of three people named as White House senior advisers, along with campaign strategist David Axelrod and Pete Rouse, an old-hand congressional aide who knows Capitol Hill inside and out. The only other people expected to have the same access to President Obama as those three will be White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and possibly the national security adviser, retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones.

Several other high-profile black working women said Mrs. Jarrett's inclusion in such exclusive and powerful company sends a compelling message to other black female professionals.

Adrienne Pitts, a 40-year-old attorney in Chicago, said Mrs. Jarrett's ascent through the political and legal worlds of Mr. Obama's hometown paved the way for other black working women.

"Her role was a very high-profile role, and it let people see, 'Maybe there's a Valerie Jarrett in my law firm,'" said Miss Pitts, who counts Mrs. Jarrett as a mentor. "For that we are absolutely indebted to her, because she has been that face for African-American professional women in Chicago for many years. And so now she will be that face for African-American women all across the nation."

"Young African-American college women and high school students, when they go to the White House, they will want to see the president," Miss Pitts said. "But when they see [Mrs. Jarrett] in the meetings, and they see the people that the president surrounds himself with, she is at that table."

"That's a great event," she said.

Mrs. Jarrett was married to William Robert Jarrett from 1983 to 1988, and after their divorce, she raised their daughter, Laura, who is a student at Harvard Law School.

"There is a legitimacy in single motherhood in our culture," said Melody Spann Cooper, president of Chicago's Midway Broadcasting Corp.

The 2000 Census found that 5.8 million black children lived with single mothers, compared to 4.1 million who lived with two parents.

"But we can't look at it as doom, gloom and despair. They are women who are capable of multitasking. They can sit in the boardroom and then go home and take care of their children," Miss Cooper said.

Mrs. Jarrett, a University of Michigan Law School graduate who grew up in Chicago, first came to know the Obama family through future first lady Michelle Obama when she and Mr. Obama were engaged.

Mrs. Jarrett, who had become a trusted aide to Mayor Richard M. Daley, hired then-Michelle Robinson to work for her in 1991. Mrs. Jarrett then took the future first lady with her to the city planning commission.

In 1995, Mrs. Jarrett went to work for the Habitat Co., a Chicago-based real estate development and apartment management company.

In January 2007, she became president and chief executive officer of Habitat after 11 years as executive vice president. Habitat has developed more than 17,000 housing units and manages more than 20,000 units, the Obama transition office said.

Mrs. Jarrett was not available to be interviewed, the Obama transition office said.

There is a sentiment among some working black women, however, that while Mrs. Jarrett's emergence is remarkable, it is not necessarily unprecedented.

Miss Cooper said the double glass ceiling of race and sex is being hammered by a few women in addition to Mrs. Jarrett.

[Secretary of State Condoleezza] "Rice broke it. Valerie Jarrett is going to break it," Miss Cooper said. "It is being broken in a lot of different pieces by a lot of different women."

"Michelle Obama will break it," Miss Cooper said of the future first lady. "What she will do with that role will be groundbreaking."

Miss Hughes went further, stating that Mrs. Jarrett's advancement would not be noticed by most people who do not pay attention to politics. Mrs. Jarrett, she said, is "only known to people who follow politics."

Black professionals who follow politics have seen one of their own in the White House before, when Alexis Herman served under President Clinton as director of the public liaison office, Miss Hughes said.

Nonetheless, Miss Hughes, who also raised a son as a single mother, said, "I'm so happy for her, and I'm happy for him, because he has a strong black woman who he listens to in addition to Michelle."