The news that Barack Obama's confidant and transition team co-chair, Valerie Jarrett, may be the president-elect's choice to replace him in the Senate tells you two things for certain:
1) How attractive a seat in the U. S. Senate is for anyone interested in political office.
2) How indebted Obama is to Jarrett for his success.
Obama has made a point of articulating his understanding that the choice of who replaces him is not his; it belongs to Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich—"This is the governor's decision. It is not my decision."—but who can doubt that the man elected to the seat (and, oh yeah, the most popular politician on the planet) would not have a say in who succeeds him?
The mere discussion of Jarrett as a possible successor has fueled talk that Mr. Change has quickly succumbed to Washington cronyism and old-style Chicago politics. That is grossly unfair, mostly to Jarrett, who is extraordinarily well-qualified for Obama's Senate seat and many other jobs. But Washington doesn't do fair. So let's get to the debate.
Just to get the qualifications issue out of the way: Jarrett graduated from Stanford and University of Michigan Law School. She was deputy corporation counsel for finance and development in the city administration of Harold Washington and deputy chief of staff for Mayor Richard M. Daley. For three years, she headed the city's Department of Planning and Development and later was chairman of the Chicago Transit Authority.
She was chairman of the board of the Chicago Stock Exchange and was a director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. These days, when she's not palling around with the soon-to-be most powerful person in the free world, she also heads Chicago's 2016 Olympic Committee.
Jarrett could have just about any job she wants in Obama's Washington, and if she wants to be a senator, it's probably what she'll get. Obama was the only African American in the Senate and appointing Jarrett would address that concern for the governor. But appointing Jarrett would also be a snub of sorts to Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who also has his eye on the seat.
It is probably in Obama's best political interest to keep Jarrett in the White House. She has been described as the other half of his brain. She'll be both an authority figure and completely loyal to him and his agenda, exactly the kind of surrogate he'll want wandering the halls of the West Wing.
But a seat in the U.S. Senate is a prize, a base of power in itself, and that is why the jockeying for it has been so intense.
The known contenders are three members of Congress—Jackson, Reps. Luis Gutiérrez and Jan Schakowsky—along with Iraq war veteran Tammy Duckworth, who heads the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs. Other names in the hopper: State Attorney General Lisa Madigan, whose popularity could threaten Blagojevich's re-election chances in 2010; and State Comptroller Dan Hynes, who also wants to be governor and who lost in the 2004 senate primary to Obama.
Whoever gets the job will prove to be a loyal foot soldier for the administration, so it's not like Obama needs to install Jarrett as his eyes and ears in the Senate. Regardless of who fills his seat, he's got Majority Whip Dick Durbin, the senior senator from Illinois, as his biggest booster. So whatever push there is behind Jarrett, it can't be about ensuring Obama's backing in the Senate.
The last time a senator had to vacate his seat to move into the White House, personal considerations beat out political necessity. After John F. Kennedy won the presidency in 1960, his chosen replacement, his brother Ted, had not yet reached the requisite age of 30 to qualify for the job. The Kennedys persuaded the governor of Massachusetts to essentially appoint a caretaker senator, Benjamin A. Smith, the mayor of Gloucester, to serve until the following year when Ted Kennedy was elected, beginning a 45-year career in the Senate.
Jarrett may be a tough choice for Blagojevich. The governor is hugely unpopular, and his 2010 re-election chances are gravely endangered. He may choose to appoint someone who helps him with some particular voting bloc in 2010, when that appointee will be up for election to a full term in the Senate.
Or it might be that Valerie gets what Valerie wants. At a meeting in Washington with black journalists over the weekend, she would not say what that was. That is up to Obama, she said: "I leave it in his hands, his very capable hands. … So we'll see, we'll see."
Terence Samuel is deputy editor to The Root.
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