Posted on November 10, 2008

Black Power Brokers Ready to Rise in Tandem With New President

Jonathan Kaufman, Wall Street Journal, November 6, 2008


For more than a decade, Mr. Obama has cultivated ties with a growing circle of black power brokers who are poised—and eager—to wield greater national influence. Some of these insiders stand to gain new status in an Obama administration, and many more in law firms, big corporations and on Wall Street. They believe that their proximity to the president-elect will burnish their reputations, much in the way that white elites always have leveraged connections in business and politics.


Being known as a top fund-raiser or adviser to Mr. Obama has given African-Americans “the opportunity to build wonderful relationships,” says John Rogers, the 50-year-old founder of Chicago-based Ariel Capital Management who has known the president-elect for years. “Once people get to meet someone like [senior Obama adviser] Valerie Jarrett, they say, ‘They are so smart, so sharp—I want to do business with them. I want to have them on my board.’” On Wednesday, Mr. Obama spent much of the day working out of Mr. Rogers’s office.

The senator’s network of black executives, lawyers, fund-raisers and advisers stretches from Chicago to Cambridge, Mass., to Wall Street to Washington, D.C. In many ways, their careers mirror that of the candidate himself. {snip} They are also bound by an intricate social web that operates largely out of sight from whites: family connections, black law-school alumni organizations, black fraternities and sororities, as well as popular vacation spots for affluent African-Americans like Martha’s Vineyard.


Of those hoping for access and government stints, some may be disappointed. Loyalties aside, Mr. Obama, according to people familiar with his thinking, may be constrained in the number of blacks he appoints to avoid any charges of favoring African-Americans.

Other blacks, meanwhile, complain that they have been shut out altogether. Absent from the senator’s advisory circle, for instance, are the civil-rights leaders and ministers who figured prominently in the candidacies of an older generation of black politicians such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson. “There is no one who represents the black inner city, who is rooted in the black community,” says the Rev. Eugene Rivers, an influential black Boston minister. “It’s the whole black Brahmin thing: Vote for us because we’re better than you.”


“There will be room in an Obama administration for all kinds of talented people,” says Ms. Jarrett, a longtime friend and key adviser to Mr. Obama who is now a member of the triumvirate heading his transition team. Blacks, she stresses, won’t be pigeonholed into “historically conventional” roles, such as secretary of housing and urban development or assistant attorney general for civil rights.


But now, the spotlight has shifted to a new cadre of African-Americans in their 40s and 50s. Their growing visibility is already changing the tone of Washington and creating new power matrixes. For example, Eric Holder—who helped conduct Mr. Obama’s search for a vice president and is considered by people close to the campaign as a candidate for attorney general—met Mr. Obama two years ago at a Washington dinner party organized by Ann Walker Marchant. Ms. Marchant is a black former Clinton administration official who is also the niece of Mr. Jordan and a cousin of Ms. Jarrett.

Judith Byrd, 52, a graduate of Georgetown Law School, first met Mr. Obama during his early career days, in the 1980s. Back then, he was a community organizer and she was a city official. {snip}”

In 2004 she introduced Mr. Obama to her husband, Ron Blaylock, 48, an African-American veteran of Citigroup and UBS who now runs a private-equity fund. Backing their friend’s political efforts, the couple quickly ramped up their social network for fund-raising events. One gathering, held this spring, was at the Park Avenue home of a friend. The invitation list consisted of friends and clients as well as colleagues from the predominantly white, A-list nonprofit boards on which they’ve served: Georgetown and New York Universities, Carnegie Hall, the American Ballet Theater. The event raised $370,000.


For the past several months, Mr. Blaylock has been emailing Austan Goolsbee, Mr. Obama’s top economic adviser, with his thoughts on the housing crisis and its impact on financial markets. “I reached out to them and they have reached out to me,” says Mr. Blaylock.

Ms. Byrd says she approached Mr. Obama three months ago at a fund-raising event and joked about his personal availability. “If I ever need to talk with you would I need to go through 100 people?” Ms. Byrd says the senator laughed, summoned a staffer, then handed over his cellphone number.

Chicago provides the oldest and closest circle of black business executives around Mr. Obama. Many have benefited from the historically strong black business community and the 1983 election of the city’s first black mayor, Harold Washington, who appointed many African-Americans to city posts.

Mr. Nesbitt, a 45-year old real-estate developer and a close friend of the senator, is chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority. Before Ms. Jarrett was named president of a large Chicago real-estate development and management company, she was a top aide to Mayor Richard Daley. In addition to raising money for Mr. Obama, Mr. Rogers, of Ariel Capital, played major fund-raising roles for Bill Bradley during his presidential run and for the successful 1992 Senate race of Carol Mosley Braun.

Harvard Law School is another nexus of influence, having played a key role in expanding the African-American power base. Since it began accepting blacks in large numbers in 1968, Harvard has typically admitted 30 to 40 black law students a year, according to David Wilkins, a Harvard Law professor who has tracked the numbers. In 2000, Mr. Wilkins organized a reunion of black graduates and found there were 1,400 black alumni—more black law-school graduates than any other law school except historically black Howard University.


When Mr. Obama first ran for office in Chicago, campaign workers recall, he took out his copy of the Harvard Law School alumni directory and began dialing to solicit donations. In this campaign cycle, Mr. Obama has raised more than $500,000 from Harvard faculty and staff—not including alumni—making the school the third-largest contributor among employers.

Starting in the 1990s many aspiring black policy makers began finding work in Washington as Democratic congressional and White House staffers. President Clinton appointed more blacks to sub-cabinet and White House jobs than any previous president. Some are now top advisers to Mr. Obama including Mr. Holder and Susan Rice (who worked in the Department of State under Clinton and now is a possible candidate for National Security Adviser, according to people close to the Obama campaign). Cassandra Butts, one of Mr. Obama’s top advisers on domestic issues, worked as a senior adviser to Rep. Richard Gephardt.


Mr. Johnson, for example, was named a partner at his firm, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, in 1993. He joined the Clinton administration as general counsel of the Air Force from 1996 to 2001, then returned to his law firm, where he has remained active in politics. He now serves as part of Mr. Obama’s foreign-policy advisory team as well as a fund-raiser.

Some blacks believe that a larger ripple effect is under way—that Mr. Obama’s ascendancy is affecting, for instance, things like the number of black commentators appearing on cable-TV news shows. Says Ms. Butts: “You will see changes in Washington, D.C., where people are making decisions about who is running a news bureau, who is heading up a lobbying shop,” bringing in more blacks to top positions.

While Mr. Obama’s political rise has augmented the role of many well-connected blacks, the country’s overall racial progress remains uneven, notes Mr. Rogers. As an example, he points to the financial sector in Chicago where there are virtually no African-American partners at the major investment banks, hedge funds or venture-capital firms.


Mr. Wilkins and other influential blacks say they have already noticed subtle changes in the way they are treated at upscale restaurants in Washington, D.C., and places like Martha’s Vineyard where affluent Americans—and the Obamas—vacation. “No one is quite sure who you are,” says Mr. Wilkins. “Now the assumption is you might know the next president of the United States.”