White House wealth: President Barack Obama’s team virtually all Chicago millionaires
By John McCormick Chicago Tribume
When President Barack Obama moved into the White House earlier this year, he took several of his fellow Chicago millionaires with him.
Newly released disclosure reports show virtually all of the top Chicagoans serving in the West Wing had assets valued at a million dollars or more at the end of 2008.
In several cases, the reports provide the first detailed look at the finances of some of the president’s top aides and friends from Chicago who have risen with him. They also show the salary haircut many have taken to be in the White House, at least until they return to the private sector.
Some of the wealth can be attributed to the fact that the top staff members surrounding Obama — such as Chicagoans Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett — are from a big city where salaries tend to be higher. Many of the comparable senior staffers with the previous two presidents came from Austin, Texas, and Little Rock, Ark., where salaries for top professionals tend to be the lower than in Chicago.
In contrast to his senior staff, Obama’s Cabinet tends to have fewer high-net-worth people. That group includes former senators, governors and others who have spent much of their careers working in the lower-paying public sector.
Like those of his predecessors, Obama’s top staff tends toward seasoned professionals, people who have moved up in their respective fields and found private sector wealth. The Tribune’s review focused on Chicagoans serving in senior White House jobs.
Obama’s personal wealth soared in the past decade. His annual household income fluctuated in the range of about $250,000 during the first half of this decade, before his election to the U.S. Senate in 2004 and millions in book royalties and advances that started rolling in during 2005.
Leading the Chicago pack in investment portfolio size is Emanuel. The White House chief of staff reported 2008 investment income of at least $168,107 on a portfolio worth between $4.5 million and $11 million.
The disclosures, required of senior and deputy-level aides each year, were made public over the weekend. They allow individuals to report across a broad range in values for each investment and corresponding investment income, using categories such as $500,001 to $1 million, so it is impossible to know exact figures.
After leaving the Clinton White House — and before running for Congress from Chicago’s North Side — Emanuel made more than $16 million in 21/2 years as an investment banker.
Many of his investments are now in municipal bonds, a favored choice of the wealthy because their interest is tax-exempt. Emanuel has dozens of the bonds, whose issuers range from McHenry County to the Northeast Nebraska Solid Waste Coalition.
Chiefs of staff tend to have some wealth, often because they are Washington veterans or have some chief executive experience in business.
Andy Card, for example, the first chief of staff to former President George W. Bush, had worked for General Motors Corp. before moving to the White House. He listed assets worth at least $1.1 million on the first financial disclosure form that he filed in 2001.
White House social secretary Desiree Rogers, a longtime Obama family friend from Chicago, reported $1.8 million in salary from Peoples Gas and North Shore Gas, where she left as president during the middle of 2008.
Rogers also earned $350,000 in salary in 2008 from Allstate Insurance Co., where she was working on a financial social networking program before leaving for Washington. Her service on two corporate boards, Equity Residential and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, netted her another $170,000. She listed stocks, mutual funds and other investments worth at least $2.1 million.
Rogers was once married to millionaire and Chicago financier John Rogers, the head of Ariel Capital Management and another close Obama friend and fundraiser.
Jarrett, a senior adviser to Obama, reported a money market fund holding between $1 million and $5 million.
Since moving to the White House, Jarrett has resigned her position as chief executive of Habitat Co., one of the Midwest’s largest property-management firms.
Her report shows she earned $550,000 in deferred compensation from Habitat Executive Services, plus a salary of $302,000 in 2008.
She also reported $346,687 in income from serving on seven boards, including the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. Jarrett’s most lucrative fee as a director was $146,643 from Chicago-based USG Corp., a building products maker.
Jarrett is also still receiving compensation from the Chicago Transit Authority, where she was Mayor Richard Daley’s handpicked chairwoman from 1995 to 2003. She estimated $35,559 in deferred compensation as part of the CTA’s supplemental retirement plan.
For Axelrod, the disclosures also made clear the value of a political consulting firm he built from the ground up starting in 1985, an asset that gained value because of Obama’s success.
The senior adviser to the president sold his stake in two firms for $3 million before he moved to the White House in January. Although he no longer has direct financial ties to the companies, he will receive installment payments for his shares over five years.
AKP&D Message and Media was sold for $2 million to John Kupper, John Del Cecato and Larry Grisolano. He also sold his interest in ASK Public Strategies, a firm that has done public policy issue campaigns for such entities as the Chicago 2016 Committee, Commonwealth Edison Co. and the University of Chicago Medical Center, where Michelle Obama worked as an executive.
Axelrod, who worked almost exclusively on Obama’s campaign in 2008, collected a salary of roughly $1.5 million from his two firms. His investments, meanwhile, showed a valuation of at least $3.8 million.
The person most equivalent to Axelrod in the Bush White House was top political adviser Karl Rove, who listed at least $2.3 million in stocks, bonds, cash and other assets in 2001.
Another Chicagoan, Christina Tchen, left a lucrative legal career to become the director of Obama’s Office of Public Liaison. Her disclosure shows she made $2.2 million last year as a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.