CHICAGO — Valerie Jarrett has ended up in the middle of a politicized budget storm in Illinois — unwittingly, she says — following news that she was scheduled to take a $30,000 speaking fee from a cash-strapped university.
The longtime adviser to former President Barack Obama is scheduled to give this year’s commencement speech at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago — at the same time that the university shut down operations over its spring break and announced additional furlough days. It’s the latest financial fallout from a partisan budget stalemate that’s stretched nearly two years.
After the Sun-Times revealed details of Jarrett’s contract — and the fact that a private donor was to cover the fee once the university board balked — Jarrett’s camp said today that she would give the speech at no cost.
“While keenly aware of the financial challenges in Illinois, we were not aware of the specific issues facing Northeastern Illinois University or that a donor would be paying for the speaking fee,” Amy Brundage, a spokesperson for Jarrett, said in a statement to POLITICO. “Jarrett notified President (Richard) Helldobler this morning that she will not be accepting a speaking fee for the commencement address. Jarrett looks forward to addressing the graduates and other members of the NEIU community next month.”
Still, the revelation that Jarrett — who is so closely aligned with Obama and Chicago Democrats — had been part of such an arrangement throws cold water on Democrats’ efforts to blame the university’s dire financial situation on Republicans.
A group of activists, including two Democratic candidates for governor, took part in a rally this morning blasting Gov. Bruce Rauner for failing to fund higher education in Illinois. Democrats last week passed a measure to provide emergency funds to social services and universities in the state, but the governor has threatened to veto it, saying he wants to pass a full budget. Democrats have countered that the governor’s non-budgetary demands have held up the passage of a budget for the last two years.
NEIU board members, meanwhile, marveled over the optics of paying out big bucks for a speaker at a time when the school is preparing to curb operations just to survive, according to this audio of a board meeting last week. That’s when the school announced a private donor would step forward to pay Jarrett’s fee, with some board members arguing students deserved to hear from a top-tiered speaker.