Wolverines taking Washington

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BY SUTHA KANAGASINGAM

Published November 10, 2009

If the Obama administration hires anyone else affiliated with the University of Michigan, there might be a Maize Out at the Capitol Building. Here are a few of the alums and faculty members who are making waves in Washington, D.C.

Obama’s confidant

A 1981 Law School graduate, Valerie Jarrett was an easy pick for President Obama’s Senior Advisor and Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement.

Jarrett knew the Obamas before Barack’s political ambitions had been set into motion. She hired Michelle Robinson (then engaged to Barack) to work for Chicago Mayor Harold Washington in 1991 when Jarrett held the position of the mayor’s Deputy Corporation Counsel for Finance and Development. When President Obama began to pursue public office, Jarrett was one of his most influential mentors in the Chicago politics scene, The New York Times reported. After she served as co-chair of the Obama-Biden Transition Project after the presidential election, she was quickly appointed to a position close to the Obamas’ sides.

Jarrett is the supervisor of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement, which creates avenues for government-citizen collaboration. But her more important role is advisor. As former president of a multi-million dollar real estate firm in Chicago, Jarrett helps Obama navigate the private sector. Her influence doesn’t stop there, though — according to the Times, the longtime friend of the Obamas can attend nearly any inner-circle policy meeting she chooses.

Professor of the Census

The appointment of Sociology Prof. Robert M. Groves as director of the Census Bureau caused a small controversy in April. Congress Republicans stalled the approval of Groves’ appointment until July over partisan anxieties concerning the Census itself.

Census statistics decide the reapportion of seats in the House of Representatives depending on regional population shifts, so both Democrats and Republicans have a stake in making sure that people in the states they control are counted correctly. The Census Bureau also plans to change the way information is collected. Instead of conducting a lengthy study of the entire population every 10 years, the more in-depth form will be sent to random households every year. The once-a-decade Census open to everyone will only be 10 questions long to encourage wider participation. These changes may be challenging for Groves, since the bureau has suffered from a lack of funding.

But Groves is surely qualified, having worked as associate director of the Census Bureau from 1990 to 1992. He also represents the University twice over — before coming to work in the sociology department, Groves received his Ph.D. here.

Michigan medicine man

Francis S. Collins, a University professor of human genetics, is best known for his role as director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, which finished decoding the entirety of the human genome in 2003. As President Obama’s pick for director of the National Institutes of Health, he was confirmed unanimously by the Senate in August.

The NIH is the government agency that conducts the most biomedical and health research. Collins’ familiarity with the human genome is beneficial in his new role, since the medical world is now occupied with analyzing the completed data to learn about the origins of genetic diseases.

But not everyone is thrilled with Collins’ appointment. An outspoken Christian, Collins has been criticized by some scientists who worry that his faith might pervert his scientific objectivity. In his 2007 book, “The Language of God,” Collins chronicles his conversion in his late twenties and describes the human genome as “our own instruction book, previously known only to God.” But most in the scientific community look past Collins’ religion to his accomplishments. The Endocrine Society, an organization devoted to research of hormones and endocrinology, called Collins “one of the most accomplished scientists of our time.”

The new kid on the Hill

Recent University alum Eugene Kang shouldn’t feel bad for losing his bid for a seat on the Ann Arbor City Council in 2005. If he had won, the 2006 graduate would not have been hired as special assistant to President Obama.

The native Ann Arborite has always been a go-getter. When he ran for City Council, he campaigned effectively enough to lose by a mere 90 votes, which is even more impressive considering students’ conventionally low participation in city elections.

After creating a website promoting support for Obama in the Asian American community, Kang scored a spot on the campaign’s exploratory committee in Chicago. From there, Kang followed Obama all the way to the White House, where he is never far from the president.

The work of a special assistant involves setting up phone calls for the president and working on whatever pet projects he might assign. Sometimes, this means playing golf with Obama, as the Associated Press photographed Kang doing in Hawaii last December.

Kang, who is a second-generation Korean, is seen as a rising star to many in the Asian community. Even The Korea Times in South Korea covered Kang’s golf game with Obama.