Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Desiree Rogers Is Making a Comeback

After crashing as the White House social secretary, the well-connected Chicagoan returned to run Johnson Publishing Company—and now she’s working with Rahm Emanuel again as the chair of Choose Chicago, the city’s big tourism nonprofit.

Desiree Rogers

Photo: Brian Casella/Chicago Tribune

Desiree Rogers, announced today as Mayor Emanuel’s choice to head “Choose Chicago,”  reached the tip top of her glamorous run when Michelle Obama named the Chicago transplant as White House social secretary in 2009. She followed in the Chanel pumps of such women as Letitia Baldrige (Jackie O’s social secretary) and Muffie Brandon Cabot (Nancy Reagan’s).

And then Desiree crashed; really crashed.  

While serving as social secretary—the first African American to hold the job—she seemed to crave the spotlight as much as it craved her. She posed for the cover of the Wall Street Journal Magazine. In one photo Desiree wears “Old Mine natural fancy yellow diamond stud earrings: $110,000.”  (And this at the nadir of the economy’s meltdown.) She organized a ghoulish Halloween party featuring Johnny Depp in costume.  She was busy mixing with guests at events—often wearing such edgy designers such as Comme des Garcons—so busy that she didn’t mind the doors at the President’s first state dinner in November 2009 in honor of India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. “Real Housewife” Michaele and her then-husband Tareq Salahi snuck in, creating a worldwide uproar.

On leaving the White House after only 15 months in the job in February, 2010—presumably not by choice (as Obama White House watcher Jonathan Alter put it, “[Desiree] wasn’t fired, but when she was on the griddle, they made no public statements backing her”)—she returned to Chicago, licked her wounds for a bit,  and then made a splashy re-entry. In August 2010, her friend Linda Johnson Rice named her CEO of the family’s Johnson Publishing Company, which most famously publishes Ebony and Jet

The company’s website promotes her as the person who “spearheaded the establishment of the White House as the people’s house.” While at the White House, Rogers was given to using the word “brand” to describe her efforts to, in effect, market or “rebrand” the President and the White House.  “We have the best brand on earth: the Obama brand.” 

Such statements also got her in deep trouble. She told the New York Times’ Jeremey W. Peters in October 2010 that “brand might be the wrong word” and that  “….I feel more much more comfortable in business than in politics…. There is an environment [in politics] where someone is always looking for someone to make an error.”    

Now she’s back in the news as Rahm Emanuel’s pick as board chairman of Choose Chicago, a nonprofit that markets the city to tourists, convention planners, anyone who will spend money in Chicago. The mayor, whose time as Obama’s chief of staff overlapped Rogers’s White House service, said in a written statement: “I am confident that she will help Choose Chicago reach the next level as it continues to find creative ways to lure tourists and convention business…. I am excited at the prospect of working alongside Desiree again.”

Rogers is taking over for Bruce Rauner, a hugely successful venture capitalist who gave up heading Choose Chicago when he embarked on his “listening tour,” a prelude to a probable run for the Republican nomination for governor. Both Rogers and Rauner are FORs (Friends of Rahm) and both hold MBAs from Harvard Busines school.

Rogers, who grew up in New Orleans as Desiree Glapion, ran the Illinois state lottery for six years during the ‘90s and has also held corporate posts at such companies as Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, Allstate, and Peoples Gas.  She was married to Obama’s close friend, basketball buddy, and fundraiser, Ariel Investment chairman  John W. Rogers, Jr. The two are now divorced.

A call to Desiree Rogers, 53—who, like Rauner, will serve as a volunteer—was not returned by post time. 

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