Thursday, March 26, 2009

Columnist wants clarification on Kareem Dale's presidential appointment(s)

From Deanna Isaacs at the Chicago Reader:

It was a real surprise to learn last week that Chicago lawyer Kareem Dale (pictured) would be appointed President Barack Obama’s White House staff adviser on arts and culture. The news came in a New York Times story by Robin Pogrebin, with comment from former National Endowment for the Arts chair and Obama arts transition team leader Bill Ivey, who called the prospective appointment “a big step forward.”

It wasn’t just that Dale—a former staff attorney at Winston & Strawn, and more recently on his own at Dale Law Group—is basically unknown on the national arts scene. It was also that only a month before, Dale, who’s partially blind, had been appointed to another job—as the president’s special assistant for disability policy. The idea that he would be taking on an additional and very different portfolio had jaws dropping in both the arts and disability camps.

The disability appointment was announced with fanfare by Joe Biden at the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Boise on February 12. “First Time a President has had a Special Assistant Focused Exclusively on Disability Policy,” the official press release trumpeted, and Biden’s statement said the “commitment that the President and I have to . . . people with disabilities is deep and abiding. And we are backing up those words with real action at the White House. This is our first step to ensure that we have a strong advocate for people with disabilities at the highest levels of our Administration.” (Definitely needed, given Obama’s Special Olympics comment on Leno.)

Dale had been national disability director for the Obama campaign, and word is that although he hadn’t been a high-profile player in disability rights prior to that, he did a fine job of networking with the community. Sources expressed confidence that he’d make an excellent liaison, and be able to catch up quickly on any policy background he might lack.

Meanwhile, the arts community was eagerly awaiting news of a White House advocate to call its own. During the heady days of the campaign, when Obama was being touted as the arts candidate, there was even a push for a cabinet-level secretary of the arts. The idea was floated by Quincy Jones, debated on the nation’s editorial pages (would it lead to too much government interference?), and supported with an online petition signed by some 239,000 people. And when a coalition of 16 national arts umbrella organizations presented the newly elected Obama administration with an agenda, high on the list was a proposal for a senior-level assistant to the president, responsible for coordinating the federal government’s “fragmented” hodgepodge of arts and cultural policies. While the coal­ition stopped short of demanding a cabinet seat, it’s unlikely that it thought the job could be handled as an add-on duty for a full-time disability warrior whose arts credentials seem to be limited to a five-year stint as a theater company board chair and membership on Obama’s campaign arts policy committee.

I’ve been trying to reach Dale, but so far he hasn’t returned calls to his cell phone, and the number listed for Dale Law Group has been disconnected. Here’s what I’ve been able to piece together about his background: After graduating from the University of Illinois law school in 1999, he went to work at Winston & Strawn (the firm of former Republican governor James Thompson), where he handled product liability cases, defending pharmaceutical giant Wyeth in its fenphen suits. The son of advertising entrepreneur Robert J. Dale, whose Chicago-based R.J. Dale Advertising and Public Relations includes the Illinois lottery among its clients, he followed his dad into the chairmanship of the Black Ensemble Theater board. During his tenure there, which ended last spring, the theater raised $9 million toward a $15 million capital campaign goal and acquired its future home—a building at 4440 N. Clark, purchased for about $4 million with the help of TIF funds from the city, that it will rehab. Black
Ensemble Theater founder and artistic director Jackie Taylor, who’s known Dale since he was a kid, says he also spearheaded a reshaping of both the board and the company.

As I’m writing, there’s still no official announcement of Dale’s arts appointment, and it’s possible that the Obama administration is rethinking this double assignment. Attempts to get clarification from the White House have been futile. After calls and e-mails that went unanswered, I was told by a press office staffer that I’d hear from the appropriate person “when she has guidance for you.”

Andrew Imparato, president of the D.C.-based American Association of People With Disabilities, said his group wondered “What does this mean?” when they saw the Times story, and sought assurance from Dale that he’ll still be doing the disability job. He responded by e-mail that he would. “We’re happy that he’s continuing with the disability position,” Imparato said, but added that double duty could be “a mixed bag.” While it might offer a chance to integrate some areas of overlap, “it could also be a distraction.” With the disability issues alone, Imparato said, “he’s got a pretty full plate.”

But maybe Dale is getting only a piece of the arts and culture policy pie. That was the theory offered by Americans for the Arts spokesperson Liz Bartolomeo, who cited Ivey’s comment in the Times story that he “expected” Dale’s job to focus “mainly” on the National Endowment for the Humanities and the museums. She didn’t explain how that would make sense (and, anyway, the Times has since issued a correction stating that Dale “will also work with the National Endowment for the Arts”) but she did say that Americans for the Arts is “still calling for a senior White House official whose responsibilities will encompass all the agencies and all the arts”—and that this appointment doesn’t qualify. What they’re looking for is “a separate position” with exclusive focus.

"It’s what we’ve been advocating for 18 months now,” Bartolomeo said. She also said, “We still believe President Obama will be the arts president.” If that’s the case, Mr. President, then unlike the other situations you’re facing, this is easy. Disability and the arts each need their own point person. Fix it.