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Officials Explain Increase in Michelle Obama’s Salary

September 26, 2006

WASHINGTON _ Officials at the University of Chicago Hospitals on Tuesday explained a large salary jump for Sen. Barack Obama’s wife shortly after he took office as a normal promotion that reflected expanded duties in her job as a liaison with the South Side community surrounding the medical center.

Michelle Obama was promoted to vice president for external affairs in March 2005, two months after her husband took office in the Senate. According to a tax return released by the senator this week, the promotion nearly tripled her income from the hospitals to $316,962 in 2005 from $121,910 in 2004.

Hospitals spokesman John Easton said Obama’s salary was in line with the compensation received by the not-for-profit medical center’s 17 other vice presidents.

A tax return for the hospitals covering the 12 months ended June 30, 2005, shows most of the hospital center’s vice presidents earning between $291,000 and $362,000.

Easton said the hospitals had made a determined effort to deepen their connections to the surrounding community, beginning in 2002, when Obama was hired for the new position of executive director for community affairs.

“There was a real initiative by the university and the hospitals to have a real relationship with the community,” Easton said. “Over time, she developed a staff. . . It went from zero staff to Michelle and 10 staff.”

Michael Riordan, who was University of Chicago Hospitals president at the time, said he had planned early on for the position to evolve into a vice president as a way of showing the U of C Hospitals’ commitment to community outreach.

“I knew where I wanted to go with this position,” said Riordan, who is now the top executive of the Greenville Hospital System in South Carolina. “I wanted to identify someone to grow into it.”

Riordan said Obama’s promotion had nothing to do with her husband becoming a U.S. senator.

“She was hired before Barack was Barack,” Riordan said. “She is worth her weight in gold, and she is just terrific.”

Easton said the hospitals’ management had discussed a promotion to vice president with Obama previously but that she had been reluctant to undertake the commitment until her husband’s Senate campaign had finished. In part, she wanted to wait until her family had made a decision on whether to maintain their primary residence in Illinois, which they did, and she had a better sense of the demands on her time as a senator’s wife, he said.

At the time Obama was promoted to vice president, Easton added, she also had “at least one other, more lucrative offer” from a potential employer, though he declined to identify the competing organization.

Easton said the hospital management believed she merited the promotion based on a series of achievements. They included expansion of the institution’s women and minority vendor purchases, rejuvenation of its volunteer program and work she did to help set up a collaborative effort with South Side clinics and doctors’ offices to provide primary care for low-income residents who otherwise would seek treatment at the emergency room.

In explaining her salary increase, Easton and a spokesman for the senator both stressed her educational background, which includes an undergraduate degree from Princeton and a law degree from Harvard.

Obama’s new salary is significantly higher than her annual earnings during the seven prior years for which the Obamas have released their taxes. During those years, her wages ranged from a low of $50,343 in 1999 to a high of $121,910 in 2004.

After Obama’s graduation from Harvard Law School in 1988, she worked for a few years as an associate at the corporate law firm Sidley & Austin in Chicago. Such law practices typically pay lucrative salaries.

But after a few years, Obama moved into a series of positions in local government and non-profit organizations, which typically pay lower salaries.

According to a biography supplied by the medical center, she moved from the law firm to work first as an assistant to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and then as the assistant commissioner of planning and development.

In 1993, she became the founding executive director of Public Allies Chicago, an Americorps National Service Program. She later worked as an associate dean of student services at the University of Chicago, a position she held until she was hired by the University of Chicago Hospitals.

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(Chicago Tribune staff reporters Bruce Japsen and David Mendell contributed from Chicago.)

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(c) 2006, Chicago Tribune.

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ARCHIVE PHOTOS on MCT Direct (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MICHELLE OBAMA

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