By Sam Bojarski
As a 5-year-old child, Karine Jean-Pierre settled into a new home in Queens Village, New York with her Haitian family, who had arrived by way of Martinique.
At the age of 16, Jean-Pierre came out as a lesbian to her mother, a harrowing experience she recounts in her memoir, “Moving Forward.”
Now, at age 43, Jean-Pierre resides with her partner Suzanne Malveaux, the CNN correspondent, and their 6-year-old daughter Soleil in the Washington, D.C., area.
In her role as a senior adviser to the Biden-Harris campaign, Jean-Pierre carries these experiences with her to the team, striving to build a diverse coalition of voters that could elect the next president of the United States, whose message revolves around building a stronger, inclusive America.
“This is the most consequential election of our lifetime,” Jean-Pierre told The Haitian Times in an exclusive. “Everything is on the line ‒ justice, our democracy, our health, our lives.”
In a May article announcing Jean-Pierre’s hiring by the Biden campaign, former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett called Jean-Pierre “a superstar” who shares Biden’s values of equality, fairness and justice.
“She will be able to communicate his agenda in an authentic way that I think will resonate importantly with African American women, but also with the entire country,” Jarrett said.
When it comes to communication, Jean-Pierre is fluent in three languages: French, English and Haitian Kreyol.
Her role with the Biden campaign comes as the nation faces a pandemic that has claimed more than 223,000 lives in the U.S. and a reckoning over systemic racism. Nevertheless, Jean-Pierre maintains a sense of optimism she has carried since her youth.
“It comes from growing up in an immigrant household, growing up with parents who wanted to be American so badly, who wanted to have something better for their kids,” Jean-Pierre said. “I have optimism that this country has so much to offer.”
Shaping that future was at the top of Jean-Pierre’s mind when Biden asked her to join his team last spring. She was also thinking about her daughter.
“I looked at her and I thought to myself, ‘There is no way I can not get involved in this election,’” Jean-Pierre said.
Building an inclusive future
Jean-Pierre has said that she prefers to focus on issues that bring people together. In her memoir, she wrote that policies like Medicare for All, affordable higher education and affordable housing have gained traction because of their ability to unite people.
“We need to be both inclusive and multi-racial,” she wrote in the November 2019 book. “My parents shared the same concerns as the parents of my white schoolmates on Long Island.”
Biden’s goal of treating all people with dignity and respect is reflected in his immigration policies, Jean-Pierre said.
“[President Trump] has not treated the Haitian community, in particular, or brown and Black communities with respect and dignity, and has been incredibly insulting,” Jean-Pierre said.
“We have to fight for our democracy,” she added. “That means fighting for everyone, literally everyone, and making sure everyone has a fair shot and is treated with dignity and respect.”
The deep convictions and pragmatism that characterize Jean-Pierre are specifically why the Biden campaign needs her, said Columbia University Professor Ester Fuchs, who taught Jean-Pierre during her time in graduate school during the early 2000s.
Now, Jean-Pierre is helping the Biden campaign assemble a broad coalition of voters, from suburban women, to veterans, to Haitian-Americans.
“Many of the issues go across the coalition, whether it’s health care or the economy,” Jean-Pierre said.
“They needed her, and they needed the constituencies she could bring on board, obviously,” said Fuchs. “And I think she’s doing it.”
Rise in politics
A career in politics was not on Jean-Pierre’s radar growing up. But while attending Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, she served in student government. The experience and encouragement from mentors inspired Jean-Pierre to pursue politics.
One of these mentors was Professor Fuchs, whose course, “American Presidential Parties and Elections,” Jean-Pierre had enrolled in for the fall 2001 semester. Much like today, students at the time found ample reasons for pessimism, following the contentious 2000 presidential election and 9/11 terror attacks.
Jean-Pierre was an idealist and optimist, with a very serious grasp of real politics. Fuchs also said her former student understood the issues that mobilize different constituencies in American politics, particularly minority communities.
Following her SIPA graduation in 2003, Jean-Pierre worked as director of legislative and budget affairs for New York City Council Member James Gennaro of Queens. She made the leap to Washington, D.C., to become an outreach coordinator for nonprofit Walmart Watch in 2006.
Jean-Pierre would go on to work for the campaigns of John Edwards and Obama in 2008, she wrote in “Moving Forward.”
A high-flying meeting
But it was while serving as a regional political director in the Obama White House that she first met Biden. They were flying aboard Air Force Two, the vice president’s designated aircraft, after a campaign rally, she recalls in her book. He spoke to her with genuine interest, despite being extremely busy.
“There I was, this Haitian-American kid, a Black gay woman whose mother is a home health care aide and whose father drives a taxi,” Jean-Pierre wrote in her book.
Overall, Jean-Pierre wrote that he was charming, down-to-earth and proud of his record working with women, African-Americans and the LGBTQ+ community.
It was Biden’s character and his record as a public servant, Jean-Pierre said, that inspired her to join the former vice-president’s campaign to defeat Trump. Since August, Jean-Pierre has also served as chief of staff to vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris.
As Nov. 3, 2020 approaches, the Biden-Harris team is focused on turnout. That includes equipping voters with the information they need on how to properly vote in their respective states, she said. The I Will Vote website, funded by the Democratic National Committee, is dedicated to this very issue.
The Trump administration’s attempts to discredit mail-in voting amid a pandemic have sparked concerns that the president may contest the result, if he loses the election. Jean-Pierre did not share specific details about any plans to handle a contested election, saying instead that the campaign is focused on earning the votes needed to win.
“She’s just beginning to make an impact on American life in a positive way, and this is not the last we’re going to hear from Karine Jean-Pierre,” Fuchs said.