Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker. | Eddie Gehman Kohan/For the Sun-Times
Updated: November 21, 2013 6:33AM
WASHINGTON — On her first day on the job, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker hung up an old-fashioned “Open for Business” sign over a nail on the door to her cavernous, wood-paneled office.
The Chicago business tycoon, civic leader and philanthropist — a billionaire member of one of the nation’s richest families — bought the sign to symbolically convey her mission at-a-glance.
“The biggest thing I can communicate to the business community,” Pritzker said, recalling a talk with President Barack Obama about her role at Commerce, “is that this administration is open for business and that there is someone in this job who can help them with their issues.”
Vice President Joe Biden swore Pritzker in as the nation’s 38th secretary of Commerce on June 27, filling a slot left empty since June 21, 2012, when John Bryson stepped down.
In tapping Pritzker, Obama brought into his administration a longtime personal friend who played a key role in his election to the White House. Pritzker led Obama’s 2008 campaign fundraising drive, and her ability to raise millions of dollars fast made Obama’s primary bid viable.
After the 2008 election, Pritzker pulled herself out of the running for Commerce, but by the time Obama won a second term she was ready.
Now she calls her friend-turned-boss “Mr. President.” He calls her Penny.
Pritzker conveys a sense of urgency when talking. “My attitude is it is a short period of time, and we have a lot to get done.” This job — unlike any other in her long business career — is stamped with a January 2017 expiration date.
“I’m tireless,” Pritzker said Friday morning, in a joint interview with the Sun-Times and the Tribune. She is warm — very hamish — (an apt Yiddish word) during the almost hourlong session.
Pritzker is plunging into a new job and setting down roots in her new city. She closed on a home in Northwest Washington — $7.95 million, according to Washingtonian Magazine — about a month ago. After doing some work on the place, she said she will move in by Thanksgiving.
Her husband, Dr. Bryan Traubert, an ophthalmologist and president of the Chicago Park District, is the one doing most of the commuting. Pritzker has been home only a few nights since Obama nominated her to the post in May, on her 54th birthday — including last weekend, to see her son, Don, 22, a New York investment banker, run in the Chicago marathon. Daughter Rose, 20, is at Harvard.
Pritzker gets up between 5:30 and 6 a.m. and works out daily, with swimming, biking and running part of her routine.
Last July, Pritzker finished a triathlon in Maryland — a 1,500-meter swim, 24-mile bike ride and a 10K run — in 3:16:05, according to the results on the event website.
Her business day often starts with breakfast meetings at 8 a.m. and runs at a brisk clip for the next 11 or so hours. Since June, Pritzker has visited 13 U.S. cities — part of her inaugural “listening tour” — met with some 500 business leaders, and touched down in Mexico, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. If all goes as planned, Pritzker will lead four international trade missions in 2014.
The “pinch me” moment for her came when she was at the White House for a small dinner with Obama and others, and found herself alone, looking across the South Lawn toward the Washington Monument.
Said Pritzker, “And it dawns on me that I am not visiting. I’m here. I am supposed to be here. And I have a job to do.”
In a wide-ranging conversation, Pritzker shared these thoughts:
◆ On Sebelius: Pritzker defended Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who is under attack for the botched rollout of the new health insurance exchange.
“I think she is working very hard to execute a very complex rollout of a really important endeavor for the country. . . . I think we just have to take the long-term view here.”
◆ On first cousin Jennifer Pritzker: Last August, retired U.S. Army Col. James Pritzker announced he was now living as a woman.
“I had the most wonderful email exchange with Jennifer, sharing with her my hope that this was a good thing for her
. . . and we had a wonderful exchange and we continue to, so I’m happy if she’s happy.”
◆ On her anniversary. On their 25th anniversary last September, Pritzker and her husband returned to the place they were wed — under the Tiffany Dome at the Cultural Center — to renew their vows with close friends Nicki Harris and her husband Ira, a former business associate who officiated.
Traubert — “He’s a romantic” — had a few members of the Chicago Chamber choir on hand to sing the tunes from their wedding: “Our Love is Here to Stay” and “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock ’n’ Roll.”
◆ On sexism and whether CEOs or foreign dignitaries are intimidated in dealing with one of the world’s richest women:
“It’s not an issue in this job. But I am going to comment on something. I think it is sexist to call me an heiress. I’m just saying it doesn’t do justice to the hard work that I put forward. And I also don’t believe that’s how most men are referred to if they have the good fortune to have previous generations who have been successful.”