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Obama nominates Chicago exec Penny Pritzker as commerce secretary

Penny Pritzker's 2001 letter to Superior Bank
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Updated: May 2, 2013 12:53PM

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama tapped Chicago business executive, longtime friend and major fund-raiser Penny Pritzker to be the next commerce secretary on Thursday.

Obama made the announcement at a Rose Garden ceremony where he also said he will nominate Michael Froman, currently the deputy national security adviser for international economics, to be the next U.S. trade representative.

Pritzker’s husband, Bryan Traubert and their college-age son and daughter were in the front row for the brief event; also in the audience were former White House senior adviser David Axelrod and White House Senior adviser Valerie Jarrett.

Pritzker turned 54 on Thursday and Obama noted her birthday in his remarks.

“Penny is one of our country’s most distinguished business leaders. She’s got more than 25 years of management experience and industries, including real estate, finance and hospitality. She’s built companies from the ground up,” Obama said.

“She knows from experience that no government program alone can take the place of a great entrepreneur. She knows that what we can do is to give every business and every worker the best possible chance to succeed by making America a magnet for good jobs.

“And Penny understands that just as great companies strengthen the communities around them, strong communities and skilled workers also help companies thrive. So she’s been an extraordinary civic leader in our shared hometown of Chicago.

“She served as a member of my Jobs Council. She was the driving force behind Skills for America’s Future, which is a program that brings together companies and community colleges to shape and prepare, you know, skills-based training programs for workers that are tied into the businesses that potentially will hire them. So she’s got extraordinary experience.

“And in case I haven’t embarrassed her enough, she’s got a wonderful family. I watched her kids grow up. And today is her birthday. So happy birthday, Penny.

“So for your birthday present, you get to go through confirmation.”

Pritzker may face some bumps along the way when it comes to Senate confirmation, though there is no sign at this point she will be blocked.

As soon as Obama made the Pritzker announcement, the Republican National Committee went after her for her role in the 2001 failure of the family-controlled Superior Bank, a Hinsdale savings and loan, with an email headlined, “The New addition to Obama’s economic team is another political ally with a history of controversial business practices.” Pritzker was the former chairwoman of the bank.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said, “In the world of business Penny Pritzker has broken through the glass ceiling with her extraordinary intelligence and business acumen. I believe Penny will bring a new perspective to a department that is charged with leading America forward in business growth and job creation. I look forward to supporting her nomination and working closely with her in this important assignment.”

Pritzker served as national finance chair for Obama’s presidential 2008 campaign. The team she led was successful in making Obama’s bid viable, quickly raising enough campaign cash from major donors to demonstrate he had the ability to take on then front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton.

She is a member of one of the nation’s wealthiest families — a billionaire herself — who runs multiple companies and philanthropies while serving on a variety of civic boards, most recently the Chicago Board of Education.

Pritzker has been a pivotal figure in Obama’s political career, providing entree to Chicago’s business and Democratic fund-raising elites who bolstered fund-raising for his 2004 Illinois Democratic Senate bid.

If confirmed by the Senate, Pritzker would be the third female commerce secretary and the third Chicagoan to hold the post. William Daley was commerce secretary from Jan. 30, 1997, to July 19, 2000, and Philip M. Klutznick served from Jan. 9, 1980, to Jan. 19, 1981.

Pritzker helps steer the family fortune, started by her great grandfather Nicholas Pritzker, who landed in Chicago in 1881 at 10 after fleeing czarist Russia.

Her main business ventures include Hyatt Hotels; Artemis Real Estate Partners; Pritzker Realty Group, and PSP Capital Partners.

After Obama was elected in 2008, Pritzker’s name surfaced as a potential pick for commerce secretary. She soon took herself out of the running, saying, “I think I can best serve our nation in my current capacity: building businesses, creating jobs and working to strengthen our economy.”

However, a Pritzker selection in 2008 presented certain potential problems for Obama.

Naming his finance chair to a Cabinet post would have run counter to his pledge that he would not do business as usual in Washington.

Also, Pritzker’s vast financial holdings may have led to Republicans combing through her business records, protracting the confirmation process. And the optics of naming a billionaire to the Cabinet could have been awkward, because Obama came to office with an economy in tatters and the nation struggling with the collapse of the housing market.

Much of this is now moot. The political landscape has changed since Obama won his second term and doesn’t have to worry about another election.

In addition to Superior Bank, Pritzker’s confirmation may face some hurdles from unions at odds with Hyatt over labor pacts.

Most of the incoming is expected to come from some — not all — Republicans. A lingering criticism of Obama is that he has not been friendly enough to the business community; Pritzker’s deep personal ties to Obama could bridge that gap.

“She’d be a solid business voice that’s there,” Business Roundtable CEO John Engler was quoted as saying in a January Politico story. Engler, a Republican, is a former governor of Michigan.

“Penny has spent her adult life not only in the business world, but also in public and civic affairs, which is why business and community leaders and elected officials from both sides of the aisle support her nomination,” the White House official said.

Even though Pritzker did not join Obama’s Cabinet, she did take other appointments in the first term that made use of her business expertise in reaching out to corporate America. She served on the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness and on the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board.

And on the personal side, one of Obama’s closest friends, Marty Nesbitt — the treasurer of both Obama presidential campaigns — was the CEO of a Pritzker company, The Parking Spot.

The position of commerce secretary is vacant. Obama never replaced Commerce Secretary John E. Bryson, who served from Oct. 21, 2011, to June 21, 2012. He left the job after medical problems surfaced.

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