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Penny Pritzker to be sworn in Wednesday after 97-1 Senate confirmation

Updated: July 27, 2013 6:32AM



WASHINGTON — Vice President Joe Biden swears in Penny Pritzker to be the new Commerce secretary on Wednesday, with the Chicago billionaire business executive taking over a department without a permanent leader for a year.

Pritzker, whose family founded and controls Hyatt Hotels, joins Obama’s Cabinet after zipping through the Senate on Tuesday, winning confirmation on a 97-1 vote.

She faced no significant opposition along the way after President Barack Obama nominated her on May 2 — her 54th birthday.

Republicans who are or have tried to block other Obama Cabinet picks put zero priority in targeting a pro-business appointee and a close personal friend of the president whose early support was crucial to a political career that took him from Chicago’s South Side to the White House in just a few years.

Pritzker was the national finance chair of Obama’s 2008 campaign whose early success at raising millions of dollars established Obama as a viable Democratic primary challenger to Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Organized labor gave Pritzker a pass even with a yearslong dispute with Hyatt because of more important pending matters, including the languishing confirmation of Thomas Perez as labor secretary.

The sole no vote for Pritzker came not from a Republican but from the staunch pro-union socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

Sanders said in a statement he voted against confirming Pritzker because “We need a secretary of commerce who will represent the interests of working Americans and their families, not simply the interests of CEOs and large corporations. Ms. Pritzker served on the board of one of the most anti-worker hotel chains in this country. Workers at Hyatt have been unjustly fired for trying to form a union to collectively bargain for better wages and benefits. Unfortunately, Ms. Pritzker chose not to defend those employees.”

Commerce has been run by acting secretaries — right now it is Cam Kerry, brother of Secretary of State John Kerry — since John Bryson stepped down on June 21, 2012, after suffering seizures and being involved in car accidents.

Obama left the post unfilled during the election year not wanting to deal with any potential confirmation headaches during a campaign where he was running against Mitt Romney, who was heavily touting his own business record.

As a result, a range of top jobs have been left vacant, creating a “big challenge” for Pritzker in quickly filling those posts with people who can quickly glide through a Senate confirmation, said former Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, Obama’s former White House chief of staff now running in the Democratic primary to be governor of Illinois.

“She’s got to hurry up and get people that are somewhat non-controversial but extremely competent,” Daley told me.

The Commerce Department is a sprawling enterprise with the secretary overseeing the Census Bureau, international trade and telecom development, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the patent and trademark offices.

“This is basically like running seven different companies with a holding company called the Commerce Department,” Daley said.

Pritzker must transition from the corporate world — where she could call a lot of shots — to running a neglected government shop.

“She brings to government a sense of urgency,” U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Jacobson told me.

Jacobson, who was Pritzker’s 2008 deputy finance chair, said her close relationship with Obama “gives her an understanding of what he wants, but will also give the Commerce Department an enhanced stature.”



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