What you should know about Penny Pritzker, a billionaire and contender for Commerce Secretary

March 6, 2013
March 6, 2013

President Obama is considering Chicago billionaire and longtime friend Penny Pritzker as his nominee for Commerce secretary. Here’s what you need to know about her:

1) She’s a longtime supporter of the president. Pritzker, 53, first met President Obama and his wife, Michelle, at a Chicago YMCA in the early 1990s while her children were playing basketball and Michelle Obama’s brother, Craig Robinson, was coaching. Since then, she has been an important supporter and has helped raise millions of dollars for his political campaigns since he ran for the Senate in 2004. During Obama’s 2008 White House run, Pritzker served as the national chairwoman of his campaign finance team, which shattered fundraising records. Although she wasn’t as active in the 2012 reelection effort, she was a top bundler, bringing in more than $500,000. She also served on the two White House economic advisory panels during Obama’s first term.

2) She was a contender for Commerce secretary before. After Obama won the presidential election in 2008, Pritzker was looked at as a possible nominee for Commerce secretary. She took her name out of consideration because of financial obligations to her family. In recent years, the Pritzker family has made headlines for internal disputes over the $19 billion fortune split among 11 cousins, which was just resolved in 2011. Pritzker was still involved in this dispute in 2008, which prevented her for taking a Cabinet position in the Obama administration. When she announced that she was taking her name out of consideration, she said she could “best serve our nation in my current capacity: building businesses, creating jobs, and working to strengthen our economy.”

Even if she got the nod for the position, she might have had a difficult confirmation process. She helped oversee and run a bank in Illinois that was involved in the controversial practice of turning subprime mortgage loans into securities. After the bank collapsed in 2001, the Pritzker family agreed to pay the federal government $460 million over 15 years in fines. Obama ultimately picked Gary Locke as his first Commerce secretary but Locke left the job after two years to become the U.S. ambassador to China. His replacement, John Bryson, was involved in a hit-and-run accident in June 2012 that was linked to a seizure. He later resigned, citing health concerns.

3) Pritzker would serve as an important tie to the business community. Pritzker might be able to help Obama improve his strained ties with the business community. A graduate of the Stanford University law and business schools, Pritzker sits on the board of Hyatt Hotels and has founded and run several businesses, including Vi, an upscale retirement community, and the Parking Spot, an airport-parking company. “If she is the nominee, I think it’s good for the administration and I think it’s particularly good for the Commerce Department,” said David Sampson, who served as the deputy secretary of Commerce during President George W. Bush’s administration. “It bodes well for stability—someone of stature in that role in the second term.”

4) She’s Chicago royalty. With a net worth of an estimated $1.8 billion, this heir to the Hyatt Hotel fortune, which her family founded, has become one of the leading philanthropists in the Windy City. The Pritzker family name is one of the most prominent in Chicago. From Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion to galleries at the Art Institute of Chicago, the family’s philanthropic efforts and wealth are widely known in the city. After former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel became Chicago’s mayor, Pritzker joined the Chicago Board of Education and has started fundraising initiatives to help improve Chicago schools.

In addition to the family drama surrounding its fortune, the Pritzker family has also had multiple disputes with the IRS over offshore tax havens. Additionally, some labor groups have accused Hyatt Hotels of worker-safety violations. Since then, labor leaders, including AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, have called for a boycott of the hotel chain. If she is nominated for the post this time around, labor leaders could raise these concerns.

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