WASHINGTON – Making official what many Democrats have expected for weeks, President Obama plans to nominate Chicago business executive Penny Pritzker, a longtime political supporter and heavyweight fundraiser, as his new Commerce secretary on Thursday morning.
Pritzker’s nomination could prove controversial. She is on the board of Hyatt Hotels Corp., which was founded by her family and has had rocky relations with labor unions, and she could face questions about the failure of a bank partly owned by her family.
With a personal fortune estimated at $1.85 billion, Pritzker is listed by Forbes magazine among the 300 wealthiest Americans. She is the founder, chair and chief executive of PSP Capital Partners, a private equity firm, and its affiliated real estate investment firm, Pritzker Realty Group. She played an influential role in Obama’s rise from Illinois state senator to the nation’s 44th president, serving as his national finance chairwoman in his 2008 campaign for the White House and as co-chairwoman of his reelection campaign.
The president is expected to make the announcement at 10 a.m. at the White House.
If confirmed by the Senate, Pritzker would take charge of the administration’s efforts to build relations with business leaders who were often on the sharp end of the president’s first-term rhetoric.
The White House conducted an in-depth review of Pritzker’s background in preparation for the confirmation hearings. A senior administration official who asked not to be identified in order to talk about internal White House discussions said the administration concluded that Pritzker was “definitely confirmable.”
The president’s vetting attorneys went carefully through her lengthy list of investments and assets, noting what the official called her “rigorous and diligent and thorough” participation in the process.
Pritzker, however, could draw fire from labor leaders. Hyatt has long battled Unite Here in Los Angeles, Chicago and elsewhere. And Pritzker, who served on the Chicago Board of Education until she resigned in March, has been harshly criticized by the Chicago Teachers Union. When she stepped down, a union official said she “has a long and storied history as an anti-labor and anti-worker kind of boss.”
She could also face scrutiny over the collapse of Superior Bank, which was co-owned by her family. The bank, based in Hinsdale, Ill., was involved in subprime mortgage lending, and its failure in 2001 stirred charges of fraud and mismanagement.
Four years ago, Pritzker withdrew her name from consideration for the Commerce job, citing family obligations. At that time, the peak of the financial crisis, Pritzker was managing the family’s billions of dollars in assets.
Her success in business is one of the reasons Obama wanted her in his Cabinet, aides said. She is the second chief executive to be nominated to the Cabinet in his second term: Sally Jewell, of the outdoor recreation company REI, is his new Interior secretary.
Pritzker has been one of Obama’s most valuable fundraisers, raising more than $500,000 for his reelection. This year, she donated $250,000 to his inaugural committee.
Advisors to the president say Obama has wanted to name Pritzker for months now, citing her work in building five companies and her service on his Council on Jobs and Competitiveness and on the Economic Recovery Advisory Board.