Edit Module
Edit Module
Edit Module
Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Why Penny Pritzker’s Commerce Secretary Confirmation Hearing Won’t Be Easy

Pritzker’s past, from Chicago schools to the sub-prime mortgage mess, won’t make it fun. But it could be much worse.

photo: Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune 

Penny Pritzker was nominated to be President Obama’s U.S. Secretary of Commerce this morning.

When you’re worth $1.8 billion, shouldn’t you be able to avoid being scrutinized and insulted in public?

The reward—the prestige of serving in a President’s cabinet—must be worth it. Because Pritzker, nominated today (on her 54th birthday) knows she will have to endure a sometimes unpleasant confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate, all for the privilege of making $199,700 as President Obama’s Secretary of Commerce.

Pritzker’s nomination has been in the works since Obama’s first campaign, but he and she were never ready to pull the trigger. During the first term, her business dealings were a landmine for a rookie president who needed to get his bearings and then be reelected. During the second term, Obama, recognizing that in this turbulent economic climate the knives will be out for Pritzker, saved her for last. Commerce is the final cabinet slot to be filled.

There’s nothing risky about predicting that Pritzker will be confirmed, just as there’s nothing risky in predicting that there will be some tough moments, when Pritzker will wonder just why she’s letting herself in for it.

And while union activists will be out to unload on Pritzker, she will probably not have to face the sharp, biting Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis. In an interview with me last March, on the day Pritzker resigned her spot on the Chicago School Board, Lewis said she won’t go to Washington to testify against Pritzker. “I have no interest in this. I don’t follow this stuff. It’s so not relevant to our children. I wouldn’t have the energy to fight Penny Pritzker. If that’s the job she wants, she can have it.”

Pritzker is not the first Chicagoan to hold the job of Commerce Secretary. Pete Peterson had the job under Nixon. Phil Klutznick had it under Carter. Most recently, during Clinton’s second term, Bill Daley had it. You can take it to the bank that Pritzker will not faint and fall head first into Wolf Blitzer’s lap, as Daley did while being introduced by the president as a nominee, during a nationally televised press conference in the Old Executive Office Building. (Tip to Penny: Don’t do what Bill did. Don’t stay up all night avoiding food in nervous anticipation of the big event.)

There will be no shortage of tributes paid to Pritzker, and she’ll surely be surrounded by family members beaming with pride. But there will also be some pot-holed patches that will link her negatively to:

  • Her service on the CPS board; the board’s role in school closings in Chicago, its battles with the teachers’ union, Pritzker’s ardent support of charter schools.
  • Her family’s control of Hyatt Hotels Corp. which has been in a long and ugly battle with hotel housekeepers over what their union calls “exploitative practices.”
  • The family’s co-ownership of the late Hinsdale-based Superior Bank which was riddled with sub-prime loans—the ranking villain in the country’s interminable, miserable recession. The bank—Penny had been chairman early in the family’s ownership—collapsed in 2001, years after she left the chairmanship. Much money was lost (the family paid $460 million to the FDIC to cover those losses) and much mud tossed at the Pritzkers’ name.
  • The family’s use of off-shore investments; a situation that has tripped up not only Republicans like Mitt Romney, but democrats like her soon to be cabinet colleague, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. According to a recent Chicago Tribune story, these investments “were established before Penny Pritzker reached adulthood.”

But then there’s the other side of Penny Prtizker. This is an heiress who could have spent her time managing her family’s money (or her own), or running a family foundation, or playing tennis. But, instead, she has earned a Stanford JD and MBA, mixed it up with the boys in business, and worked as hard as any executive out there. She’s also been a very generous philanthropist.

And then there’s her work for Barack Obama. Once she decided that Obama should be President, she raised as much money as almost anyone. She raised the kind of money that the unknown state senator needed to leave Springfield behind and go to Washington as the U.S. Senator from Illinois. That was his launch pad—with continued hefty financial backing from Pritzker—to beating the inevitable Hillary Clinton and securing the democratic nomination for president.

Obama wouldn’t be president without Penny Pritzker, and before long, she’ll be sitting in the White House at that cool cabinet table with the likes of Obama and John Kerry. And her services will probably come free to the American taxpayer. I’d be surprised if she doesn’t return what is, for her, a drop-in-the-bucket salary.

The date of her hearing has not yet been set.

Share

Edit Module
Edit Module
Submit your comment

Comments are moderated. We review them in an effort to remove foul language, commercial messages, abuse, and irrelevancies.

Edit Module