President Barack Obama is close to choosing Chicago businesswoman Penny Pritzker, who led fundraising for his 2008 campaign, as his next commerce secretary, according to three people familiar with the matter.
Pritzker, whose family built the Hyatt Hotels Corp. chain, would replace acting commerce secretary Rebecca Blank, an economist who took over for John Bryson after he resigned last June for health reasons.
Selecting Pritzker, 53, would ensure that one of Obama’s original Chicago supporters would have a voice in shaping his second term, said two of the people, who requested anonymity to discuss personnel decisions. The president hasn’t made a final decision, said a third person, who also requested anonymity.
A White House spokesman, Eric Schultz, declined to comment on Pritzker’s potential nomination. Pritzker’s spokeswoman didn’t respond to an e-mail seeking comment.
After facing criticism for picking men to lead the State, Treasury and Defense Departments, Obama has announced the appointment of two women for key positions. Yesterday, he selected Sally Jewell, chief executive officer of Recreational Equipment Inc., to be secretary of the Interior Department. Last month, he named Mary Jo White, a former U.S. attorney for Manhattan, as his choice to lead the Securities and Exchange Commission.
“We are thrilled that the president has finally broken his long streak of all-male appointments,” said Shaunna Thomas, co-founder of the women’s rights advocacy group UltraViolet. “Women deserve a presidential Cabinet that understands and can act in their best interests, and we believe Sally Jewel is a step in that direction.”
Obama also has settled on Wal-Mart Foundation President Sylvia Mathews Burwell for budget director and Ruth Porat, chief financial officer at Morgan Stanley, for deputy Treasury secretary. Jeffrey Zients, the acting White House budget director, is the leading candidate for U.S. trade representative during Obama’s second term, according to one of the people.
Like Jewell, Pritzker would bring a business background to the administration, helping Obama fulfill what he has said is a goal to add private sector experience in his Cabinet.
The Chicago businesswoman has developed a skyscraper in her hometown, worked as president of a commercial real estate and luxury senior housing company, and served as chairwoman for a credit-reporting company. Pritzker’s net worth as of September was estimated at $1.8 billion, according to Forbes magazine’s list of the 400 richest Americans.
Shortly after Obama’s election in 2008, Pritzker’s name circulated as his first choice for commerce secretary. She issued a statement in late November of that year that made clear she didn’t want the job then.
Although she and members of her family are prominent philanthropists in Chicago, they’re also publicity shy about their business dealings, including the 2001 collapse of a suburban Chicago bank that they co-owned.
White House officials had discussed the commerce job with Xerox Corp. Chief Executive Officer Ursula Burns, who told them she wasn’t interested, according to people familiar with the matter.
Pritzker has known Obama since long before he rose to national prominence. She met him in the mid-1990s on a YMCA basketball court in Chicago, where Obama’s brother-in-law, Craig Robinson, coached one of her children’s teams. Marty Nesbitt, a close Obama friend and Pritzker business partner, also had a child on the team.
The Obama family would soon start making visits to the Pritzker summer home in Michigan. It was there that Obama first mentioned in 2002 that he was thinking of running for the U.S. Senate in 2004 and wanted her support.
Pritzker, who has a law degree and MBA from Stanford, is a prolific fundraiser for Democratic candidates in Illinois and elsewhere.