Penny Pritzker on the Business of Conventions & Campaigns

Behind every presidential candidate is a national finance chair — the person in charge of raising the tens of millions of dollars that have become so critical to a modern campaign’s success. For Barack Obama, that critical job is held by Penny Pritzker. A member of the prominent Chicago family that owns the Hyatt hotel chain, Pritzker is chairwoman of credit-reporting giant TransUnion, senior-housing company Classic Residence by Hyatt, Pritzker Realty Group and The Parking Spot, an offsite airport-parking company.

We caught up with Pritzker briefly by phone from Denver. Here are the highlights of our conversation:

Q: What is the business of business at the convention? The large local businesses are very proud to be hosting the convention, which is expected to bring $160 million to $200 million of spending to the area. That is one of the reasons that the local businesses are so supportive. Second, it’s an opportunity to really have a dialog between the politicians and the leaders in the business community about issues on their minds.

For example, I had this morning a meeting with a group of CEOs. They wanted to clarify Barrack’s position on health-care, foreign policy, trade, investment. You would say, my goodness, there’s so much being written, how much more would they need? But they really wanted to understand Barrack’s attitude on these things – not so much specific policies, but more about how he would approach problems. Whether you’re a CEO, or you’re a farmer, or you’re a doctor, you want to understand what the positions of your leadership are going to be.

Q: Can you compare your experience in business with your experience on the Obama campaign? Barrack said it was his objective to run the campaign like a business – to be goals- and objectives-driven, and to not have drama. So many campaigns have lots of drama. One thing to recognize is this campaign really reflects the leader.

It’s clear what it wants to accomplish, and has gone about it in a fiscally responsible manner – having a budget, knowing what are our revenues, knowing our expenditures. That, to me, has been refreshing. This is my first campaign, but if I’ve been told once, I’ve been told a hundred times, this campaign is different than any campaign they’ve been involved with.

Q: What are the biggest differences between running a business and a campaign finance operation? A campaign is just that – it starts and it ends, unlike a business, which has the potential for an infinite life. In January 2007, there were 10 to 11 people involved. Today there are thousands, and with volunteers, millions. To do it on the kind of professional level we’re talking about is really extraordinary. Think about a $100 million startup in year one, and a multi-hundred-million-dollar biz the following year. And then you close up shop.

Q: Conventional wisdom holds that the GOP is the party of business and that the Democrats represent labor. What do you say to CEOs about that? We make it very clear that Barrack is pro economic growth, he’s pro trade. The second thing we talk about is fiscal responsibility – that’s obviously a big issue for many CEOs.

I had one CEO say to me, I want to know the government that Barrack will put in place will be competent. I said look at the campaign – it’s a large organization; he’s now running a 2,400-person organization, and he has set the tone at the top about how it should be run – it should be run with very high standards.

[On the economic front,] John McCain has thrown out a plan that has a tax cut and increases defense spending. And then he claims he’s going to balance the budget. The math just doesn’t add up.

Q: What else do you hear from executives? One of the interesting questions is, how much is Barrack going to do in the short run that’s going to have political payoff, vs. long-term thinking? Because, frankly, we need to have longer-term thinking in economic policy. One thing he’s committed to, is that you’re going to make short-term sacrifices for long-term benefit.

One of the misconceptions is whether Barrack is keeping track of what all of the things he’s proposing will cost, and are they paid for. In fact, Barrack always asks, if you’re going to propose this as a program, how are we going to pay for it? Barack is very committed to every new program being paid for.

Q: Would you serve as finance chair for a national campaign again? I have no idea. Let’s just see if we can be successful in November

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE