by Suzanne Pollak
Penny Pritzker, a billionaire real estate developer and a large donor to both President Obama and the Jewish Federation in Chicago, has been nominated to be the next commerce secretary.
Pritzker, 54, is a civic and business leader, who thanks to both birth and hard work, has plenty of money to spread around. Her grandfather founded the Hyatt Hotel chain, and she is founder, chairman and CEO of PSP Capital Partners and its affiliate, Pritzker Realty Group.
According to Forbes Magazine, Pritzker is the 271st richest person in America, with a net worth of $1.8 billion.
When nominating her, Obama said “Penny is one of our country’s most distinguished business leaders.”
“She’s got more than 25 years of management experience in industries including real estate, finance and hospitality. She’s built companies from the ground up,” Obama said, adding, “She knows from experience that no government program alone can take the place of a great entrepreneur. She knows that what we can do is to give every business and every worker the best possible chance to succeed by making America a magnet for good jobs.”
Marc Stanley, chair of the National Jewish Democratic Council, called her “an important leader and philanthropist in the American Jewish community.”
Pritzker is both a fundraiser and a contributor to President Obama. According to Open Secrets, which tracks political contributions, she gave $117,4000 to Obama and the Democratic National Committee in his bid for re-election. In the previous election, she had given $63,500.
Pritzker, a native Chicagoan, also was a bundler for the Obama campaign, meaning she collected money from friends and collectively delivered the checks in one bundle. She gathered at least $500,000 for his 2012 re-election, according to Open Secrets.
She resigned from her position as a member of the Chicago Board of Education in mid-March, shortly before that board’s controversial vote to shutter 54 of its schools.
Obama has looked to Pritzker before. She sits on the President’s Council for Jobs and Competitiveness and previously was on the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board. He had asked her be commerce secretary in 2008, but Pritzker turned that down. According to news reports at the time, her family’s vast wealth may have been seen to complicate her chances of confirmation.
Pritzker has ties to this area. She is co-founder and chairman of Artemis Real Estate Partners in Chevy Chase and is a trustee of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Deborah Harmon, who co-founded Artemis with Pritzker, called her “an extraordinary businesswoman” who has done everything from found start-up companies like Artemis to run large enterprises.
“She has the highest integrity. She is a very thoughtful partner,” Harmon said, adding that Pritzker is “extremely bright” and doesn’t have an large ego in a business world filled with large egos. Also, she said, Pritzker is a great listener. She reflects.”
Pritzker has a knack of being able to add something valuable to every conversation and meeting she has, Harmon said. The two women have been friends for 15 years and have worked together for about half that time.
Pritzker “somehow innately knows how much to be involved,” and then expertly delegates the rest, Harmon said.
“She is just a phenomenal partner. The government’s gain will be my loss,” Harmon said.
Her strong drive also can be seen in the world of running. Pritzker was involved in Ironman Triathalons and still runs three or four triathalons a year.
“She is highly disciplined and very balanced,” according to Harmon.
The press tends to paint her as someone who got to where she is merely by birth, but Harmon said Pritzker’s had to earn her way to the top.
She is a major donor in Chicago’s Jewish World, noted Steven Nasatir, president of Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.
“Penny has long been involved in Jewish life, and the broader community in Chicago. She has and is a major supporter of JUF/Federation, has been active in our campaign leadership and is a member of Chicago Sinai Congregation,” he wrote in an email to Washington Jewish Week.
Tevi Troy, who is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, said while he did not personally know Pritzker, he was not surprised Obama chose her for the commerce department.
“He seems comfortable with her,” said Troy, who served as deputy secretary of the United States Department of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush.
“There is a history of secretaries of commerce having good relations with the president. That usually is the tie-in. They are good fundraisers with a good business background,” Troy said.
If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Pritzker would be the second Jewish member of Obama’s Cabinet, serving alongside Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.
That confirmation may not come without controversy. Some questions may arise over her family’s Hyatt Hotel chain’s lengthy battle with unions over working conditions and her disputes with the Internal Revenue Service over use of offshore tax havens may prove controversial according to The Forward.
Pritzker earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Harvard University in 1981. She also has a law degree from Stanford Law School and a master’s in business from Stanford University.