Washington — Penny Pritzker’s nomination as commerce secretary has been more than four years in the making.
The 53-year-old Jewish hotel chain heiress from Chicago was rumored to be named to the post ever since Obama first took office, in 2009. While some see the pick as a slam-dunk — not only is Pritzker close to Obama, she is also a leading national business figure — others saw red flags in the billionaire family’s strained relations with labor unions.
Now, as he enters his second term in office, Obama is set to make good on his initial plan and make Pritzker the second Jewish member of his Cabinet, alongside Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.
Supporters tout Pritzker’s early support of Obama. She was the national finance chairwoman of his 2008 campaign, and one of a handful of backers who can boast of sticking out their neck for Obama early on in his political career.
“What people miss about Penny,” said a former White House official supportive of the choice, “is that she is not only a donor, but an incredibly successful businesswoman.” The former official argued that this record makes her especially suited for leading the federal commerce department and that critics have “unfairly targeted her because she was a donor.”
On the other hand, Pritzker comes with serious big-business baggage, including her use of tax loopholes and offshore bank accounts. Unions, with the support of Jewish labor activists, have also been locked in a lengthy battle with the Hyatt management over working conditions of hotel housekeepers. They have made Pritzker a prime target of their fight, in large part because of her close ties with Obama.
“As Jews we hold ourselves to higher standards,” said Amy Dean, a Chicago Jewish labor activist and public policy fellow at the Century Foundation. “And of course we are especially disappointed when someone from our community acts not according to our standards.”
Pritzker, whose great-grandfather emigrated from Ukraine, is a third-generation member of the family business, most famously known for ownership of the Hyatt hotel chain. Despite the family ties, Pritzker made clear that she was more than a billionaire heiress. With law and business degrees from Stanford University, she successfully expanded the family hotel business and entered into real estate, banking and investment enterprises. Her personal net worth was estimated in 2012 at $1.8 billion, which would make her by far the wealthiest member of Obama’s Cabinet, if confirmed by the Senate.
Pritzker has spent much of her energy and some of her fortune in civic and philanthropic activity. She was a member of Chicago’s board of education and has focused much of her public work on improving educational opportunities for children in need.
In the city’s Jewish community, known for its strong philanthropic network, Pritzker is a top donor and organizer.