Why It Took Penny Pritzker 4 Years To Win Commerce Secretary Nomination

Barack Obama's Old Chicago Friend Has Serious Baggage

Long Time Coming: Penny Pritzker is one of Barack Obama’s earliest supporters. So why did it take more than 4 years for her to win nomination as commerce secretary.
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Long Time Coming: Penny Pritzker is one of Barack Obama’s earliest supporters. So why did it take more than 4 years for her to win nomination as commerce secretary.

By Nathan Guttman

Published May 02, 2013, issue of May 10, 2013.
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“She recognizes that she has the capacity to help others,” said Steven Nasatir, longtime president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. He noted that Pritzker, who in the past has served as chairwomen of the federation’s major gift campaign, has “always been a generous donor and was always willing to do things for us.”

Marc Stanley, chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said the group was “excited” by the reports of Obama considering Pritzker for the job. Stanley also said that Pritzker is “an important leader in our community and uniquely qualified to serve in the position.”

Pritzker’s ties with Obama date back to his run for Senate, in 2004. Her financial support was considered critical for the young politician running against more experienced and well-known candidates.

In 2008, Pritzker emerged as Obama’s top fundraiser, both officially, with her role as national finance chair, and informally, as a bridge between Obama and deep-pocketed business owners and investors. She helped wipe the funding advantage of Democratic rival Hillary Rodham Clinton (Pritzker’s brother Jay Robert Pritzker was one of Clinton’s campaign co-chairmen) and later worked to ensure that Obama was able to splurge on the most expensive campaign in American history.

Although initially considered in 2008 to be Obama’s candidate of choice for commerce secretary, Pritzker withdrew her nomination. According to press reports, the decision came after Pritzker realized that her nomination could pose a political liability for the new president.

With her extensive business record came several issues potentially difficult for the president, including the use of offshore tax shelters and family ownership of a bank involved in the subprime loans bubble.

In 2012, Pritzker did not return to her leading role in the campaign. Some reports pointed to her frustration with policies of Obama that she witnessed as a member of two White House economic councils. Yet, a former official stressed that there was “no bad blood” and that Pritzker’s withdrawal from a frontline role in the 2012 campaign finance had to do with a “fatigue factor.”

Now, Obama has decided to go forward with his initial idea of making Pritzker the commerce secretary. The choice of Pritzker provides Obama with an opportunity to increase the representation of women in his Cabinet, an issue that Obama has been struggling with in his second term, and sends a positive message to the business community, especially exporters.

Pritzker will still have to face a tough Senate confirmation process in which claims are likely to come up regarding her companies’ labor practices. Still, Pritzker is expected to be confirmed, mainly because the Republicans, who showed willingness to derail Obama nominations, are closer to business than to unions.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com or on Twitter, @nathanguttman

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