Penny Pritzker, Jewish Hotel Heiress, Tapped for Commerce Job
President Barack Obama on Thursday will nominate Mike Froman and Penny Pritzker for the last two vacant Cabinet slots on his economic team, turning to a law school classmate who is already one of chief advisors and a billionaire businesswoman who helped put him in the White House.
White House officials said Obama would announce the selections shortly before leaving on a trip to Mexico.
Froman, Obama’s pick to be U.S. Trade Representative, is little known to the American public but a heavyweight in diplomatic circles for his role as White House chief international economic affairs advisor, a post he has held since Obama took office in 2009.
The former Citigroup executive will continue many of his current responsibilities as he moves out of the White House to the trade post, a White House official said.
Pritzker, tapped to become the U.S. Commerce secretary, is an heir to the Hyatt Hotel fortune, runs her own real estate and investment companies, is ranked 271st on Forbes Magazine’s list of the wealthiest Americans and eighth on Chicago Magazine’s list of the city’s most powerful people.
She was national finance chair for Obama’s first president campaign in 2008 and co-chair for his 2012 race.
Both have long ties to Obama, in Froman’s case going back to the days when they were editors on the Harvard Law Review.
Pritzker met Michelle and Barack Obama in the late 1990s, when she took her children to a basketball clinic run by the Michelle’s brother, Craig Robinson.
If confirmed by the Senate, Froman will take the reins at USTR in time to potentially oversee the completion of a landmark free trade agreement, the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership among 12 countries in the Asia-Pacific region.
Those talks, which have recently been expanded to include Japan, are slated for conclusion this year.
But difficult decisions on issues ranging for rules for state-owned enterprises to protections for workers rights and the environment to phasing out tariffs on sensitive agricultural and manufacturing products could push the talks into 2014.
After winning re-election in November, President Obama replaced several key members of his economic and national security policy team. He tapped his White House budget director Jack Lew to replace Timothy Geithner at the Treasury Department and put leaders at the State Department, Pentagon and CIA.
‘ENORMOUS OPPORTUNITIES AND CHALLENGES’
The United States and the 27 countries of the European Union are also preparing to launch talks on the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a free trade pact covering more than half of world economic output.
“The new USTR has both enormous opportunities and enormous challenges that have be reckoned with,” said Charlene Barshefsky, who held the post in the late 1990s under former President Bill Clinton.
In addition to forging the regional trade pacts, the United States needs to confront threats to its competitive advantage from other countries ripping off its intellectual property and stealing valuable corporate trade secrets, she said.
During his confirmation hearing, Froman is likely to face questions on how forcefully Obama will push for “trade promotion authority.” That legislation, also known as “fast track,” allows the White House to submit trade agreements to Congress for straight up-or-down votes without any amendments.
The trade law tends to divide Democrats in Congress between those who see trade agreements as an engine for economic growth and those who blame them for manufacturing job losses.
Congress last passed a trade promotion authority bill in 2002 after a bitter fight in the House of Representatives.
Dan Price, who was former President George W. Bush’s chief international economic affairs adviser, said Froman’s nomination was a sign that Obama is more committed to trade negotiations and legislation now than he was in his first term.
“Froman is a superb choice and will bring both energy and experience to the post … (It is) good news for all those wishing to see a more globally engaged United States,” he said.
Pritzker, a Stanford University-trained lawyer, would bring a member of one of the country’s most successful business families to the helm of the Commerce Department.
The department has played a key role in Obama’s five-year goal of doubling exports to about $3 trillion by the end of 2014. But after fast export growth in 2010 and 2011, the pace faltered in 2012, raising doubt the goal can be reached.
Pritzker’s new post would also put her in charge of a diverse array of agencies, including the Census Bureau, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Pritzker is on the board of the Hyatt Hotel Corp, which her uncle founded in 1957 two years before she was born.
She also has pursued a separate career in real estate and investment as founder and chairman of PSP Capital Partners and its affiliate, Pritzker Realty Group.
When she was finance chairman for the Obama campaign in 2008, she oversaw the raising of nearly $750 million, busting the previous record.
Pritzker could face questions during the Senate confirmation process over her family’s reputation for sheltering income to avoid taxes, Hyatt’s battle with the Unite Here labor union and the 2001 failure of Superior Bank, which was half-owned by the Pritzker family.
Unite Here has organized a boycott of Hyatt, which it calls “the worst hotel employer in America” because of the company’s treatment of workers, failure to reach a new labor contract covering thousands of its employees and opposition to allowing workers at additional Hyatt hotels into the union.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Republicans attempted to tar Penny Pritzker with the failure of Superior Bank, which in the 1990s was a pioneer in subprime mortgages that a decade later were blamed for the global financial crisis.
Regulators closed the bank in July 2001 after auditors concluded that income from the mortgage securitizations had been overstated. Five months later, the Pritzkers agreed to pay the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation $460 million over 15 years as part of a deal where the family and the other half-owner admitted no liability.