Obama Nominates Campaign Fundraiser For Commerce Secretary

Influential Chicagoan Penny Pritkzer has been tapped by President Obama to lead the Commerce Department.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

Today, President Obama nominated Chicago businesswoman Penny Pritzker to be secretary of Commerce. Pritzker is an heir to the Hyatt Hotel chain, and she's one of the wealthiest people in the country.

Pritzker served as the finance chair for the president's campaign in 2008, helping him raise hundreds of millions of dollars, shattering campaign fundraising records. She got the nod for Commerce secretary on her 54th birthday. And as NPR's David Schaper reports from Chicago, the nomination could prove to be controversial.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: She's number 271 on the Forbes list of wealthiest Americans, worth more than $1.8 billion according to the magazine. In addition to her family owning Hyatt Hotels, Penny Pritzker has founded and run a couple of successful companies of her own. But one of the things she's most passionate about is running.

Pritzker is an accomplished marathon runner and triathlete who likes to get other people running too, like these kids in Chicago's public schools. She and her husband, Bryan Traubert, sponsor a program called Chicago Run to encourage physical activity during and after school. Alicia Gonzalez is its executive director.

ALICIA GONZALEZ: This is a woman that I feel like could, if she wanted to, be playing tennis all day, right? And instead, she has really made a commitment to public education and to jobs and to health and wellness.

DAVID AXELROD: There is a tenacity and determination that Penny has that is palpable.

SCHAPER: David Axelrod is a former top adviser to President Obama and architect of his campaigns. He says Pritzker will bring that passion and commitment to the Cabinet.

AXELROD: When she sets her mind to doing something, she gets it done.

SCHAPER: Axelrod expects Pritzker to bring her experience in boosting job skills training and workforce development to the job of Commerce secretary as a way to enhance job creation and economic growth. Chicago Run is just one of many causes Pritzker and her husband have supported. Another is public radio. Traubert used to serve on the NPR Foundation Board and is currently on the board of member station WBEZ in Chicago. In public education, their family foundation funds many charter school organizations, which made Pritzker something of a lightning rod as one of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's appointees to the Chicago Board of Education.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What do we want?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: No school closings.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What do we want?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: No school closings.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What do we want?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: No school closings.

SCHAPER: Pritzker has been sharply criticized by the Chicago Teachers Union and most recently by activists protesting a proposal to close dozens of Chicago public schools.

MICHELLE YOUNG: We're here today at Lady Penny's house and...

SCHAPER: This is Michelle Young of a group called Action Now at a recent rally outside of Pritzker's Chicago mansion.

YOUNG: She did enough damage while on the school board that she never should again ever hold another government position where she can abuse the public trust ever.

SCHAPER: Pritzker has also been the target of the union that represents hotel workers, which has had a rocky relationship with Pritzker's Hyatt chain, especially here in Chicago where the union hasn't had a contract at Hyatt Hotels for four years. But some in the business community believe Pritzker's labor troubles could be a plus for her, especially in an administration not always on the best terms with big business. Former Michigan Governor John Engler is a Republican who now serves as president of the Business Roundtable, the voice of corporate CEOs in Washington, D.C.

JOHN ENGLER: She's criticized for some because they've had labor challenges, but to me, that's real-world experience that I think will serve her well.

SCHAPER: And Engler says Pritzker's close ties to the president will elevate the commerce position beyond its status in Obama's first term.

ENGLER: Well, if you think of the last four years, it would be nice to have somebody who advocated as vigorously on behalf of business as Secretary Solis did on behalf of labor over at the Labor Department.

SCHAPER: Pritzker was considered for the post four years ago before taking herself out of the running. This time around, her appointment was expected weeks or even months ago, but the White House has taken its time to review the matter. One reason could be her family's vast fortune, which includes some assets held overseas. In the past, Pritzker has faced questions about her family's ownership of Superior Bank, which was heavily involved in subprime mortgage lending and failed in 2001. Some of these issues can be expected to resurface when confirmation hearings get under way later this spring. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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