Obama Picks Chicago Pal, Prolific Fundraiser to Head Commerce Department

A Republican congressman likened President Obama's pick for Commerce secretary to putting a bank robber in charge of the bank.

Obama today nominated billionaire Penny Pritzker, the founder, chairman and CEO of PSP Capital Partners and Pritzker Realty Group and a Hyatt Hotels heiress, to the fill the post.

"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. She knows from experience that no government program alone can take the place of a great entrepreneur," the president said. "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."

She's also a longtime Chicago buddy of Obama's, ardent support and adept fundraiser. In 2008 she led Obama's campaign finance team to coordinate his record-setting haul, and in 2012 she bundled more than half a million dollars for the president's re-election campaign.

Pritzker was up for the Commerce post in Obama's first term, but took her name out the running due to a family squabble over its $19 billion fortune. It was also assumed that her oversight of a subprime lending bank in Illinois that collapsed in 2001 would come back to haunt her during the confirmation process, as her family agreed to pay $460 million in fines over the next 15 years.

"Penny understands that just as great companies strengthen the community around them, strong communities and skilled workers also help companies thrive.  So she’s been an extraordinary civic leader in our shared hometown of Chicago.  She served as a member of my Jobs Council," he continued. "She was the driving force behind Skills for America’s Future, which is a program that brings together companies and community colleges to shape and prepare skills-based training programs for workers that are tied into the businesses that potentially will hire them."

Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.), chairman of the Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, blasted the pick.

“The track record of Secretary-designee Pritzker is alarming and I’m underwhelmed by this nomination that puts the bank robber in charge of the bank. It’s unfathomable to me the president can’t come up with a better nomination for this key jobs creation post than someone whose qualifications include bundling millions of dollars for his campaign and chairing a failed bank," Terry said.

“I also find it completely hypocritical that President Obama has nominated someone who has invested money in the same off-shore tax havens he campaigned against while lecturing Americans that they need to pay their fair share. This is not the leadership our Commerce Department needs when our unemployment rate sits at 7.6 percent. It’s disappointing that the president took nearly a year to nominate someone to this key post in his administration," Terry continued.

“Raising millions of dollars for the president’s campaigns is not a qualification to be secretary of Commerce. Our nation of builders needs a leader at the Commerce Department with a proven track record of creating jobs, innovating and making America more competitive.”

What could also make for interesting drama during her confirmation process is AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka's boycott against Hyatt Hotels for alleged workplace violations.

“Penny Pritzker has an extensive and diverse resume of business experience, including in the visitor industry which is vital to Alaska’s economy," said Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), a member of the Commerce Committee that will weigh the nomination. "I hope she likes salmon because she’ll have to learn a lot about Alaska, oceans and fisheries management, and the importance of our natural resources to the overall economy. With Alaska facing fisheries disasters, a flood of marine debris, and an evolving National Oceans Policy, there’s a lot the Obama administration needs to address, and the Commerce Secretary will play a key role."