Will Penny Pritzker become the next U.S. commerce secretary?

In late 2009, President Barack Obama appeared on "60 Minutes" and said "fat-cat bankers" were smothering his efforts to craft new rules for Wall Street.

As soon as the reforms cleared Congress six months later, the president's top advisers launched a campaign to try to repair the White House's damaged relationship with business.

In Chicago, they turned to Penny Pritzker, the billionaire and record-breaking Obama fundraiser who is now a potential nominee for U.S. commerce secretary, according to sources.

Pritzker quietly convened about a dozen Chicago-area CEOs, both Republicans and Democrats, many of them personal friends, for a private meeting with the president at the Chicago Cultural Center while he was in town for Democratic fundraisers.

The president took notes.

"She wanted to make sure he was hearing strong points of view," said Byron Trott, founder of Chicago-based BDT Capital Partners and a Republican, who attended at Pritzker's invitation.

Trott said Pritzker filled the room with executives who believed the president "wasn't listening and wasn't getting appropriate advice." Trott said the gathering was one reason he couldn't think of a better choice for commerce secretary.

"She knows the president, and she's willing to be firm with the president," Trott said.

If Obama nominates Pritzker to run the Commerce Department, the spotlight will turn on a powerful woman who has deep business experience and a talent for politics. Pritzker is worth an estimated $1.8 billion. She is an executive who runs her own investment firm, sits on the Chicago Board of Education and led Obama's fundraising operation during his first presidential campaign.

Yet until now, Pritzker, 53, has remained, for the most part, just beyond the glare of public notice and discussion. While her name is well known, her image is connected most easily to her family's extraordinary wealth and its reputation for privacy.

Pritzkers don't mind putting their names on philanthropic projects, such as Millennium Park's Pritzker Pavilion or The Pritzker Architecture Prize, but no member of the family has held elected office. Aside from her brother J.B., who unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 1998, family members have seemed satisfied working to build their wealth rather than pursuing a tradition of government service in the vein of the Kennedys or the Daleys.

In fact, the Pritzkers and the government are sometimes cast as foes, given the Chicago family's oversight of a bank seized by federal regulators in 2001 and multiple disputes with the Internal Revenue Service over offshore tax shelters, which were established before Penny Pritzker reached adulthood.

These aren't the only issues likely to be raised by political opponents as part of the nomination process. If confirmed, Pritzker would need to disclose her investments, calling attention to such issues as the fact that one of the companies she co-founded has actively solicited and won business from government pension boards. Additionally, Hyatt Hotels, which the family founded and where Pritzker sits on the board, is embroiled in a long-running dispute with a powerful union.

Pritzker withdrew her name from consideration for the Commerce job four years ago due to obligations to her family, for whom she was still overseeing billions in assets, and the financial crisis, which was putting some of those assets at risk. Now, her friends say, she wants the job.

"She likes to contribute at the intersection of business and politics," said Greg Brown, chief executive of Motorola Solutions Inc. "And ... I think she can add value. People like things they may not be good at. Penny happens to like it and can add value."

If Obama nominates Pritzker and she becomes commerce secretary, the appointment would not just elevate Pritzker's profile. It also would cement her independent identity.

It's not an accident this is happening now. The Pritzkers as a singular unit no longer exists. A 10-year family agreement, which outlined how the Pritzkers would divide their empire, wound down in December 2011. It and a related lawsuit have resulted in some family members cutting off contact with one another. Yet each family member is now free to pursue his or her own interests — financial or political.

"It gives her a chance to be a part of something that's unique," said William Daley, a former U.S. commerce secretary during the Clinton administration and a brother and son of former Chicago mayors. The post "would give her her own persona, independent from the family name, which has had three generations of enormous success in business."

By the end of the family agreement, Pritzker, her cousin Tom and Nick, a son of her great uncle, were the family's three key executives, responsible for both running and selling off businesses.

Pritzker is one of a small number of women who have shepherded multibillion-dollar companies. Among them was credit-reporting agency TransUnion Corp. The family sold 51 percent of the company to Chicago-based private equity firm Madison Dearborn Partners LLC for about $385 million in 2010. The Pritzkers and Madison Dearborn have since sold the entire company.

CHICAGO

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