News Column

Pritzker Will Face Key Senators for Commerce Bid

May 23, 2013

With Chicago billionaire Penny Pritzker set to be grilled by senators Thursday at her Commerce secretary confirmation hearing, Bill Daley feels her pain.

Daley, a son and brother of Chicago mayors, faced his own confirmation hearing in 1997 before he took the same job under President Bill Clinton.

"Lookit, I had never testified before Congress, so it was very tough," Daley said. "I had a lot of angst about it."

Pritzker, 54, a member of Chicago's wealthiest family, is a business executive whose family founded Hyatt Hotels. She is a Democratic mega-donor and was nominated by longtime friend President Barack Obama, whom she helped get elected.

Her hearing will see her questioned not only about the economy, stubborn unemployment numbers, Alaskan fisheries and overseas trade -- but about potential minefields. They include her offshore investments, role at a failed suburban Chicago bank and tortured relations with labor, including at Hyatt.

The hearing, at 10 a.m. Chicago time, will be webcast by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Thirteen Democrats and 11 Republicans sit on the panel, some of whom Pritzker has met while making the rounds on Capitol Hill.

To prepare for his hearing, Daley endured "murder boards" that had him in a room with four or five people firing questions at him. The rehearsals came as he tried to digest three or four briefing books the size of telephone books.

"It was like trying to memorize something for a bar exam," he said.

Daley, later a chief of staff to Obama, said he took hits from senators and editorial writers. They called him too political; they noted ruefully that he was "from Chicago."

His best advice? "Finally, someone took me aside and said: 'What are you so nervous about? The senators don't care what you say. They want to know who you are -- not what you know.'"

For Pritzker, who has limited her exposure to the limelight, dropping the veil could be difficult.

Among the issues she likely will be asked about is the 2001 failure of Superior Bank, based in Hinsdale, where Pritzker was chair from 1991 to 1994. Pritzker also handled the matter after her uncle Jay died in 1999. The bank was co-owned by the Pritzker family and aggressively pursued subprime mortgages and car loans.

Pritzker's wealth has been estimated by Forbes to be $1.85 billion. As required by law, Pritzker has made extensive financial disclosures, but Tuesday she filed an amended report showing much higher income -- raising some of her consulting fees to about $85 million for the required reporting period, roughly the last 16 months.

A Pritzker lawyer blamed a clerical error on her original report.

Chicagoan Valerie Jarrett, a top Obama adviser who has known Pritzker for almost 20 years, said Wednesday that White House officials "have a high degree of confidence" that Pritzker ultimately will be confirmed by the full Senate.

Talking about Thursday, Jarrett said:

"She will answer honestly, completely and transparently, and I am confident that when the committee hears her answers, they'll see in her what the president sees: someone who will lead a key agency with passion and vigor and commitment who will be a key member of the president's economic team."

Trouble spots remain, an issue reinforced Wednesday when Unite Here, a labor union, took out an ad in Politico slamming Pritzker as the "president's mistake."

The union, which has a long-running feud with Hyatt Hotels, represents 270,000 workers in North America in the hotel, gaming, food service, laundry and other sectors.

Donald "D" Taylor, 56, the union president, said he'll attend the hearing with several Hyatt housekeepers in their uniforms, plus maids who were fired by the hotelier.

"We don't plan a protest," he said, "but we'll talk to people."

The union has conveyed its opposition to the committee chair, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who through a spokesman expressed robust support for the nominee and predicted she will win the post. The committee is not likely to vote on Pritzker on Thursday, and a vote by the full Senate would be even later.

Even in a capital gripped with new controversies, there's an air of optimism about her prospects. One Republican insider ventured to say that unless something "crazy" emerges at Thursday's hearing, the nomination is not in question.

Already, some GOP senators, including Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, have announced support. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., told Congressional Quarterly that he was sure to back her.

"She's got business sense," he said. "We speak the same language."

Kirk, like Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the Senate assistant majority leader, does not sit on the panel, but the two will introduce Pritzker on Thursday.

Rockefeller, through his spokesman, said he regards her as a "highly qualified candidate with decades of experience" in business and civic life.

___

(c)2013 Chicago Tribune

Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services




For more stories covering politics, please see HispanicBusiness' Politics Channel



Source: Copyright Chicago Tribune 2013


Story Tools






HispanicBusiness.com Facebook Linkedin Twitter RSS Feed Email Alerts & Newsletters