Sweet: Commerce Secretary Pritzker ponders next move

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Penny Pritzker

Follow @lynnsweetWASHINGTON – With only a few days left to the Obama administration, I talked to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker about her legacy – some practical observations for Donald Trump – and how she will go all out to elect her brother J.B. governor of Illinois, if he decides to run.

During our Thursday interview in her cavernous office in the Commerce Building – already all packed – Pritzker also told me that in her next chapter she wants to launch a new business, likely in the digital world, and keep her hand in public policy.

Last week, she flew back to Chicago with President Barack Obama on Air Force One for his farewell address in McCormick Place. Her crucial role in Obama history: Obama would not be the president without Pritzker.

The fundraising prowess of the Chicago business tycoon, a billionaire member of one of the nation’s richest families, made Obama a viable contender when he launched his bid in 2007.

When Vice President Joe Biden swore Pritzker into office on June 26, 2013, the sprawling department had been leaderless for a year. Pritzker replaced John Bryson, who stepped down on June 21, 2012 because of health issues.


I asked Pritzker to reflect on her experience of making the transition from running a giant family business empire to leading a complex government agency. Obviously I am interested because President-elect Donald Trump is making the jump with no experience in government – and from a family company where he relies heavily on his three adult children.


Follow @lynnsweetShe’s in a unique position to observe the differences. Pritzker did not want to talk about Trump per se, but she has a significant takeaway to offer: Running government is not the same as leading a business.

Compared to calling the shots at your own company, in government, “You have a lot more stakeholders and they have their own centers of power and influence. … And so you have to have a strategy for how you are going to deal with that.” When you want to accomplish something, “it’s not as streamlined as running a business because you can’t just decide and go.”

Unlike in business, members of Congress will want to have their say. Trump will still have to get his budget past the House and the Senate.

“You can set a direction and a goal, but you really have to bring people along and take into account their equities. You just can’t ignore them.”

Said Pritzker, “There are checks and balances that are built into the Constitution….So it’s not like a business. It’s different.”


“I took seriously what the president asked me to do, which is build a bridge to the business community. That relationship was not in great shape at the time when I came in,” Pritzker said.

Pritzker worked on increasing U.S. competitiveness, from entrepreneurship, foreign direct investment, market access and more.

“I met with 2,100 business leaders. And I really listened. Our team really listened. We built trust. We built credibility. And we have a record…It’s a follow through on issues. …The relationship with the business community, I feel really good about where I am leaving that for the next administration,” she said.

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She also highlighted her department’s work with the stakeholders from parts of the domestic and global business arena: The Data Advisory Council, the Digital Economy Board of Advisors, The President’s Ambassadors on Global Entrepreneurship; the Cybersecurity Commission and the U.S. Africa Business forum.

Pritzker’s time at Commerce tracked the exploding digital and data economy.

“The digital economy and the economy and becoming one thing,” she said. She is leaving behind more safeguards for digital trade while exploring the business opportunities yielded from new technologies, such as self-driving vehicles and aerial drones.

Pritzker talked about the power of commercial diplomacy.

“American leadership has historically rested on our military prowess and our diplomatic powers, but we have the greatest commercial presence of any country in the world and harnessing the relationship between American business and the government to work on policy issues in foreign countries to increase the ability for American business to have access to those markets and to grow jobs here at home has been enormously productive.”

Obama reopened relations with Cuba, though there is still a trade embargo, and Pritzker has been there twice – just one of some 40 plus nation’s she visited as Commerce Secretary.

Trump has threatened to end the Cuba deal, so I asked Pritzker about Cuba – U.S. trade and how hard it would be to unravel business deals already in the works.

Her department has helped win approval for 738 licenses for potential Cuba export deals worth more than $9 billion under Obama’s new regulations that Trump is threatening to yank.

“It will be really interesting. These are opportunities….Yes, you can change regulations. But the question is, is it inconsistent with the goal of the next administration, which is to do good deals and to create greater opportunities for American workers? These create worker opportunities, so I don’t think that’s vulnerable.”


GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner has fueled his political rise with his own tens of millions of dollars. He is up for re-election in 2018 and Pritzker’s younger brother, J.B. is considering a run.

Though the two have had their differences over the years, when it comes to running for governor, “J.B. and I have been very much aligned on this. I very much support him. I think he’ll make a terrific governor. So I am all in to help him.”

The two have “talked about it on many different levels…he’s a man who has committed himself to early childhood (education) and to helping build businesses, start ups and manufacturing businesses. I think he’ll do a great job. …I told him I’m all in to help him.”

J.B. is prepared to pour his own multiple millions into a governor run. Having his sister on board – with her extensive fundraising networks as well as her own deep pockets – is a considerable plus.


Pritzker will move her “base” back to her Lincoln Park residence in Chicago while maintaining her home in Washington.

A philanthropist – she will rejoin the board of her Pritzker Foundation – and civic leader in Chicago, Pritzker said, “I’m looking for a new opportunity in business. I haven’t figured, sorted it out yet. You can’t do it while you are in this job. But I want to do something that is more global and more digital.

“I’ve had a big portfolio in the digital economy – data and cybersecurity. Those are areas I wasn’t so active in before,” said Pritzker, whose family founded Hyatt Hotels and who made her mark in real estate development.

“I want to do more in the digital world.”

A new business is one bucket. In the other, she said, will be working on some policy pursuits.

“I’ve really seen the critical role that the private sector can have in shaping policy, so I want to find an opportunity to stay involved in policy development.

“I want to do some things that will keep me involved in the policy world. I have opinions about what I’ve learned here and I want to share those, whether it’s on innovation or the opportunity agenda, workforce, manufacturing, cybersecurity.”

“…I have developed opinions on about all these topics and I want to stay engaged with them.”

Pritzker is very close to all the key players in the Obama Foundation – chair Marty Nesbitt, board member Kevin Poorman and executive director Robbin Cohen all had longtime business ties with Pritzker before she became Commerce Secretary.

She has kept a close watch as the Obama selected architects for their Obama Center, a library, museum and meeting space to be built in Jackson Park. Pritzker said she spoke with the architects the Obama’s selected, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

“I’ve talked to them. They think this is the most important commission that they will have in their lifetime.”

Pritzker after Friday’s inauguration of Trump is back in private life.

“Stay tuned,” she said.

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