WASHINGTON — The Chicago Sun-Times has learned that former Obama Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, who holds a unique place in Obama history, is joining the board of the Barack Obama Presidential Foundation and that the foundation opened a new office in New York, starting to make good on a promise to Columbia University.


Pritzker becomes the 12th member of the Obama Foundation board as the organization is stepping up its pursuit of mega corporate donors in general and corporate Chicago in particular.

The foundation did not take contributions from corporations until now-former President Barack Obama left office on Jan. 20 and needs hundreds of millions of dollars to bankroll programs and to construct the Obama Presidential Center in Hyde Park.

As I have noted in columns through the years, Obama became a viable presidential candidate in 2007 due to the fundraising ability of Pritzker, the Chicago business tycoon and philanthropist, who is a member of one of the nation’s richest families.

Pritzker was Obama’s 2008 national Finance Chair and national co-chair of his 2012 re-election campaign.

She was expected to eventually take on a formal role with the foundation. On July 10, the Sun-Times has learned, Pritzker hosted Obama at her home, where he spoke to a group of prominent Chicagoans known for generous giving through their business or their philanthropies.

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.


The foundation, based in Hyde Park on Chicago’s South Side, is starting to make good on a pledge to have some kind of a partnership at Columbia University, where Obama received his undergraduate degree.

Columbia lost its bid to have the Obama Presidential Center located at its Harlem campus. When Obama and first lady Michelle decided Chicago would be the home to their center, the foundation, on May 12, 2015, said it “intends to maintain a presence at Columbia University for the purpose of exploring and developing opportunities for a long term association.”

At present, the foundation has about 63 employees with the plurality of them in Chicago; there is a significant outpost in Washington, in the same building where the Obamas have their official post-presidential offices.

There are about five staffers in New York, including the key figures working on the foundation fellowships plans.