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

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Shortly after Rahm Emanuel was elected mayor, he asked Pritzker to join the Chicago Board of Education. She is the first billionaire to serve there, further aggravating unions.

For four years, housekeepers and other Hyatt workers in Chicago have worked without a labor agreement. The fight has grown intensely personal, with the union and its allies confronting Hyatt board members at their workplaces and producing a movie about a then-Pritzker-owned subsidiary's decision to shut down an East Chicago manufacturing facility and accept millions in tax incentives to move jobs to Louisiana.

Hyatt has a proposal in front of hotel union Unite Here Local 1 that includes wage and benefit increases, but the union nationally has balked over rules around organizing, Hyatt says. The local, based in Chicago, declined to comment.

"She was a financier of Stand for Children, a nonprofit that parachuted in and pumped a lot of money into Illinois candidates who support efforts to attack bargaining rights for teachers under the premise of child-friendly policies," said Jackson Potter, staff coordinator for the Chicago Teachers Union. "She is part of the billionaires' club financing these attacks on the teachers union."

As for Hyatt's dispute with the union, Potter said Pritzker's silence on the matter shows her allegiance with the 1 percent.

"If you're going to lead the country, you better have some concern and sympathy for these people," Potter said. "And so far, we haven't seen enough of that from her."

Pritzker, who declined to be interviewed for this article, is rarely, if ever, afraid to speak her mind in private, according to friends. For instance, Pritzker said no to making a multimillion-dollar contribution to the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action, according to two sources. Her refusal to write a large check became a source of tension between Pritzker and high-level Obama supporters, a source said.

Still, the issue didn't divide Obama and Pritzker, who was at McCormick Place on election night, conducting interviews with the major cable networks. And the administration has done nothing to quash reports that Obama is considering Pritzker for the commerce secretary post.

"I put her on the school board because ... she's not scared to tell me, 'No,'" Emanuel said in an interview. "Now if I tell her I want her to do something, I need her to do something, more likely than not she will do it. But she will tell me, if she disagrees with me, 100 reasons why she doesn't think it's right, and then she'll do it. That is what you want. 'Yes' people are a dime a dozen. Getting someone ... willing to be in the room for the tough calls and execute is very rare. That's Penny Pritzker."

With the breakup of the family business, Pritzker chose to move her office out of the Hyatt Center and form her own investment company, PSP Capital Partners, in which she is the sole investor.

Since 2010, with her own organization, she has invested $560 million in real estate, mostly in apartments that are under construction in California and the Washington, D.C., area. An additional $415 million in real estate development is in the pipeline, according to a source.

She also co-founded Artemis Real Estate Partners LLC in 2009, a real estate investment firm based in Maryland. The company has received investments from pension funds, including $300 million from the New York State Common Retirement Fund, the third-largest pension plan in the country.

PSP Capital also acquired a majority stake in Halo Branded Solutions, a Sterling, Ill.-based seller of promotional goods, and a Minnesota tomato grower, Bushel Boy Farms.

Pritzker and Traubert have developed their own philanthropic strategy, focused in part on reducing obesity and improving public education, particularly in the area of principal quality.

But the machine could run without her. On the philanthropic side, Traubert, an ophthalmologist, already is the president of the Pritzker Traubert Family Foundation. On the business side, she could make divestments or, a source said, sign an ethics agreement as newly appointed Secretary of State John Kerry has done.

"We do really need somebody who can break down at least the perceived barrier between the administration and business," said Tom Wilson, the Allstate Corp. CEO and friend.

mmharris@tribune.com

Twitter @chiconfidential

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