Normally, presidents reward their biggest campaign contributors with ambassadorships. But Hyatt hotel scion Penny Pritzker -- who was Obama’s campaign finance chair in 2008 -- is getting a seat in the cabinet, as Secretary of Commerce. Pritzker’s reward is so big because her role in Obama’s career has been so big. She may be the most important financial donor any president has ever had. If not for her, Obama might not even have gotten to the U.S. Senate.
In 2002, when he was considering a run for Senate, Obama didn’t have any cash. Although he has since become wealthy, as a result of book royalties, Obama had never been motivated by money. He had quit his job at a New York business publication to work as a $10,000-a-year community organizer in Chicago. He gave up a law practice to serve in the state senate. He lived in a condo. He drove a Dodge Neon.
Obama’s best friend, Marty Nesbitt, was vice president of the Pritzker Realty Group, so he arranged for Barack and Michelle to spend a weekend at Penny’s Michigan cottage. Obama and Pritzker already knew each other from their work on the board of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, a school funding charity Obama had chaired. But Pritzker still needed to be sold on Obama as Senate candidate. He sold her.
“It became clear to us that if Barack could win, he had the intellect, the opportunity, to be an extraordinary leader,” Pritzker told the Chicago Tribune’s David Mendell.
Pritzker’s approval also opened the wallets of other wealthy Chicago liberals, a group Obama had been working hard to cultivate, by, among other things, having his senate district redrawn to swap Englewood for the Loop and the Gold Coast. As Mendell wrote in Obama: From Promise to Power
With Penny Pritzker on board, other influential Chicago-based Democrats and philanthropists soon followed suit: Newton Minow, a Chicago lawyer who advised Senator Adlai Stevenson and Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson; James Crown and members of the wealthy Crown family; John Bryan, then the chief executive of the Sara Lee Corporation.
Thanks to Pritzker, Obama was the It Candidate in the 2004 Senate race. He raised enough money to take on self-funded millionaire Blair Hull (whose campaign ended up imploding when his divorce papers came to light, revealing that he had whacked his ex-wife on the leg.) In 2008, again with Pritzker’s help, he raised more money than any candidate in American political history -- so much that he was able to disappoint his old good-government allies in Springfield by forgoing public funding.
Pritzker made Obama a viable national political candidate. And in return, he’s making her a cabinet member.