Pritzker would join growing list of Chicagoans in White House

May 3, 2013

AP/File
President Barack Obama speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Thursday, May 2, 2013, where he announced he will nominate Penny Pritzker, right, as Commerce Secretary and Michael Froman as U.S. Trade Representative, in Washington.

Even before Penny Pritzker was nominated to be Commerce Secretary, her detractors had been accusing President Obama of cronyism for even considering her for the job.

Pritzker, a billionaire Chicago businesswoman, has long been a political ally and big fundraiser for Obama. And if her nomination is confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Pritzker would be far from the first Chicagoan to leave the Windy City for the Obama White House.

The city’s reputation for political nepotism has made Obama’s hometown appointments an easy target for his critics. But one expert on Obama presidential patronage suggested presidents are wise to promote from within their inner circle.

After all, Obama helped win election in 2008 with the help of two top advisors, Chicagoans David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett. Once in office, he tapped former Chicago Public Schools chief Arne Duncan to be Education Secretary, University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee to be a top economic advisor, and two successive chiefs of staff to muscle through his agenda – current Mayor Rahm Emanuel and William Daley, brother to the former mayor, and all are Chicagoans.

Then there’s Rabbi Sam Gordon, of Congregation Sukkat Shalom, in north suburban Wilmette.

Gordon was appointed last month to the board that oversees the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, one of hundreds of presidential appointments that don’t get much press coverage.

So how’d he get it?

Not likely from the $1,000 he’s donated to Obama’s presidential campaigns.

“Last time I checked, I’m not a major donor, that’s right,” Gordon joked.

But Gordon says he did know the president at the genesis of his political career, adding that his daughter even volunteered on one of Obama’s early State Senate campaigns.

So the president already knew Gordon was plugged into the Jewish community – and, yes, the Chicago connection helped him get the unpaid appointment, he said.

“I wouldn’t know the president if it weren’t for Chicago,” he said. “I mean, that’s one of the great things about being in Chicago, uh, and the great things about a community that is so open and where people can know each other so well.”

Not everyone buys the power of Chicago.

“I don’t think it really has too much to do with a geographic location,” said Louis B. Susman, the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom. Susman was a top political fundraiser for Obama before getting his ambassadorship – the kind of cushy posting that’s often seen as a reward for top political allies.

But Susman says that’s not the whole picture.

“Look, obviously you appoint people that have worked hard for you, but he’s not going to appoint people that he doesn’t think can do the job,” Susman said of the president.

Both Susman and Gordon represent two typical types of presidential appointees: The long-time supporter and the political loyalist, said Vanderbilt University’s Dave Lewis, who has studied patronage in the Obama White House.

There is always the risk of bad political optics and the impression of insider dealing when presidents appoint from their own political circles, Lewis said. It’s not uncommon: Lewis said President Clinton had his appointees from Arkansas, and President George W. Bush tapped Texans.

Lewis called Pritzker a “triple threat,” because she was not only an early Obama supporter and a prolific fundraiser, but her business acumen makes her a good fit as Commerce Secretary.

“And you wanna reward people who have publicly supported you for a long time because that sends the right signal to other people who are considering whether or not to support you, and she fills all of those criteria,” Lewis said.

And, Lewis says, the Chicago connection doesn’t hurt, either.

Alex Keefe is a political reporter for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter at @akeefe.