Penny Pritzker runs the Commerce Department — and the occasional marathon and triathlon. (Paul Morigi/GETTY IMAGES FOR FORTUNE)

Penny Pritzker knows a bit about business. The family business of the third commerce secretary to be sworn in during President Obama’s tenure was a little chain of hotels you may have heard of: Hyatt.

She’s also founded a few companies of her own, including real estate development and a capital-investment firm, and done some serious philanthropy.

Fresh off a “listening tour” and poised to release a strategic plan for her agency, the Chicago native opened up to the Loop about what private-sector expertise can bring to the government and about some of her less-known accomplishments (Sudoku chops and an Ironman triathlon!).

If you were going to open a retail store or small business, what would it sell?

Businesses have an incredibly positive impact on their community. I would start something that allowed me to exercise my appreciation for design and architecture.

Which Cabinet secretary would you most like to hang out with, and what would you do?

Chuck Hagel. He’s a great leader and I have such respect and admiration for our military. I have spent most of my career focused on economic issues, but our entire economic security is built on the national security that is protected by our brave armed forces.

What’s your favorite non-work-related Web site/blog/

My Sudoku app. I love it.

Fill in the blank: People would be surprised to know that _______.

Fitness is a family passion. My son just completed a Chicago marathon under three hours, and my daughter rows crew on her college team. Yes, I am a proud mom. My husband, who is a triathlete and marathoner, has brought fitness to 16,000 Chicago public school children with an NGO he started called Chicago Run. And I am a triathlete, having run multiple marathons and triathlon as well as the Hawaii Ironman.

What’s your dream job (other than your current gig)?

I stepped out of my dream job of building businesses to help our country and I am loving leading the Department of Commerce.

What motivated you to go into public service?

This country has been unbelievably good to my family. I believe that “to whom much is given, much is expected,” and that it is incredibly important that leaders from the private sector play a leadership role in government.

Favorite TV show?

“House of Cards” and “PBS NewsHour.”

Which character(s) from the shows do you most identify with?

Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill, of course. They are indeed women of powerful character!

What subject, other than your work, do you know the most about?

Building businesses first. And contemporary art second.

What’s the best job you ever had (other than the current one)?

Mom to Don and Rose. My husband and I raised our children together, and it is the endeavor that makes us most proud.

What’s one word you wish people would use to describe you?


You can draft one person in the private sector to come work for the federal government. Who would it be, and what would you have them do?

It is hard to pick just one as I’ve met with hundreds of terrific business leaders across America in my first few months in office. To name just a few, how about Ginni Rometty of IBM, Ursula Burns of Xerox or Chinwe Onyeagoro of O-H Community Partners? They are all amazing talents, and we could let them do whatever they wanted — America would be lucky to have them serve.

Background Check is a Loop feature in which we grill various government types about their lives on and off the clock. Please send suggestions for future subjects to intheloop@

The pause button

Sen. Lindsey Graham’s TV-viewing habits are having a ripple effect. Had he not caught Sunday night’s “60 Minutes” segment about the deadly attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi — instead of, say, a football game or perhaps a new episode of Bravo’s “I Dream of NeNe” — things might be looking a bit different for some White House nominees.

The South Carolina Republican said Monday, apparently inspired by the news show, that he planned to hold up all nominees in the Senate until the survivors of the Benghazi attack are made available to testify to Congress.

Some noted that Graham’s umbrage was perfectly timed for a week in which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is planning a push on controversial nominees. They include Richard Griffin to be the top lawyer at the National Labor Relations Board and Patricia Millett for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Graham’s fellow Senate Republicans have also been threatening to stonewall the D.C. court nominees. “Republicans should remain united in blocking Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s attempt to pack the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals,” Sen. John Cornyn wrote last week on the Fox News Web site.

We hear that Democrats still expect Griffin to get the 60 votes needed to move his nomination, along maybe Tuesday. Then it’s on to other picks, starting with Alan Estevez to be principal deputy undersecretary of defense, Katherine Archuleta as head of the Office of Personnel Management, Thomas Wheeler on the Federal Communications Commission, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to posts at the International Monetary Fund and other international banks, and Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) as director of the Federal Housing Agency.

At the Defense Department, there’s Jessica Garfola Wright as undersecretary for personnel and readiness, Marcel Lettre as principal deputy undersecretary, and Deborah Lee James as Air Force secretary. And then Suzanne Spaulding as undersecretary of homeland security.

These folks in waiting might want to get comfortable — and hope senators stick to watching Sunday-night football.

With Emily Heil

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