Penn out as Clinton chief strategist

April 29, 2008 12:54:05 PM PDT
Mark Penn, the pollster and senior strategist for Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential bid, left the campaign Sunday after it was disclosed he met with representatives of the Colombian government to help promote a free trade agreement Clinton opposes. "After the events of the last few days, Mark Penn has asked to give up his role as chief strategist of the Clinton Campaign," campaign manager Maggie Williams said in a statement released Sunday. "Mark, and Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates, Inc. will continue to provide polling and advice to the campaign."

Communications director Howard Wolfson and pollster Geoff Garin will direct the campaign's message and strategic efforts for the campaign going forward, Williams said.

The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that Penn, who serves as chief executive of public relations giant Burson-Marsteller, met with Colombian officials March 31 to help craft strategy to move the Colombian Free Trade agreement through Congress. Penn later issued a statement apologizing for the meeting, calling it an "error in judgment."

But the apology evidently wasn't sufficient. Aides said both Hillary and Bill Clinton were deeply angry upon hearing of the meeting and that Penn was quickly pushed to leave.

The trade deal flap effectively ended an unusually tight relationship between Penn and both Clintons since Penn was recruited to provide polling and strategic advice to Bill Clinton's re-election campaign in 1996. He went on to direct strategy and message for the former first lady's successful 2000 Senate race in New York.

Hillary Clinton was in New Mexico Sunday raising money for her presidential bid. She has made opposition to new trade deals a centerpiece of her campaign and has vowed to renegotiate NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has been blamed for moving blue collar jobs to Mexico and elsewhere.

It was the second major departure of a Clinton campaign official this year. In February, Patti Solis Doyle stepped down as campaign manager and was replaced by Williams.

Penn has been a lightning rod for controversy throughout the campaign and managed to retain considerable influence in the operation almost solely because of the candidate's loyalty to him. He was known to get into angry shouting matches with other members of Clinton's team, including longtime adviser Harold Ickes and media strategist Mandy Grunwald, who often disagreed with his strategic advice and resented his unchecked authority to design the candidate's message.

Penn pushed Clinton to adopt a meat-and-potatoes, issue-based campaign that stressed her "strength and experience" but managed to overlook voters' desire for fundamental political change, which rival Barack Obama was able to capture.

Penn also moved to frame the New York senator as an establishment figure and quasi-incumbent, quashing some of the excitement she might have generated as the first serious woman presidential contender.

Critics also complained the as both pollster and senior strategist, Penn was engaged in a profound conflict of interest - testing the very campaign messages he himself created.

Penn's consulting firm, Penn, Schoen & Berland, has been paid $10.8 million so far by Clinton's campaign.

Penn has come under criticism for other Burson-Marsteller clients, including tobacco giant Philip Morris and corporate clients accused of union-busting activity. While Penn says he does not personally work on any accounts that could be construed as anti-labor, labor leaders have publicly expressed concern about his involvement with the campaign.

According to Justice Department filings, Colombia agreed last year to pay Burson-Marsteller $300,000 to help "educate members of the U.S. Congress and other audiences" about the trade deal and secure continued U.S. funding for the $5 billion anti-narcotics program Plan Colombia.

The Colombian government announced Saturday it had fired Burson-Marsteller after Penn apologized for meeting with its representatives, saying his statement conveyed a "lack of respect" for the country.


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