Aide's New Role Looks to Some Like the Old One

Mark Penn, the senior strategist for Hillary Clinton's presidential bid, left the campaign Sunday after it was disclosed he met with representatives of the Colombian government to promote a free trade agreement, which Clinton opposes. Video by AP
By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The question for some staff members of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign yesterday was why it had taken her so long to remove Mark J. Penn as its chief strategist.

But other aides wondered how the campaign will function without Penn. And despite the announcement Sunday that he is giving up his strategist role, it remain to be seen how removed he will be. Penn was on a top-level conference call yesterday, one insider said; he is helping Clinton (N.Y.) prepare for the next Democratic debate, on April 16; and his firm, Penn Schoen & Berland Associates, will continue to conduct some polling for the campaign.

Penn had been the target of criticism for many months and had warred with others in the campaign's inner circle. His departure was rumored in January after Clinton lost the Iowa caucuses, as part of a general housecleaning that appeared imminent until she unexpectedly won the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 8. Even after Clinton changed campaign managers in February, ousting longtime confidante Patti Solis Doyle and installing her former White House chief of staff, Maggie Williams, some advisers thought Penn should be moved out of his chief strategist role. But Clinton did not take any such action.

Williams is "doing what she has wanted to do all along, just in her own time," the insider said. "She couldn't get rid of Mark until he gave her the rope" with which to hang him. That was his meeting with the Colombian ambassador to the United States to discuss promotion of a free trade treaty that Clinton opposes.

The timing of Penn's meeting came at a particularly inappropriate time, just as Clinton was trying to win the support of the United Steelworkers of America, who had earlier endorsed former senator John Edwards (N.C.) and has not picked between Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) since Edwards left the race. As one official at the union put it, "There's no way Mark Penn's departure can be a negative with our members."

Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who is not associated with the Clinton or Obama campaign, said he doubts Penn's new role will mean significant changes.

"We are very near the end of the race, and the course has largely been set," he said by e-mail yesterday. "The new message mavens may tack 10 degrees one way or the other, but it's just too late for any wholesale changes in message or strategy. "

In her announcement on Sunday, Williams said that longtime communications director Howard Wolfson and pollster Geoff Garin, a relatively new recruit to the operation, will share the role of chief strategist. "I think it's more accurate to say there is no chief strategist, other than the candidate," said one Clinton loyalist, speaking candidly on the condition of anonymity.

More than a year ago, reports began surfacing of potential conflicts of interest that could emerge between Penn's corporate work as chief executive of Burson-Marsteller and Clinton's campaign activity. In May 2007, Penn was reported to be writing an internal office blog, in which he described business meetings with corporate officials who at times had interests that ran counter to Clinton's campaign rhetoric.

One of Penn's blog entries, according to Bloomberg News, described a trip he took to Houston to meet with John Hofmeister, head of Royal Dutch Shell's U.S. arm and a leader in an industry that Clinton has criticized for reaping "windfall profits."

Penn also described his firm's efforts to win business from the U.S. Tuna Foundation, Bloomberg reported. He noted that while the industry group was trying to neutralize federal warnings of elevated mercury in the fish, Clinton was publicly criticizing the Environmental Protection Agency for playing down the warnings.

Penn's firm has also represented TXU Corp., a company that builds coal-fired power plants; tobacco giant Altria Group Inc.; and drug manufacturers Merck & Co. and Pfizer Inc., among others. All have been at odds with Clinton's policy positions at times.

"He has been in an inherent conflict of interest for more than a year," said Fred Wertheimer, head of an ethics watchdog group, who has been critical of Penn's efforts to balance his business and the campaign. Wertheimer called it "a classic example of how big money has inextricably intertwined the campaign advising and lobbying worlds of modern-day Washington with potential conflicts of interest all over the place."

Staff writers Dan Balz and Matthew Mosk contributed to this report.

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