Sen. Hillary Clinton’s sometimes controversial top campaign strategist and pollster, Mark Penn, left the campaign Sunday, two days after The Wall Street Journal reported that he met with Colombian government representatives to have his company promote a free trade deal opposed by his candidate.
Known for coining the term ‘soccer moms’ and updating the now-famous 3 a.m. ad, Penn continued to serve as CEO of the giant public relations and lobbying firm Burson-Marsteller during Clinton’s campaign — one major point of contention for other campaign staffers.
“The worst kept secret in the whole Democratic race was that Penn’s campaign strategy was not working and that the Clinton campaign has unfortunately paid the price,” Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis told the AP. “The truth is this the best move the Clinton campaign could have made and something that I imagine most Clinton supporters wished had happened months ago.”
Penn, who helped Clinton win her 2000 Senate race and her husband win re-election in 1996, became the second major Clinton campaign official to depart this year. In February, Patti Solis Doyle stepped down as campaign manager.
“Penn’s exit … likely will portend no dramatic shift in message for the campaign in coming weeks but will bring satisfaction to scores of Clinton loyalists who have wanted the controversial image-meister sacked for months,” Politico’s Ben Smith wrote.
Despite the Clintons’ loyalty to Penn, his firm has represented a number of clients that have put him at odds with her presidential campaign. He represents Countrywide Financial, the nation’s largest home mortgage lender, which operates in an industry that Clinton has criticized, The New York Times reported.
His company also provided PR advice to Blackwater Worldwide, the private security firm under investigation by numerous government agencies for the deaths of civilians in Iraq, according to the Times.
And while Clinton was courting union support, another subsidiary of Penn’s company worked for other companies trying to defeat union organizing campaigns.
“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,” The Associated Press reported. “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 later apologized in a statement, calling the meeting “an error in judgment that will not be repeated.”
The day after the story broke, the Columbian government announced it was dropping its contract with Penn’s company and chiding Penn for “a lack of respect to Colombians.”
“New York’s Sen. Clinton opposes the U.S.-Colombia pact, and criticism of free trade has been a major issue in her presidential campaign with Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois,” the Journal reported. “In last month’s important Ohio Democratic primary, Sen. Clinton won a big victory in part due to her attacks on Sen. Obama after reports that his economic adviser had met with Canadian officials to reassure them about his stance on the North American Free Trade Agreement, which both candidates have criticized. Now the issue is big again in next-door Pennsylvania, which holds a potentially climactic Democratic primary April 22.”
A day after losing a client with a six-figure contract, Penn left his top post in the Clinton campaign.
“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 evening. “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.