Controversial strategist leaves Clinton campaign

Posted: Monday, April 07, 2008

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - 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.

Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis, who had been a spokesman in John Edwards' campaign, said Penn's departure was needed to help the candidate.

"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," Kofinis said. "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."

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