Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist, Mark Penn, is becoming a liability for her campaign. Following the publication of The Nation‘s article, Hillary Inc., the heads of two large unions wrote a letter to Clinton, first noted in the New York Times this week, expressing their displeasure that Penn’s PR firm, Burson-Marsteller, was helping corporations block union organizing drives, including one their unions were involved in at Cintas, a highly profitable uniform and laundry supply company.
After the Times story, the two most important labor leaders in America–the AFL-CIO’s John Sweeney and SEIU’s Andy Stern–also contacted the Clinton campaign. According to AFL-CIO spokesman Steve Smith, "Sweeney had a conversation with the campaign and registered his concern about Mark Penn."
As a result, two days before Hillary is to speak before an AFL-CIO forum in Detroit, Penn is trying to draw separation from his company’s anti-labor work, telling The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder that "he will cede all oversight responsibilities for his company’s labor relations clients to other managers."
A few weeks back Penn told The Nation that he had "never personally participated in any antiunion activity." He said today, via email, that he is "sending a clear message that I have no role in this and as a matter of conscience will not."
Penn’s statements raise the question: how does one recuse themselves from work they claim not to be doing?
"The logic of the question has considerable merit," says Harold Ickes, a longtime Clinton advisor and ambassador to organized labor. "Mark has told us that he is taking extra steps to assure people on the outside that he does not engage with clients that may be involved in controversial issues. The phrase ‘Chinese wall‘ has been used."
Ickes predicts rival campaigns will use the anti-labor connection against Clinton. "You don’t want to have attention deflected from the candidate," he says.
The Clinton camp believes it has put the matter to rest. "Mark is a extremely valued and vital member of our team and Hillary is pleased that he has not done this work in the past and will be recusing himself from any possible involvement in the future," says Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson.
Yet some labor officials hoped Penn would go much further, taking steps toward terminating B-M’s "labor relations" division or at least ending the contract with Cintas. Neither will occur, nor is Penn taking a formal leave of absence from the company. He’s also not distancing himself from the money the "labor relations" wing brings in and the other controversial clients B-M represents in the defense, pharmaceutical and energy industries and the Republican lobbyists he oversees.
Penn’s "recusal" must thus be seen as a classic case of PR spin; a phony gesture that fails to address the underlying problems or the reasons prominent labor leaders are upset with Clinton’s campaign.