Last year an article by Ari Berman in these pages exhaustively detailed how Burson-Marsteller, the PR giant run by Hillary Clinton’s chief campaign strategist, Mark Penn, helped corporations quash union-organizing drives and represented seedy operators like Big Tobacco (see “Hillary Inc.,” June 4). Even though that article prompted union leaders and others to protest Clinton’s Penn connection, Penn did not shut down Burson’s unionbusting division or take a formal leave from the company. This raised questions about how Clinton could support workers yet have as her leading strategist a man whose PR firm not only has a long history of being an unsavory corporate shill but gave most of its 2006 political contributions to Republicans and has close ties to GOP operatives.
Now Penn has stepped down as Clinton’s chief strategist in the wake of press reports that he has been working with the Colombian government, a $300,000-a-year client of Burson, to push for a free-trade deal with a country that does not protect trade unionists from death squads (at least 700 have been murdered since 2001, eleven in the past month alone). Penn not only tried to help the Colombian government win passage of a bill that Clinton opposes; he sat idly by as Burson and its GOP-friendly subsidiaries represented the likes of notorious mercenary contractor Blackwater and troubled mortgage lender Countrywide Financial.
Penn’s demotion is long overdue, yet he continues to poll for Clinton and help plot strategy. He even reassured colleagues at Burson that “I’ll continue to play a role advising Senator Clinton and former President Clinton as well as the rest of the leadership of the campaign.” The Clinton campaign must affirm its commitment to workers’ rights and fair-trade agreements by firing Penn, cleanly. His meeting with the Colombian Ambassador was not just an “error of judgment,” as Penn now says. His affiliation with Clinton illustrates the conflict-of-interest nexus of political campaigns, corporate money and DC lobbying, which must be broken. Penn personifies the coziness with Big Business, the poll-obsessed approach to politics and the arrogant spin that have turned many Democrats and progressives away from the Clintons.
Hillary Clinton was fully aware of Penn’s potential conflicts of interest when she appointed him as her chief strategist. He never should have been at the center of her campaign–or that of any other Democratic contender. His quasi demotion is too little, too late.