The chief strategist of Senator Clinton's presidential campaign, Mark Penn, resigned his post yesterday following criticism of a meeting he had with Colombian diplomats pushing for a free trade deal with America.
"After the events of the last few days, Mark Penn has asked to give up his role as chief strategist of the Clinton campaign," Mrs. Clinton's campaign manager, Margaret Williams, said in a statement sent to reporters last night via e-mail.
Ms. Williams did not elaborate on the cause for Mr. Penn's departure, but she seemed to allude to the flap that followed the disclosure of the veteran pollster's meeting last week with Colombia's ambassador, Carolina Barco Isakson, who is seeking congressional approval for a trade pact President Bush's administration has negotiated with Colombia. Mr. Penn attended the session as chief executive of Burson-Marsteller, a lobbying firm that had a $300,000 contract with Colombia to promote the pact.
The meeting angered labor leaders and pointed up a conflict with Mrs. Clinton, who opposes the trade deal. "It's time for Senator Hillary Clinton to send her vaunted 'chief strategist' Mark Penn packing — back to his job consulting for union busting corporations and anti-labor governments," the head of a labor federation that supports Senator Obama's presidential campaign, Gregory Tarpinian of Change to Win, said. "The vast majority of Americans do not believe that we should be granting preferential trade status to a government that coddles death squads that target union organizers." On Friday, after the session was reported in the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Penn apologized.
"The meeting was an error in judgment that will not be repeated and I am sorry for it," he said in a statement. "The senator's well-known opposition to this trade deal is clear and was not discussed."
The apology angered the Colombian government, which promptly fired Mr. Penn's firm. "The Colombian government considers this a lack of respect to Colombians, and finds this response unacceptable," a statement issued by the embassy said.
The practical impact of the shift at the Clinton campaign was unclear, as Ms. Williams said Mr. Penn was not leaving the campaign completely. "Mark and Penn Schoen and Berland Associates, Inc. will continue to provide polling and advice to the campaign," she said. A longtime adviser to Mrs. Clinton, Howard Wolfson, and a new pollster for the candidate, Geoffrey Garin, would assume the role left by Mr. Penn, Ms. Williams said.
One of Mr. Penn's most vocal critics, James Hoffa of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, signaled last night that he was unsatisfied with the change announced by Mrs. Clinton's campaign.
"Demotion doesn't answer General President Hoffa's concerns. Mark Penn is still on her payroll and BMs payroll. Title demotion doesn't indicate loss of influence," a spokeswoman for Mr. Hoffa, Leigh Strope, told The New York Sun.
Mr. Penn's gaffe was particularly problematic for Mrs. Clinton because it undercut her ability to capitalize on a similar meeting a top economic adviser to Mr. Obama, Austan Goolsbee, took with the Canadian consul in Chicago. Diplomats said Mr. Goolsbee indicated that Mr. Obama's rhetoric against the North American Freed Trade Agreement was merely posturing, but the adviser denied any such statement.
Some supporters of Mrs. Clinton called for Mr. Penn's ouster after earlier stumbles by the campaign, but he escaped the ax in previous reshuffles.