When the Hillary Clinton campaign announced on Sunday that chief strategist Mark Penn had stepped down, the mainstream media took them at face value. “Top Clinton Aide Leaving Post Under Pressure,” said the New York Times
. At the time, few picked up on my point
that he never really left, and to assume that she can move beyond the Colombia trade flap is absurd. Since then, Penn has reassured colleagues that he’s still around – and even participated in a conference call for the Clinton campaign. Unions who for months urged Clinton to fire Penn have renewed their effort – but even if she listens, her record with labor is permanently damaged. Because now we’ve learned that Bill Clinton himself went to Colombia to support the country’s effort to pass a free trade deal – even though it’s arguably the most dangerous place in the world to be a union organizer.
“Reports of Mark’s death are greatly exaggerated,” said a close confidant
of Penn to the New York Daily News
yesterday. It wasn’t exactly rocket science. The memo that announced his dismissal said that his firm would still provide “advice and polling,” and it now appears that he’s been stripped of his title – and little else.
On Monday, Penn participated in one of the campaign’s routine conference calls with the press – and now he will coach the candidate for her upcoming debate with Barack Obama in Philadelphia. As Marc Ambinder from The Atlantic noted
, “it is not clear precisely what Mr. Penn's title-change entails, other than a public rebuke.” Or as former Clinton consultant Paul Begala told CNN, “I think Penn is still very much involved.”
Meanwhile, Penn assured his colleagues at Burston-Marsteller – the corporate consulting firm that gave him so many conflicts-of-interest – that he would still play a role in the Clinton camp, which would naturally pay dividends for their clients. In a conference call
that he had which included a “pretty panicked client,” Penn said the story will “cycle through the news as these things do” and that “the situation has played itself out.”
Unions – who begged Clinton for months to get rid of Penn, whose firm does union-busting consulting – are not buying the line that he’s gone either. “People who represent union busters should not be welcome in the Democratic Party,” said the Change to Win
coalition on its website. “People who represent death squads targeting trade unionists should not be welcome in the Democratic Party.”
By “death squads,” they mean how Colombia deals with efforts to organize workers in that country. 39 unionists were murdered there in 2007, and this year they are being killed at a rate of over one per week. Of all such murders in that country since 1986, only 3% resulted in convictions. Colombia is the most dangerous place
in the world to be a union member, but corporate interests are now pushing Congress to give them a free trade agreement.
And they hired Mark Penn to help make it happen. But would firing Penn now – by severing all ties he has with the campaign – end Hillary Clinton’s campaign woes on that issue? Don’t count on it.
In 2005, according to a Colombian newspaper
, former President Bill Clinton visited the country to promote the free trade agreement. “I will raise your point when you return to the United States,” he told president Alvaro Uribe. “I am in favor of the free trade agreement and it is my hope that we will find the right formula to reach the agreement.”
With the long-awaited release of Clintons’ tax returns generating controversy, it should also be noted that Bill Clinton was paid
$800,000 by the Colombia-based Gold Service International to give four speeches throughout Latin America. The organization is, ostensibly, a development group tasked with bringing investment to the country and educating world leaders about the Colombia's “business opportunities.”
Firing Mark Penn won’t be enough for Hillary Clinton to put this issue to rest. It turns out the problem goes straight to the former President.
EDITOR’S NOTE: In his spare time and outside of regular work hours, Paul Hogarth volunteered on Obama’s field operation in San Francisco.