The presidential campaign of Democrat Hillary Clinton was in crisis mode on Monday after her top strategist was forced to quit amid a political firestorm sparked by disclosure of his lobbying ties to Colombia.
The departure of Mark Penn rattled the campaign struggling to match the soaring clarion call for hope and change ignited by Hillary’s Democratic rival, Barack Obama, who leads her in nominating contest wins and the popular vote as they tussle for the party’s nomination.
Penn quit after admitting he erred by meeting, in his capacity as a Washington lobbyist, Colombian diplomats who backed a trade deal with the US that Hillary opposes.
Penn is a top executive in US public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, and has his own consulting firm.
His thick contacts book was one of the factors that prompted Obama to claim Hillary’s White House bid was fuelled by a bankrupt Washington political system that had failed the American people.
He had also been criticised for framing Hillary’s electoral message, which positioned her as the candidate of experience, while Obama, a 46-year-old Illinois senator, claimed a mantra of change.
“After the events of the last few days, Mark Penn has asked to give up his role as chief strategist of the Clinton campaign,” Hillary’s campaign manager Maggie Williams said in a statement.
Williams herself only took over in February, replacing Patti Solis Doyle as campaign manager after an internal tumult in the face of pressure from repeated victories by Obama.
Aides said Penn’s consulting company would carry on providing polling to Hillary’s campaign, as she struggles to catch up with the Illinois senator in the party’s intense White House race ahead of November’s general elections.
It was revealed last week that Burson-Marsteller was hired by Bogota to promote a free trade pact between Colombia and the US — a treaty which Hillary has opposed.
Penn said last week he had made “an error in judgment” in meeting the Colombian ambassador to US, Carolina Barco, on March 31, and said he would not make the same mistake again.
Colombia retaliated by firing Burson-Marsteller, saying in a statement that it “considers this a lack of respect to Colombians, and finds this response unacceptable”.
Burson-Marsteller’s work for Colombia raised conflict-of-interest questions for Hillary’s campaign, as she had feverishly worked to court working-class votes in states which believe free trade has hammered their manufacturing base.
Hillary triumphed in the Ohio primaries last month, in a victory credited with reviving her White House campaign, which polls suggested was based on backing from white, blue-collar voters attracted by her populist economic message.
She profited in Ohio by casting doubt on Obama’s opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement, after a meeting between an aide to the Illinois senator and Canadian diplomats came to light.
The alleged iniquities of free trade have become campaign fodder as Obama and Hillary battle it out on the way to the Pennsylvania primary on April 22.