WASHINGTON — As she presses for a coveted endorsement from organized labor, presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton is facing a backlash over the business ties of a top campaign aide who has angered the labor movement.
Sen. Clinton (D-N.Y.) and her rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination are to speak today at an AFL-CIO candidate forum in Chicago. An endorsement promises brigades of union workers to knock on doors, drive people to the polls, and staff phone banks targeting potential voters.
Labor activists demand that Clinton give the aide, Mark J. Penn, a choice: sever connections to the public relations firm that he heads or leave the campaign.
Apart from working as a strategist and pollster for Clinton, Penn is worldwide president and chief executive of Burson-Marsteller, which has more than 100 offices in 59 countries. The firm's clients include Cintas Corp. of Cincinnati, which manufactures and launders corporate uniforms. With Burson-Marsteller's assistance, Cintas has staved off a push to unionize its workforce, and the public relations firm's website at one point boasted of its work in parrying union pressure.
"Companies cannot be caught unprepared by organized labor's coordinated campaigns," the section read, "whether they are in conjunction with organizing or contract negotiating.... That is why we have developed a comprehensive communications approach for clients when they face any type of labor situation."
Penn has said that his own public relations work does not involve anti-union activity, but union leaders said they were troubled that a Democratic candidate who cast herself as a labor ally had chosen him as a campaign partner.
"Learning that Mark Penn was CEO of a company that in fact conducts some of its business busting unions was very, very problematic to the AFL-CIO, as well as to many other unions, and we made that clear" to the Clinton campaign, said Karen Ackerman, AFL-CIO political director. "This is an issue that continues."
Teamsters General President James P. Hoffa said in a statement: "We have expressed our concerns to Sen. Clinton about Mark Penn and his firm's work for anti-union companies. We value Sen. Clinton's commitment to strengthen America's middle class. But as long as Mark Penn continues to profit from his company's involvement with anti-union companies, this issue will not go away."
Penn is refusing to part ways with Burson-Marsteller, and Clinton has not asked him to do so. In an interview, he said he was avoiding a role in overseeing the part of the company's practice that involved management-labor issues.
Penn said he also had invoked the company's "conscience clause," meaning that he would not work with particular clients "because of personal feelings on the issue."
"Look, I've not been anti-union in my work.... As a practical matter, this is not the kind of work that I've been doing," Penn said. "It's nothing that I've had any connection with since I started at Burson."
He was named CEO of the public relations giant in December 2005.
Penn is part of Clinton's inner circle, participating in daily 7:30 a.m. conference calls with campaign aides.
He also is president of Penn, Schoen & Berland, a market research firm that he founded in 1975 and that is now part of Burson's parent company, WPP Group. For its political consulting and polling work, Penn Schoen collected $273,000 from Clinton's campaign in the quarter that ended June 30, campaign finance records show.
"It's not unusual for political consultants to have other clients, or do other work in addition to their political work," said Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson. "There were questions raised about some of Burson-Marsteller's work, and Mark made it clear that he was going to recuse himself completely from any of the work in question, and he has done so."
The outside financial interests of political strategists can cause difficulties for a candidate. When George W. Bush ran for president in 2000, he insisted that his main advisor, Karl Rove, sell a political consulting firm Rove had founded, to ensure that Rove's loyalties were not divided.
Other candidates also rely on advisors who maintain independent careers. Gregory B. Craig, an unpaid foreign policy advisor to Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), is a Washington lawyer who in 2000 represented the father of Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban boy at the center of a custody battle between relatives who wanted to keep him in Miami and his father, who wanted to take him back to Cuba. As a White House special counsel, Craig also represented President Clinton in the 1998 impeachment case.
With thousands of clients, Burson-Marsteller has far-flung interests. Cintas spokeswoman Pamela Lowe said it was Cintas' main public relations agency, doing "a wide range of corporate communications for us."
"I'll tell you that Cintas is pleased with the work that Burson has done," she said.