As the chief spokesman for Hillary Clinton, Howard Wolfson has been in the media spotlight almost as much as his boss, the would-be Democratic Senator from New York. But for a man whose comments have been appearing in the press on a daily basis since he was hired last June, relatively little is known about him.
As the chief spokesman for Hillary Clinton, Howard Wolfson has been
in the media spotlight almost as much as his boss, the would-be
Democratic Senator from New York. But for a man whose comments have been
appearing in the press on a daily basis since he was hired last June,
relatively little is known about him.
The modest 32-year-old from Yonkers, NY jokes about this newfound
’I was in a subway station after a TV appearance and someone asked if I
was Howard Wolfson,’ he says. Wolfson replied that he was, at which
point the man screamed, ’I would never vote for your boss in a million
Such is life in the Big Apple. Given that most New Yorkers have already
made up their minds about Hillary Clinton and her opponent, Mayor Rudy
Giuliani, one would think that PR will not make much of a
But the race is tight, and there are enough undecided voters to make
good press a factor come Election Day. The latest New York Times/CBS
poll finds the first lady enjoying a 49% to 41% lead over Giuliani,
whose appeal has slipped because of his treatment of the Patrick
A Democratic soldier
Wolfson has spent the better part of his career fighting and winning
campaigns for New York Democrats, working on two campaigns for Rep. Nita
Lowey and one for Senator Chuck Schumer.
The history graduate, whose parents were both teachers, says he’s always
been fascinated by politics. But his first experience working with
Hillary Clinton, during last summer’s listening tour, certainly tested
As the only spokesman on board at that point, he was left to field calls
from some 300 reporters: ’I had no idea what I was doing. It was
uncharted waters,’ he says candidly. ’I couldn’t have sat here and
talked like this because I would be paged every 10 seconds. There is
great interest in everything she says and does.’
Things are somewhat quieter now, but over the past year, Wolfson has put
out more blazes than the NY Fire Department.
The first lady’s embrace of Yasser Arafat’s wife Suha last year caused a
media firestorm, given the inflammatory charges she made against
Then there are the weekly skirmishes on everything from Hillary’s use of
government planes and White House staff to her participation in the St.
Patrick’s Day parade, which bans gays from marching under their own
banner. Even the Chicago native’s support of the Yankees turned into a
political hot potato, spotlighting accusations that she is a
How does Wolfson deal with each situation? ’By remembering - this too
shall pass,’ he quips. At the end of the day, honesty is the
all-important ingredient in dealing with crisis, he says. The New York
media horde agrees that Wolfson plays it straight. ’He is candid when
she’s screwed up. He won’t sit there and tell you otherwise,’ says one
political correspondent from a New York daily. ’That is not true of the
Giuliani people. They are much more into spin.’
Friends say Wolfson has a unique interest in policy for a spokesman.
He spends much of his time trawling the Web and looking at political
sites such as Empirepage.com, which provides links to the major
headlines of the day. The New York Post, a staunch supporter of
Giuliani, suggested in an editorial that Wolfson’s job is explaining to
Clinton what she does and doesn’t believe. His riposte is delivered in
his usual one-line sound bite: ’New York knows ... she is passionate
about the issues and her policies are her own.’ Wolfson shares this
intensity, according to the political reporter. ’He does get very
emotional. Yeah, he’s yelled at us.’
Former colleague Cathie Levine is communications director for Sen.
Schumer, a job Wolfson once held. She explains why Wolfson is so highly
regarded by the political crowd: ’He is good at getting the message out
while simultaneously responding to negative attacks. To endure that kind
of thing on a sustained basis takes a thick skin and a quick wit.’
Josh Isay, another former Schumer spokesman who is now director of
public policy at Web advertising firm DoubleClick, says Wolfson is adept
at taking the offensive as well. ’When Al D’Amato called Schumer a
’putzhead,’ Howard was instrumental in using it as an illustration of
why we needed a change in Senate,’ he recalls.
Despite Wolfson’s skills and Hillary’s rise in the polls, the Hillary
2000 team faces a PR challenge not usually encountered during a Senate
run. ’The basic problem they have is that they are running with the
staff of a senator and dealing with the coverage of a president,’ says
the New York political scribe. The campaign team, based out of a
makeshift office opposite Macy’s, consists of manager Bill De Blasio,
media consultant Mandy Grunwald and pollster Mark Penn, among
Officially, Wolfson has a team of two - Karen Finney, a former White
House aide, and Karen Dunn, who worked with Lowey - but half of New
York’s PR community claims to be giving campaign advice.
The tab for Clinton’s Senate push is likely to run about dollars 25
million, with most of it spent on advertising produced by DeVito/Verdi.
The Manhattan shop created the infamous New York magazine bus ads that
claimed the publication was ’possibly the only good thing in New York
that Rudy hasn’t taken credit for.’ The PR budget, meanwhile, is limited
to salaries and the price of coffee and doughnuts on the campaign
Wolfson and the first lady appear to be entering a new phase of the
campaign now that she’s ahead. The process of peeling back the layers of
her character started when Clinton appeared on The Late Show with David
Letterman in January. Although it drew criticism because she had seen
some questions in advance, Wolfson dubbed it a ’great success’ because
it showed a new side to the first lady.
Wolfson is coy about what his future holds should the Clinton bid
Citigroup’s Lisa Caputo, a former press secretary to Hillary Clinton,
predicts great things. ’I see him going on to do PR for a Fortune 500
company or working in the next Democratic administration.’ Wolfson
indicates he’d like to stay in the public sector.
Levine says she has never had a night out with Wolfson where he wasn’t
constantly paged. ’I guess that is what his whole life is going to be
like,’ she concludes. He’d better get used to it.
HOWARD WOLFSON - Chief spokesman, Hillary 2000
1992: Communications director for Rep. Jim Jontz
1994, 1996: Chief of staff and press secretary for Rep. Nita Lowey
1998: Communications director for Charles Schumer’s Senate campaign
1999: Hillary Clinton’s campaign spokesman.