ANALYSIS: Profile - Howard! The first lady’s leading PR man. Every day brings a new battle for Howard Wolfson, the voice behind Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign. Claire Atkinson catches up with a man whose honesty and wit have earned rave

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.

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

fame.



’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

years!’



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

difference.



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

Dorismond shooting.





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

that devotion.



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

Israel.



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

carpetbagger.



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.’





Peer praise



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

others.



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

trail.



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

fail.



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.



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