News & Politics

When Marriage and Politics Conflict

He's a cat guy. She's a dog person. He's helping Hillary. She's helping the competition.

It makes sense that pollster Mark Penn and fundraiser Nancy Jacobson named their powerboat Yin & Yang.

The high-powered husband and wife are a study in opposites attracting. Reserved and cerebral, Penn, 52, is a bearish, unmade-bed of a guy, an introvert who collects antique maps and went into polling because, he says, “it was an interesting way to find out what people are thinking without talking to them.”

Jacobson, 43, is a sort of planet unto herself. She’s a gregarious brunette who knows everyone, hosts VIP salons at her Georgetown home, and is so adept at bringing people together she’s personally responsible for nearly half a dozen marriages.

“Yin and yang actually means harmony,” she says. “We have big differences, but we have this harmony.”

But the increasingly loud buzz of 2008 could put that harmony to the test. Penn has been working to ensure that if and when Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton decides to go for the White House, the Democratic nomination will be hers, while Jacobson has been working to make sure that Senator Evan Bayh, if he chooses to run, will be the one to stop Hillary and nab the nomination.

Working for likely competing presidential hopefuls, Penn and Jacobson are an all-Democrat version of Carville and Matalin, though a less flamboyant duo.

“There’s no combat here,” says Jacobson. “We both want the same thing—we’re both committed to advancing the legacy of Bill Clinton. We just happen to have different candidates to get there.”

Penn, who rose to fame as the mastermind of President Clinton’s reelection and has worked for Tony Blair and more than a dozen heads of state, has been advising Hillary since she first contemplated a run for the Senate. He says she now is focused on her Senate campaign but adds, “She’s at the top of her game.”

Jacobson, finance chair of the Democratic National Committee during the Clinton years, is one of the most formidable money people in Democratic circles. As Bayh’s national finance architect, she’s developing a strategy to get the Indiana senator to the $30-million mark she says he will need to compete in the Iowa caucuses and offer himself as the alternative to Hillary.

During this earliest phase of the campaign, when all are still coy about their intentions, the couple’s competing interests have resulted in some awkwardness—and a little less conversation.

When Jacobson holds fundraisers for Bayh, her husband doesn’t expect to hear about the guest list. Likewise, the Hillary Clinton adviser doesn’t give his wife details of his meetings with the senator from New York. “I’m pretty close-lipped as it is,” says Penn, who may be best known for coining the term “soccer moms.”

Jacobson says both she and her husband have “our own little cone of silence.” At their $5.2-million place in Georgetown, once home to Adlai Stevenson, they make sure their phone conversations are private—with 5,000 square feet, seven bedrooms, his and her bathrooms, a garden, and a pool, it’s hardly a problem.

But there are times when they’re both at a dinner with potential donors or advisers “with each of us making the case for our respective person,” says Jacobson.

And they can envision a time, if both senators are in the race as 2008 nears, when life could get complicated. “We’ll be together at the end, but it’s possible there will be a three-month period where someone’s being quarantined,” Jacobson jokes.

Lucky for them they have a weekend home on the Eastern Shore. “It may come in handy,” Jacobson says.

The pollster and the fundraiser met ten years ago when Bayh, then governor of Indiana, introduced them at a Democratic Leadership Council event. They had heard of each other and soon realized they shared a passion for centrist Democratic politics—and an address: They happened to live in the same apartment building on N Street in DC’s West End.

Married seven years now, the parents of four-year-old Blair and three children from Penn’s previous marriage have found a way to combine their shared interest in policy with Jacobson’s social nature and networking skills. They hold “issues dinners” at their home with a speaker—everyone from Shimon Peres to Baltimore mayor Martin O’Malley has been a guest of honor—and an assortment of journalists and political figures. Dinner has been prepared by a chef from the French Embassy.

“She’s given me an appreciation for people and socializing that maybe I didn’t have before,” Penn says of his wife. “She loves being an extrovert. I love being an introvert.”

It’s a style that has worked for him. The London Times recently called Penn “the most important man in Washington you’ve never heard of.” And last December he was named “worldwide CEO” of the public-relations company Burson-Marsteller, whose parent company bought Penn’s opinion-research firm four years earlier.

A New York native and Harvard graduate whose first campaign poll was for Ed Koch’s 1977 mayoral race in New York City, Penn these days works mostly for corporate clients such as Ford and Microsoft. But his key political interest is Hillary Clinton.

Penn defends the former first lady’s national electability, saying she defused much of the polarization over her candidacy in New York state, even in Republican strongholds. If she runs for president, he says, she can win.

Jacobson, a Miami native who worked for Gary Hart after graduating from Syracuse University, has spent her career raising money for moderate Democrats. She started a political-action committee targeting donors in their forties. After the last election, she helped launch an advocacy group called Third Way to try to make the party more appealing to middle-class voters.

She sees Bayh as the ticket to Democratic success in 2008, touting his credentials as a two-term governor from a red state and his foreign-policy experience on Capitol Hill.

The husband and wife, who have each worked for the other’s candidate at various times, hope at least one of them will be getting tickets to the next inauguration. Their friends joke about a dream team—a ticket made up of the senator from New York and the senator from Indiana.

The strange bedfellows have thought of that, too.

“We just disagree,” says Jacobson, “about who’s on the top.”

Susan Baer

Susan Baer is a former Washingtonian editor and Baltimore Sun correspondent who has also written for CNN and the Washington Post. She can be reached at [email protected].