Morris went to Columbia Law and then to work for another son of Long Island, David Garth, one of the brilliant pioneers of modern political strategy and one of the first consultants to become a famous name. Garth became a legend by getting electoral victories for senators (Heinz, Specter), governors (Carey, Byrne, Grasso), and mayors (Lindsay, Koch) and also because of his irascible personality. Morris joined Garth’s shop at about the same time as another young, mercurial political junkie, Phil Friedman. It proved a volatile, short-lived mix, with Friedman and Morris leaving to set up their own shop, after working with Garth on Jay Rockefeller’s winning campaign for West Virginia governor in 1980. The split set off an angry feud, with Garth saying he’d fired Morris over what he claimed was a missing payment.
Friedman and Morris were wildly different personalities: Friedman flamboyant, Morris socially awkward. Friedman bought a 55-acre Westchester estate from Pamela Harriman; Morris lived in a cramped two-bedroom on the Upper West Side. Beyond politics, however, they also shared a fascination with playing the stock market. “Their desks faced each other, and when one of their stockbrokers would call, they’d run away from each other so they wouldn’t know what the other one was doing,” one colleague remembers.
“Hank was always watching TV business channels,” says Bill Cunningham, who worked in an office with Morris and Friedman in the late eighties and in 2001 helped craft the surprise mayoral win of Michael Bloomberg. “If anyone is suggesting that after Hank elected Hevesi comptroller he got interested in business rather than politics, I would suggest he was very little interested in politics going back to before 1990. Hank sat on the board of some sugar company, and at one point he was trying to figure out how to engineer a takeover with other board members.”
The firm had some wins and some expensive losses, like John Dyson’s 1986 bid for one of New York’s U.S. Senate slots, but a turning point for the partnership was the 1987 stock-market crash. Friedman lost a large amount of money; Morris didn’t. The firm dissolved, but when Friedman grew seriously ill, Morris, among others, generously tried to help. Friedman’s decline ended sadly in 2005, when he committed suicide. At the funeral, political consultant George Arzt was struck by Morris’s behavior. “Hank was wearing one of his sweaters,” Arzt remembers. “He shook my hand and said, ‘Thank you for coming.’ I said, ‘Hank, Phil was a friend. Why wouldn’t I come?’ He shook his head like he normally did. I thought, ‘What an odd remark.’ ” Morris was in mourning. But Friedman’s penniless demise seems to have made him more determined never to end up the same way.
The two men were digging through Dianne Feinstein’s attic. Hank Morris, along with his new business partner, Bill Carrick, was trying to figure out how to turn San Francisco’s former mayor into the next governor of California. They’d come to Feinstein’s home to sift through the souvenirs of her political career. One of them popped a videotape into a VCR. They were stunned by what they saw: a tearful yet resolute Feinstein announcing the shooting deaths of City Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone.
Morris and Carrick turned the footage into in a classic TV spot (the clip showed up last year in Milk) that established the theme of Feinstein’s 1990 run: “tough and caring.” She lost, to Pete Wilson, but she was well-positioned for a winning U.S. Senate campaign in 1992, also run by Morris and Carrick.
Morris’s distinguishing talent as a political consultant was for identifying and relentlessly focusing on a pivotal issue in a campaign. “He’d spend a lot of time figuring out exactly the angle he wanted to take and run the campaign almost in a Napoleonic fashion, pointing all of the guns at one part of the line, blowing open a hole, and then charging through,” Cunningham says. “Hank was always trying to figure out, ‘Where’s that one point in the line?’ ”
In a business overrun with slick self-promoters, Morris was the polar opposite: zhlubby, generally allergic to the camera, with a grandfatherly head of white hair. Gruffly intelligent and quirky—Morris’s phone greeting usually consisted of “So. So. So. So”—he demanded complete control of a campaign. “Hank would do the direct mail, he would do the media, he would do the buying,” says Hank Sheinkopf, a strategist for Liz Holtzman and Mark Green in races against Morris and his client Hevesi. “All the cash flowed to him.”
Morris met Chuck Schumer in Albany, when the relentless Brooklyn pol was a state assemblyman. In 1998, they teamed up to topple Republican senator Al D’Amato. Morris’s battering ram was the slogan “Too many lies for too long,” perfectly highlighting D’Amato’s ethical lapses. Morris also made sure every reporter in the state heard about D’Amato’s referring to Schumer as a “putzhead.”