“I thought Hank was brilliant,” says Howard Wolfson, the communication director for Schumer’s ’98 campaign. “Also incredibly frugal. Hank’s offices were unimpressive. His campaigns were always run leanly. Making sure every dollar went into communications, as opposed to other things, was very important to him.”
Instead of following the conventional path after that career-making upset, however, and trying to make a president, Morris retreated. He was growing bored with politics. “The hard part of the political-consulting business,” a friend says, “is that every other November, you work yourself out of a job. Then you pick up your pots and pans and start pitching business. Hank grew up in an environment where he never had to do any of running around pitching business.”
And he didn’t want to start. Morris held on to a few clients—Schumer, for whom he handled an easy 2004 reelection bid, and another old pal from the State Assembly days, Alan Hevesi. “Hank had a very limited clientele—like Tom Hagen in The Godfather,” Cunningham says. “He stayed with people he’d known for a long time, but he wasn’t looking for the next candidate for governor or senator. He was busy with his investments, and it made sense: You do a campaign once in a while for a guy you know, you get paid something for that, and you have this other life.”
Morris’s first real foray away from politics seemed benign. In the mid-nineties, he bought Curran & Connors, a Long Island company that published corporate annual reports. His contacts brought in business. Bear Stearns chief Jimmy Cayne ordered his staff to dump its previous printer and hire Morris’s company, apparently in hopes of cozying up to Morris’s client Hevesi, who was then city comptroller. “I like Hank,” Arzt says. “But I was very wary after that incident with Garth. Hank was pushing the printing business, and he would always say, ‘Look, George, do you have any corporate clients you can send my way?’ ” But Morris soon found a more lucrative method of leveraging his friendships.
Andrew Stein is an unlikely source of inspiration. His career in electoral politics ended with an extravagant, abortive 1993 run for mayor that was helmed by Phil Friedman. Stein’s marriage fell apart not long afterward. But he quickly built a new career. “Andrew is a strange guy,” a longtime political acquaintance says. “But he knows all these rich people, and they swear by him as a deal-maker.” Stein made introductions, put in a well-placed word for clients, and extracted large fees for knowing the right people.
One of those relationships was with fellow Democrat Carl McCall. Stein was an adviser during McCall’s successful 1998 campaign for state comptroller. While McCall was in office, Stein became a placement agent—a kind of middleman—for investment companies seeking money from the state-pension fund, of which the state comptroller is the sole trustee. In 2001, McCall tried to move up the ladder and ran for governor. When the campaign stumbled, Stein reportedly tried to nudge aside McCall’s chief consultant, David Axelrod, and have him replaced with another friend, Hank Morris. Axelrod quit, but Morris instead chose to run the campaign of the Democrat who wanted to succeed McCall: Alan Hevesi.
Hevesi was a young Democratic assemblyman representing Forest Hills when he met Morris. Through bruising losses (in 1989, to Liz Holtzman, for city comptroller) and even rougher wins (a victorious 1993 rematch with Holtzman, in which Hevesi assailed Holtzman over alleged ethical violations involving a bank loan), the two men became not so much strategist and client as brothers in arms. That bond was most severely tested in 2001, when Hevesi ran for mayor. His campaign is remembered in political circles for two disastrous strategic choices by Morris. First came the consultant’s too-clever-by-half campaign theme: MEBQ. Placards and ads carried those baffling four letters in large type, and size didn’t help clarify the idea that Hevesi was supposedly the Most Experienced, Best Qualified candidate. Worse was Morris’s bizarre attack on the head of the city campaign-finance board. He’d shown a penchant for deeply strange behavior before: In 1992, Morris ran a futile congressional campaign with his 68-year-old mother, a retired librarian, as the candidate. Six years later, after Schumer’s election to the Senate, Morris went on NY1 and described his strategy by deploying a set of toy bears.
This time, Morris’s twisted logic was that he was a mere volunteer on the Hevesi campaign, so he didn’t need to bill for his services, thereby freeing up money for the candidate to spend elsewhere. The campaign-finance board was dubious, and in a public hearing, Morris railed at its chairman, the Reverend Joseph O’Hare. “We all told Hank not to do it,” says one of his closest friends. “But he believed he was right and he was going to prove it, no matter what.” After the board voted to punish the campaign by withholding matching funds, Hevesi agreed to pay Morris, but the episode generated terrible publicity for his struggling candidate. Hevesi finished a distant fourth in the Democratic primary behind Freddy Ferrer, Mark Green, and Peter Vallone.