For-profit

SKDKnickerbocker

Website:

www.skdknick.com/

Formation:

2010

Type:

Political Consulting Firm

Founders:

Bob Squier and William Knapp

Managing Director:

Hilary Rosen

Location:

New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, CA

SKDKnickerbocker (SKDK) is a political consulting and public affairs company whose clients include prominent Democratic Party politicians, particularly in the state of New York. SKDK has done consulting work for former President Barack Obama, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D), and New York City Mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg. [1] Its public affairs clients include AT&T, the Rockefeller Foundation, and American Airlines, among other high-profile firms.[2]

In 2020 and 2021, SKDK gained notoriety for its role in President Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. While supporting President Biden, SKDK accepted a $35 million contract from the state of California to organize a “nonpartisan” voter registration drive across the state, prompting widespread criticism that alleged a conflict of interest and a lawsuit for the misuse of taxpayer funding. [3] That same year, SKDK provided daily “misinformation briefings” to California officials who then passed the SKDK-provided information along to executives at Facebook, Twitter, and Google that conservatives alleged were then used to censor election-related speech that the left-of-center SKDK claimed to be misleading. [4]

SKDK’s partners are some of the highest-profile Democratic operatives in the country. These include Senior Adviser to President Biden and former White House Communications Director Anita Dunn, former Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Democratic Congressional Campaigns Committee (DCCC) spokesman and media strategist Doug Thornell, and Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund founder Hilary Rosen. [5]

History

SKDKnickerbocker was founded in 2004 when Squier Knapp Dunn merged with Knickerbocker Consulting. According to The New York Post, the merged firm’s early clients included the 2008 Obama campaign, then-New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg (I, later D), and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in New York.[6] The firm officially changed its name to SKDKnickerbocker in 2010.[7]

The new organization came under the leadership of partners Josh Isay, Jennifer Cunningham, and Stefan Friedman. Former Squier Knapp Dunn principal Anita Dunn also returned from her position as White House Communications Director during the Obama administration to head the firm’s Washington, D.C. office.[8]

Shortly after Dunn’s return, Democratic strategist and Rock the Vote founder Hilary Rosen was hired as managing director for the firm. [9] Under Rosen’s direction, SKDK became even more involved with the Obama White House and national politics, to the extent that some of its practices were labeled as problematic due to conflicts of interest. [10]

Politico and the left-of-center Republic Report accused SKDK as effectively operating as an “unregistered lobbying firm,” touting the close personal relationship that its executives had with the Obama administration to earn corporate clients, despite not being registered to lobby the executive branch.[11] Rosen even brought a Microsoft executive, one of SKDK’s clients, to the White House State Dinner. [12]

During the Obama administration, SKDK supported a number of left-of-center causes, organizing the public relations campaign behind the challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act, running public relations efforts after Planned Parenthood came under fire in 2015, and working with the pro-LGBT Human Rights Campaign (HRC). [13]

In 2015, the Stagwell Group, a firm owned by advertising executive Mark Penn, acquired SKDK. Penn and SKDK had worked together prior to the purchase when the firm advised Microsoft’s public relations team during its struggles with antitrust regulators in the early 2000s. [14]

Biden 2020 Campaign

SKDK played a key role in President Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign. The firm has been credited with rescuing the Biden campaign after Biden’s poor performance in the Iowa Democratic caucuses, and SKDK partner Anita Dunn became President Biden’s “de facto campaign manager” given the extent of SKDK’s involvement in the campaign.[15] In September 2020, SKDK was targeted by Russian hackers, though it remains unclear as to whether the presidential campaign was the target.[16]

SKDK’s role in the 2020 election has been heavily criticized. In April 2021, the right-leaning Judicial Watch alleged that California election officials had colluded with social media firms to censor speech surrounding the 2020 election. According to 500 pages of government documents obtained by Judicial Watch, California government officials had personally contacted social media platforms including YouTube (owned by Google parent Alphabet), Facebook, and Twitter to remove at least two dozen messages they flagged as “misleading,” primarily from right-of-center sources.[17]

SKDK, while working with the Biden campaign, sent “Misinformation Daily Briefings” to Twitter, Facebook, and Google to flag messages for censorship or removal that it considered to be “misinformation.” One briefing included a statement by the president of Judicial Watch which claimed that universal mail-in ballots increased the risk of voter fraud and intimidation. Judicial Watch alleged that the SKDK daily briefings played a direct role in determining what information was censored on social media during the 2020 election cycle.[18]

Controversies

California Voter Registration Contract

In August 2020, the state of California awarded SKDK a $35 million contract to lead Vote Safe California, the state’s get-out-the-vote campaign. Despite the claim that Vote Safe California was nonpartisan, SKDK was working with the Biden campaign at the time, leading critics to claim that the contract “screams conflict of interest.”[19]

In September 2020, Republicans on the U.S. House of Representatives Oversight Committee launched a review of the contract, which it claimed would “undoubtedly provide a partisan firm the opportunity to use taxpayer money to influence the federal election.” In October 2020, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association sued then-California Secretary of State Alex Padilla (D), claiming that the contract illegally spent taxpayer money and violated laws regarding public-private contracts by only allowing a small group of “partisan political consulting firms” to bid for the contract.[20]

When Secretary Padilla attempted to pay out the contract, Democratic California Controller Betty Yee (D) refused to sign off on the payment, arguing that the Secretary of State lacked the ability to spend the money because it would be taken from a pot of funds meant to fund county voter outreach efforts.[21] In February 2021, California officials reached an agreement to pay the contract using federal and state funds, despite the criticisms and pending lawsuit against the state for the SKDK contract.[22]

Anita Dunn Conflict of Interest Allegations

Despite promises to return to SKDK following the Biden campaign, Anita Dunn instead became a Senior Advisor to President Biden following his election. Dunn claimed that the role was temporary, and that she would return to SKDK in the summer of 2021.[23]

Dunn has received heavy criticism for the position. Because she is only a temporary advisor, Dunn is allowed to skirt traditional ethics disclosures which require government officials to disclose potential conflicts of interest, including previous clients and investments. SKDK’s client list reportedly includes companies with major interests in the Biden administration’s policy direction, including Pfizer, Microsoft, IBM, Ford, and Comcast. The left-of-center Public Citizen argued that Dunn should be subject to the conflict-of-interest code which mandates public disclosures.[24]

Cover-up of Sexual Harassment Allegations Against Andrew Cuomo

On August 26, 2021, the Washington Post reported that newly obtained text messages showed SKD Knickerbocker director, Hillary Rosen, had played a role in the suppression of sexual harassment allegations against disgraced New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Rosen reportedly instructed staff at the Time’s Up Foundation not to issue a statement in support of Cuomo’s first accuser, Linsey Boylan. Rosen wrote in text messages to Time’s Up leadership that she was concerned that issuing a statement would give Fox News “a headline to run all day” that would negatively impact Cuomo. [25] In defense of her actions Rosen stated that, “As a survivor I have always thought that serious allegations of sexual harassment should not be politicized and Fox News had a reputation for doing just that.” [26]

As a result of Rosen’s involvement, the National Women’s Law Center announced that the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund would be immediately terminating its contract with SKD Knickerbocker. [27]

Leadership

SKDK partners include Hilary Rosen, Josh Isay, Bill Knapp, Eric Goldwater, Anita Dunn, Kerri Lyon, Mike Morey, Doug Thornell, and Jill Zuckman.[28]

Anita Dunn is one of the most high-profile, left-of-center political advisors in the United States. Dunn has been called the “mastermind” behind the Biden campaign’s 2020 victory.[29] Aside from working as a senior advisor to the Biden campaign, Dunn worked as a chief strategist to former President Barack Obama, as a senior campaign advisor to President Obama, and as White House Communications Director during the Obama administration.[30] During the Obama administration, Dunn came under fire for saying that brutal Chinese communist dictator Mao Zedong was one of her “favorite political philosophers,” resigning from the Obama White House shortly after criticisms intensified in 2009.[31]

Partner Doug Thornell is a longtime Democratic operative, working as lead media strategist to the Democratic National Committee (DNC), top spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), and as a senior aide to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) before joining SKDK. While at SKDK, Thornell has managed accounts for the DNC, the NAACP, and the DCCC.[32]

Aside from her work with the firm, Hilary Rosen is a political commentator for CNN and a high-profile consultant. Some of her personal clients have included former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), and the Human Rights Campaign. [33] Rosen has also engaged in high-profile left-of-center advocacy campaigns, founding the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund in 2018 and organizing social media campaigns in support of President Biden’s 2020 campaign. Rosen previously led the campaign against a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman.[34]

Josh Isay is the current CEO of SKDK, in addition to being a partner. Prior to his work with SKDK, Isay managed U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY)’s initial 1998 U.S. Senate campaign and became his first chief of staff in the U.S. Senate. [35]

Bill Knapp is a longtime left-of-center campaign advisor, having worked as a senior media strategist on five presidential campaigns and a number of lower-level races. In 1996, Knapp led the Clinton-Gore and DNC creative teams. Knapp also led media efforts on President Obama’s 2008 campaign and produced advertisements for all three of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s mayoral campaigns.[36]

SKDK partner Mike Morey oversees the firm’s work with foundations and philanthropic projects, coordinating efforts with some of the largest left-of-center foundations in the country. These include the Rockefeller Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the NoVo Foundation. Prior to joining SKDK, Morey worked as communications director for Sen. Schumer and organized campaigns for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Sen. Schumer, and the removal of confederate monuments in New Orleans.[37]

References

  1. Rubinstein, Dana. “Between Christine Quinn and Hilary Rosen, an Unusually Loud Week for Quiet SKD Knickerbocker.” Politico PRO, April 12, 2012. https://www.politico.com/states/new-york/city-hall/story/2012/04/between-christine-quinn-and-hilary-rosen-an-unusually-loud-week-for-quiet-skd-knickerbocker-000000. ^
  2. “SKDKnickerbocker Launches Litigation, Regulation & Investigation Practice.” SKDKnickerbocker, October 16, 2018. http://www.skdknick.com/skdknickerbocker-launches-litigation-regulation-investigation-practice/. ; Horn, Steve. “Obama’s Former Communications Director’s Firm Does PR For Keystone XL Pipeline, Tar Sands Rail Transport.” Common Dreams, May 3, 2013. https://www.commondreams.org/news/2013/05/03/obamas-former-communications-directors-firm-does-pr-keystone-xl-pipeline-tar-sands. ; “Our Work.” SKDKnickerbocker. Accessed January 3, 2020. http://www.skdknick.com/our-work/. ^
  3. Marszalek, Diana. “SKDKnickerbocker Lands $35m Californian Voter Drive Assignment.” PRovoke. Holmes Report LLC, August 29, 2020. https://www.provokemedia.com/latest/article/skdknickerbocker-lands-$35m-californian-voter-drive-assignment. ^
  4. Ruiz, Michael. “CA Officials, Big Tech and Biden Firm Coordinated ‘Misinformation’ Censorship before Election: Judicial Watch.” Fox Business. Fox Business, April 28, 2021. https://www.foxbusiness.com/technology/ca-big-tech-biden-censorship-judicial-watch. ^
  5. “Our People.” SKDKnickerbocker. Accessed January 3, 2020. http://www.skdknick.com/people/. ^
  6. Haberman, Maggie. “Knickerbocker Consulting Firm to Become SKDKnickerbocker.” New

    York Post. New York Post, April 12, 2010. https://nypost.com/2010/04/12/knickerbocker-consulting-firm-to-become-skdknickerbocker/. ^

  7. Haberman, Maggie. “Knickerbocker Consulting Firm to Become SKDKnickerbocker.” New York Post. New York Post, April 12, 2010. https://nypost.com/2010/04/12/knickerbocker-consulting-firm-to-become-skdknickerbocker/. ^
  8. Haberman, Maggie. “Knickerbocker Consulting Firm to Become SKDKnickerbocker.” New York Post. New York Post, April 12, 2010. https://nypost.com/2010/04/12/knickerbocker-consulting-firm-to-become-skdknickerbocker/. ^
  9. Allen, Mike. “Rosen Joins SKDKnickerbocker.” POLITICO, July 29, 2010. https://www.politico.com/story/2010/07/rosen-joins-skdknickerbocker-040400. ^
  10. Weigel, David. “Meanwhile, Political Consultants Are Still Horrible.” Slate Magazine. Slate, April 13, 2012. https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2012/04/meanwhile-political-consultants-are-still-horrible.html. ^
  11. “The Real Hilary Rosen Scandal: Does Her Firm Sell Access To The White House To Powerful Corporations?” Republic Report, October 22, 2012. https://www.republicreport.org/2012/real-hilary-rosen-scandal/. ^
  12. Weigel, David. “Meanwhile, Political Consultants Are Still Horrible.” Slate Magazine. Slate, April 13, 2012. https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2012/04/meanwhile-political-consultants-are-still-horrible.html. ^
  13. TheAdvocateMag. “Out100: The Activists Who Shaped 2013.” ADVOCATE, November 13, https://www.advocate.com/society/activism/2013/11/13/out100-activists-who-shaped-2013. ; Karni, Annie, and Anna Palmer. “Clinton’s Planned Parenthood Ties Run Deep.” POLITICO, July 30, 2015. https://www.politico.com/story/2015/07/hillary-clinton-planned-parenthood-ties-120794. “POLITICO: SKDKnickerbocker to Run ‘Marriage Equality War Room’ with Human Rights Campaign.” SKDKnickerbocker, April 14, 2014. http://www.skdknick.com/politico-skdknickerbocker-to-run-marriage-equality-war-room-with-human-rights-campaign/. ^
  14. Gelles, David. “Mark Penn’s Stagwell Group Will Acquire SKDKnickerbocker.” The New York Times. The New York Times, October 8, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/09/business/dealbook/stagwell-group-will-acquire-skdknickerbocker.html. ^
  15. Fang, Lee. “How Top White House Adviser Anita Dunn Is Dodging Ethics Disclosure.” The Intercept. First Look Media, May 4, 2021. https://theintercept.com/2021/05/04/anita-dunn-ethics-disclosure-biden-skdk/. ^
  16. Moore, Thomas. “SKDKnickerbocker Targeted by Russian Hackers.” PR Week. PR Week Global, September 10, 2020. https://www.prweek.com/article/1694113/skdknickerbocker-targeted-russian-hackers. ^
  17. Ruiz, Michael. “CA Officials, Big Tech and Biden Firm Coordinated ‘Misinformation’ Censorship before Election: Judicial Watch.” Fox Business. Fox Business, April 28, 2021. https://www.foxbusiness.com/technology/ca-big-tech-biden-censorship-judicial-watch. ^
  18. Ruiz, Michael. “CA Officials, Big Tech and Biden Firm Coordinated ‘Misinformation’ Censorship before Election: Judicial Watch.” Fox Business. Fox Business, April 28, 2021. https://www.foxbusiness.com/technology/ca-big-tech-biden-censorship-judicial-watch. ^
  19. Marszalek, Diana. “SKDKnickerbocker Lands $35m Californian Voter Drive Assignment.” PRovoke. Holmes Report LLC, August 29, 2020. https://www.provokemedia.com/latest/article/skdknickerbocker-lands-$35m-californian-voter-drive-assignment. ^
  20. Christopher, Ben. “‘We’ll Get That Paid’: Newsom and Padilla Vow to Fix Controversial Election Contract.” CalMatters, December 24, 2020. https://calmatters.org/politics/2020/12/newsom-padilla-skdknickerbocker-contract-gotv/. ^
  21. Christopher, Ben. “‘We’ll Get That Paid’: Newsom and Padilla Vow to Fix Controversial Election Contract.” CalMatters, December 24, 2020. https://calmatters.org/politics/2020/12/newsom-padilla-skdknickerbocker-contract-gotv/. ^
  22. Myers, John. “Newsom, Lawmakers Agree to Pay pro-Biden Firm for California Voter Education Contract.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, February 24, 2021. https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2021-02-24/newsom-lawmakers-agree-to-pay-pro-biden-firm-for-california-voter-education-contract. ^
  23. Fang, Lee. “How Top White House Adviser Anita Dunn Is Dodging Ethics Disclosure.” The Intercept. First Look Media, May 4, 2021. https://theintercept.com/2021/05/04/anita-dunn-ethics-disclosure-biden-skdk/. ^
  24. Fang, Lee. “How Top White House Adviser Anita Dunn Is Dodging Ethics Disclosure.” The Intercept. First Look Media, May 4, 2021. https://theintercept.com/2021/05/04/anita-dunn-ethics-disclosure-biden-skdk/. ^
  25. Dawsey, Josh, and Michael Scherer. “Leaders of the Time’s UP Anti-Harassment Group Worked Closely with Cuomo Aide after First Accusation against Him Surfaced.” The Washington Post. WP Company, August 26, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/times-up-cuomo-harassment/2021/08/25/d4f9616e-05b9-11ec-8c3f-3526f81b233b_story.html?itid=ap_michaelscherer. ^
  26. Dawsey, Josh, and Michael Scherer. “Leaders of the Time’s UP Anti-Harassment Group Worked Closely with Cuomo Aide after First Accusation against Him Surfaced.” The Washington Post. WP Company, August 26, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/times-up-cuomo-harassment/2021/08/25/d4f9616e-05b9-11ec-8c3f-3526f81b233b_story.html?itid=ap_michaelscherer. ^
  27. Kantor, Jodi, Arya Sundaram, and Melena Ryzik. “Time’s up C.E.O. Resigns Amid Crisis OVER CUOMO TIES.” The New York Times. The New York Times, August 26, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/26/business/times-up-tina-tchen.html. ^
  28. “Our People.” SKDKnickerbocker. Accessed January 3, 2020. http://www.skdknick.com/people/. ^
  29. Dovere, Edward-Isaac. “The Mastermind Behind Biden’s No-Drama Approach to Trump.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, November 30, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/11/anita-dunn-biden-adviser/617185/. ^
  30. “Anita Dunn, Managing Director at SKDKnickerbocker in Washington, DC.” SKDK. SKDKnickerbocker, January 14, 2021. https://www.skdknick.com/staff/anita-dunn/. ^
  31. Wilkinson, Francis. “The Mao-Maoing of Anita Dunn.” The Week. Dennis Publishing Limited, January 11, 2015. https://theweek.com/articles/499874/maomaoing-anita-dunn. ^
  32. “Doug Thornell, Managing Director, Washington, DC.” SKDK. SKDKnickerbocker, October 26, 2020. https://www.skdknick.com/staff/doug-thornell/. ^
  33. “Revolving Door: Hilary B Rosen Employment Summary | OpenSecrets.” Accessed October

    28, 2019. https://www.opensecrets.org/revolving/rev_summary.php?id=75024. ^

  34. “Hilary Rosen, SKDKnickerbocker Managing Director, Political Strategist, Public Affairs.” SKDK. SKDKnickerbocker, December 3, 2020. https://www.skdknick.com/staff/hilary-rosen/. ^
  35. “Josh Isay.” SKDKnickerbocker. Accessed January 3, 2020. http://www.skdknick.com/staff/josh-isay/. ^
  36. “Bill Knapp.” SKDKnickerbocker. Accessed January 3, 2020. http://www.skdknick.com/staff/bill-knapp-political_strategist/. ^
  37. “Mike Morey, Partner in New York City.” SKDK. SKDKnickerbocker, March 23, 2021. https://www.skdknick.com/staff/mike-morey/. ^

Directors, Employees & Supporters

  1. Hilary Rosen
    Managing Director
  2. Nicole Gill
    Former Vice President
  3. Gabe Roth
    Former Vice President
  4. Stefan Friedman
    Former Managing Director & President
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