Hatchet Man: The Rise of David Axelrod

From our December 1987 issue: On the man who would be the Obama’s chief campaign strategist

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Running for office himself is an idea that has occurred to Axelrod. Once, when mulling over a move from Hyde Park to Oak Park, he confided to Tribune sportswriter Sam Smith that he hated to give up a friendlier electoral arena. Yet he moved. Now he downplays the notion of bucking for votes: “I’m somewhat shy. I’m much more comfortable in a TV situation, on election night, than before thousands of people. I’m not a glad-handing sort of character, nor am I patient.”

For the present he has promised his wife to stay out of the active field. But not out of consulting, where local candidates now troop to his door as often as he to theirs. He retains ties with Alderman Ed Burke, Mayor Washington, and Tom Hynes, and says that he is “in good standing with the Daleys.” Before Axelrod joined Washington’s campaign last year, Republican candidate Don Haider and an agent for Jane Byrne had talked to him (he wasn’t interested). In the hotly contested 43rd Ward aldermanic race, representatives of both Edwin Eisendrath and Robert Perkins approached him, but he doesn’t stoop to ward contests. His eyes, however, aren’t trained strictly on city-and statewide races anymore, either.

Last year Axelrod heard about a grain farmer in Puxico, Missouri (population 833), who intended to run for Congress, and he went to see him. The farmer, Wayne Cryts, was once jailed for having seized his soybeans from a bankrupt grain elevator, to prevent their sale to payoff the elevator owner’s creditors. He had every intention of wearing a blue-jean suit on Capitol Hill. When Cryts caught his first glimpse of the shlumpy Axelrod, in March of 1986, he narrowed his eyes: “In all candor, I had a lot of reservations about him. But within ten minutes I felt relaxed and comfortable with the guy.” Ditto Axelrod, who pulled out all his stops for Cryts. His first non-Illinois customer lost in November by three percent of the vote.

The next time Axelrod ventured beyond the state boundaries he fared considerably better. Last spring he took on a little-known Kentucky state representative named Fred Cowan in his fight to upset veteran politician Todd Hollenbach for the Democratic nomination for state attorney general. In January Cowan had been nearly 30 points behind Hollenbach in the polls, but some debate prepping by Claypool and ads raising ethical questions about Hollenbach played “a critical role,” says Cowan, in delivering him the May election by a sizable margin.

In 1988 Axelrod will be working for some Democratic congressional hopefuls, among them Cryts again and state senator Glenn Poshard, who is hoping to succeed Congressman Kenneth Gray (an lIIinois Democrat). In addition, he has been talking with advisers to Cook County state’s attorney Richard M. Daley. “Daley’s doing a respectable job,” Axelrod says, “and deserves another term.”

But Axelrod’s biggest catch has been Paul Simon. His trip to Iowa last summer was in part an attempt to romance Simon into letting him handle the media for his Presidential drive. At that time, in June, Simon remained noncommittal. “We’re, consulting with a lot of people,” he said. As the summer stretched on, the finalists came down to Axelrod; Raymond Strother, a Washington-based consultant; and George Lois, a legendary New York advertising man. “Through August there was a lot of back and forth,” says Axelrod, and then campaign director Brian Lunde narrowed the field to one. Simon, says Axelrod, “wanted to know the team I would be using on this.” The two had some lengthy conversations, climaxing with a nighttime chat at the Executive House in Chicago on October first. The upshot: Coupled with pollster Paul Maslin, Axelrod would be putting together a message and the commercials for Iowa and New Hampshire, his fee going month by month, his future perhaps now linked to a true luminary.

“Events are conspiring in Paul’s favor,” said Axelrod in early October, noting that candidates such as Gary Hart and Joseph Biden had made abrupt departures, while Michael Dukakis was falling on his face. “Paul Simon may be what people are looking for in ‘88, someone who is steadfast yet who will take political risks. This guy is the real thing, without artifice or manipulation.”

Paul Simon’s campaign, if successful, could thrust Axelrod into a national role, his goal all along. “We want to become a national firm,” he explains, referring to himself in the same breath as Bob Squier, Doak and Shrum, David Sawyer and David Garth, the big boys of his small industry. “We are planning to open a Washington office, but we’ll be based in Chicago—I like being in the real world.” Might his work for Simon transform Axelrod into an éminence grise?

“I sure hope so,” Axelrod says, and smiles.

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