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Hatchet Man: The Rise of David Axelrod

David Axelrod  Gwendolen Cates

The gray Ford Tempo sedan is rumbling along country roads between Des Moines and Knoxville, Iowa. It is a hot June morning, and the air conditioning in the Ford is jacked up high. Jeanne Simon, the wife of U.S. Senator Paul Simon, sits in the back seat, next to political consultant David Axelrod. The senator, who has just announced for the Presidency, is riding up ahead in another car, and for half an hour Axelrod dishes out gossip, wisecracks, and political advice to Simon’s alter ego.

Axelrod is a tall, black-haired man of 32 with crafty eyes, a thick mustache, and a high part. When he was the Tribune’s chief political writer, Axelrod used to appear on Channel 11’s Chicago Week in Review; afterward, viewers would ask the host, “Who’s the guy who looks like Hitler?” Actually, Axelrod looks more like some exotic rodent that might come out of the woods at night to topple your garbage. His forelock is invariably mussed and his shirttail out—“like an unmade bed,” sighs Axelrod’s mother.

Jeanne Simon—a former state representative—and Axelrod talk about Illinois Attorney General Neil Hartigan a bit, then Victor DeGrazia, the Machiavellian associate of former governor Dan Walker. Seeing an opening, Axelrod plants a bug in Jeanne’s ear: “Paul needs more manpower out here. The caucuses are won in the field, by your guys sitting in people’s living rooms. You need more field organizers.” Jeanne nods, and then Axelrod asks, “What do you think the statistical odds are that Dan Walker would have married two women named Roberta?” The talk drifts to the fate of a hapless campaign manager. “Bad campaign managers get passed along like venereal disease,” quips Axelrod. “Oh, David,” giggles Jeanne.

Oh, David, indeed. As the Tempo bounces on deeper into the Iowa countryside and the conversation continues apace—scuttlebutt has it that Downstate congressman Ken Gray isn’t going to seek re-election from Simon’s old district; in the pocketbook Paul Simon is “tight as a tick,” Jeanne says, laughing—Axelrod feels satisfied that he has made his point. Ostensibly he has come to Iowa to travel with Simon for a few days, to critique the senator’s stump speech and presentation and deliver some advice.

Axelrod wants the best for Paul Simon, both because he is devoted to the man and because the best for Paul Simon could well be the best for David Axelrod. In October Simon named Axelrod his national media consultant. So picture Axelrod the kingmaker. “It’s possible that David Axelrod is going to be one of the most important people in the country within the next 12 months,” predicts Phillip Krone, a veteran political adviser for Chicago’s Regular Democrats.

Axelrod’s rise has been swift. In 1984, he left a plum job as chief political writer at the Tribune to stage Paul Simon’s successful campaign to unseat Charles Percy from the U.S. Senate. Since then, he has gone on to arrange media strategy for a host of other candidates, among them Adlai Stevenson, George Dunne, Harold Washington, and, lately, a few beyond Illinois. Axelrod and his staff at Axelrod & Associates, including partner Forrest Claypool, a production manager, and a time buyer, operate out of a starkly furnished River North loft. They research the vulnerabilities of an opponent, isolate the issues to stress, orchestrate press conferences, write and produce commercials, and book them on the air. The firm has had its share of losses, but that is nothing Axelrod apologizes for: “I’m going to have a somewhat mixed record,” he says, “because I work for a lot of insurgent candidates.”

Of course, Axelrod-primed insurgents occasionally end up in debacles, or what else would you call Stevenson’s last gubernatorial race against the incumbent James Thompson? Moreover, despite an avowed policy of working with reform Democrats, Axelrod has sometimes danced with fixtures of the Machine, like Richard Elrod and Neil Hartigan. Those little two-steps invariably turned out badly. Axelrod’s holier-than-a-hack image is also soiled by a penchant for airing negative television commercials. “Now, when you put on negative ads, whipping the other guy, they always say you are debasing the process,” says Axelrod, by way of justification. “But if you run positive media, playing up your guy, they call you an idiot.”

And the last thing David Axelrod wants to be called is an idiot.


If any political candidate has made Axelrod’s new career, it’s Paul Simon. “I had a sense of him from reading the Tribune,” recalls the senator. “We had probably met somewhere along the line. I knew he was a good man, knowledgeable about politics, with sharp instincts.” In August of 1983 Simon, then a congressman anticipating a bid against Percy, asked Axelrod to become his press secretary over dinner in Greektown. “I thought about it,” remembers Axelrod, who was dissatisfied at the Tribune. “But it seemed a tremendous risk, and, besides, my wife was uncomfortable with the changes that politics would mean for our family. So I turned Paul down.” But after besting three rivals in the Democratic primary, Simon came courting again, and this time Axelrod said OK. A short, indirect association followed, through the PR firm of Jasculca-Terman, and then Axelrod jumped directly on board the Simon bandwagon as its flack.

No sooner did he arrive, however, than campaign manager Thomas Pazzi was fired for running up a big deficit, and Simon named Axelrod his successor. “Frankly, we put him in only temporarily,” says Simon, “but I was hoping he’d work out. David knew the people in the office, and politicians seemed to know and trust him.” There was some tough going at the outset, requiring Axelrod to fire 25 staffers and cut salaries by 25 percent, but he quickly took control of the campaign, arranging endorsements and fashioning overall strategies. He liked his subordinates (“There were no colliding egos"), and he hated Chuck Percy. “Percy became this evil character to David,” recalls a friend at the Tribune. “While Paul Simon embodied all the qualities of great goodness, Percy turned into an actual danger to society.”

“What Paul Simon has is an absolute commitment to principle,” says Axelrod today, ever the Simon zealot, “whereas the guy he was up against represented the opposite, someone who went from being a moderate to a right-wing Republican when it suited him.” Indeed, the Simon organization portrayed Percy as the ultimate waffler, shifting his opinion three times, to cite a favorite Simon example, on the B-1 bomber. To Percy, on the other hand, Simon became “the ultimate tax man,” laying out programs that the senator determined would lead to a $200-biIlion tax hike. But Percy faced other obstacles, among them a California real estate developer named Michael Goland, who doled out more than a million dollars of his own money to topple the senator.

“Our problems were never Simon,” says Carter Hendren, Percy’s campaign manager, who points instead to anti-Percy vendettas mounted by both Goland and right-wing groups. If the Simon campaign had a strength, he says, it than the firm of political adman Robert Squier. “Axelrod’s topnotch,” says Hendren, “but he was on board to enhance Simon’s credibility and implement whatever Squier said. David was the contractor for Squier, who was the architect.”

Carter Eskew; Squier’s emissary for the campaign, politely disagrees, arguing that Axelrod figured as one of three major string pullers for Simon, along with Eskew and pollster Paul Maslin, “but David was the guy who made the goddamn thing work.”

Simon edged out Percy by two percent of the vote, and Axelrod was launched. Along with Forrest Claypool, a research-oriented attorney who had also worked for Simon, Axelrod rented space in a downtown law office, and the two of them undertook some public-relations assignments. But their goal was to become political media consultants, and they considered going into business with political consultant David Doak; Bob Shrum, who had been Edward Kennedy’s press secretary; and Pat Caddell, best known as Jimmy Carter’s pollster. Caddell undid the deal for Axelrod. “Pat was so narcissistic and consumed with himself; and there were financial disagreements,” Axelrod explains. “It was like having gangrene. You see little bits of you cut away each day, until you have nothing left but-stumps.”

As it happened, Attorney General Neil Hartigan was then weighing a bid for governor, and when he decided to go for it, in early summer of 1985, Axelrod was brought aboard as media adviser. The gig didn’t last long. Axelrod considered his role part-time, whereas Hartigan thought that for his monthly fee of $5,000 Axelrod owed him a total commitment. Moreover, the attorney general and his adviser were incompatible. “David is very outspoken and emotional,” confides a Hartigan ally, “while Neil is diplomatic and obsessed with thoroughness; he’s the type of guy who starts thinking about getting the Christmas-tree lights up in September. They never hit it off.” Axelrod will only point to unspecified misgivings about Hartigan. The relationship reached a climax at a luncheon meeting of Hartigan campaign advisers at the McCormick Inn. Before the meal was over, Axelrod got up to leave, explaining that he had another appointment. “Is this all I get for my time?” Hartigan asked angrily, and though he quickly apologized for the outburst, Axelrod was gone from the campaign within days.

But there were further recriminations, because Axelrod soon signed on as media adviser to Adlai Stevenson, who had suddenly “felt the sap rising” and decided to take on Hartigan. In the aftermath Axelrod’s ethics came into question, according to Joe Novak, a strategist for many Regular Democrats and then an unpaid counselor to Hartigan: “Dave is out one day, selling Neil Hartigan like he’s the Second Coming, and when there are problems David goes looking for a second candidate. What a candidate believed in was less important to Axelrod than that he had a horse.” The close-mouthed Hartigan says that he had a “natural concern” about the perceived two-timing. Moreover, Axelrod received and cashed a $5,000 check from the Hartigan campaign after he had exited and as he was helping launch Stevenson.

Axelrod considers it a mistake to have banked the money but says that he subsequently returned it. He claims that he worked for Hartigan when the attorney general appeared to be the only contender. As for Stevenson, Axelrod says that he simply felt he was “the best man” for governor and did encourage him to enter the fray. Says Stevenson, “More than anyone else he persuaded me to run.” Hartigan dropped out in November, sinking the ambitions of attorney-general aspirant Marty Oberman, the 43rd Ward alderman and another Axelrod client.

Stevenson didn’t feel that he needed advertising in advance of the March 1986 Democratic primary, and so Axelrod busied himself with other clients. Cook County Board commissioner Jeanne Quinn came close to besting incumbent Cook County clerk Stanley Kusper for renomination, and Chuck Bernardini, a former chair of the Independent Voters of Illinois-Independent Precinct Organization, won a Democratic berth for the County Board thanks partly to Axelrod’s substanceless radio ads that played humorously off the candidate’s name to kazoo music.

Like everyone else, Axelrod was asleep at the switch when two supporters of Lyndon LaRouche swept past George Sangmeister and Aurelia Pucinski, Stevenson’s candidates for lieutenant governor and secretary of state. The day after the LaRouche victory, Stevenson huddled with his advisers in his La Salle Street law office, and Axelrod counseled his client to quit the race altogether. “I thought he should resign,” says Axelrod. “He couldn’t run with those maniacs, and I didn’t think a third-party race was doable.” But Stevenson hung tough, and when he found that the La Rouchies could not be removed from the ticket he did mount a third-party bid against Thompson. “In the following months Stevenson was battered by the press and deserted by politicians,” Axelrod says. “It reached the point of the absurd. It was the political equivalent of AIDS.”

To combat such an affliction required extreme measures, among them lots of anti-Thompson commercials. One was notably clever; it showed a tap dancer executing some shifty steps before a door-marked OFFICE OF THE GOVERNOR while an announcer charged that Thompson had flip-flopped on raising taxes, failed to hold down utility rates, and lost the state jobs. Other commercials were blunt without the wit. Stevenson says that he went along reluctantly: “All the polling data we had showed that Thompson was vulnerable. My own attitude is that negative advertising isn’t right, but Dave felt we had to emphasize our strong points, and those were that Thompson had not been truthful on matters like taxes.” Yet Thompson, outspending Stevenson heavily in TV and radio advertising ($1.7 million to $650,OOO) and with the LaRouche situation to his advantage, pulverized his opponent in November.

Among Axelrod’s other November clients was County Board president George Dunne, so sure of himself—or so cheap—that his TV ads relied on still photographs. There was Mary Lou Kearns, the Kane County coroner, in a doomed try to defeat state representative J. Dennis Hastert for a seat in Congress. Not to mention Richard Elrod, the Cook County sheriff, making for an alliance that some of Axelrod’s liberal friends consider a gaffe. Political adviser Don Rose, for example, can see no justification for Axelrod’s liaison with Elrod, “a corrupt element in the Machine from the time he was brought into it as a baby.”

Axelrod had misgivings about working for Elrod, “but ultimately we agreed to do it because he was a Democrat,” he says, “and we didn’t want a Republican to get the position. Also, I did feel that [former police superintendent] Jim O’Grady was a bit of a phony. Here he was, once Elrod’s right-hand man, and now he was out after Elrod.” There was some attempt to humanize the dour-looking Elrod in his ads, but the thrust was to go fairly negative in an attempt, says Axelrod, “to knock O’Grady off his pedestal.” The hardest-hitting TV spot linked O’Grady to a Police Department practice of strip-searching women suspected of crimes, a practice that O’Grady said he did everything to exorcise once he discovered its existence. Nevertheless, Axelrod still blames O’Grady. “Our campaign was in trouble, and that ad was a throw of the dice,” he says. “You know, negative media is like radiation therapy. It’s hard to judge when you’re curing or killing, and with the strip-search ads maybe we were a few rads over the red line.” O’Grady squeaked to victory.

Considering Axelrod’s results, with Stevenson and Elrod, Joe Novak calls 1986 “a total disaster for Axelrod.”

A turnaround was quick in coming, though. Along with Doak and Shrum, Axelrod had applied to be the media adviser for Harold Washington’s re-election campaign, yet had lost out to Don Rose. “In November I was wrongly accused of leaking some material to the press, and other sins,” says Rose. “Ken Glover fired me.” Glover, an investment banker who ran the Mayor’s campaign, counters that Rose’s role was only altered to that of “message manager.”

In any event, Axelrod was brought into the breach around Thanksgiving to navigate Washington past Jane Byrne, Thomas Hynes, and Ed Vrdolyak to a second term.

The early polls indicated that Washington enjoyed a wide enough passage, given his ability to lure a predominance of black voters, half of the Hispanics, and ten percent of the whites. “In a situation like that,” says Rose, “your job is to maximize what’s there, to hold the coalition and, if possible, develop it.” Axelrod’s road of attack with Byrne was to remind the electorate of what a skunk she had been, and he crafted some succinct commercials tying her to tax hikes, a deficit when she exited office, and an inability to retain aides. Notable among Byrne’s rejoinders was a lightning-bolt spot alleging that Washington backer Judge R. Eugene Pincham had divided the city with racist remarks. It got her nowhere. “David did a good job,” says Joe Pecor, Byrne’s campaign manager, “though there’s no doubt he’s a slasher.”

With Hynes and Vrdolyak, Axelrod could save his switchblade, for the alderman savaged the assessor himself over Hynes’s claim that Vrdolyak had huddled with reputed mobster Joseph Ferriola. “Hynes was the pest,” cracks Axelrod, “and Vrdolyak was the Orkin man.”

Through the campaign Axelrod came to like Washington if not love him. “Harold is an extraordinarily engaging guy in public,” says Axelrod, “with a good sense of humor. But in private he’s reclusive, a sphinx. When it comes to his life, he doesn’t talk, and he never inquires about yours. He never asks about your wife or kids. But he’s very bright and funny, with that infectious way about him. I think he’s a good guy.”

The second swearing-in of Harold Washington occurred at noon on May fourth at the Petrillo Band Shell in Grant Park. Axelrod, looking uncharacteristically swell in a dark suit, red tie, and tan topcoat, was seated near Mr. T. As Baptist minister J. M. Stone delivered the benediction, Axelrod eyed one side of the band shell. The Mayor’s friends and adversaries—Byrne, Michael Bilandic, Dunne, Alan Dixon, Jesse Jackson, and Hartigan—had joined hands at the minister’s request. Jackson held hands with Byrne, showier than ever in a black-and-white dress and broad-brimmed hat. Byrne, in turn, linked up with Bilandic. All the pols knit paws for a minute, then two, far beyond the comfort stage. Bilandic, for one, looked positively bilious.

Cracking a smile, Axelrod longed ever so briefly to be a reporter again, but the desire passed like a shot. He had worked for half the hand holders and against the other half—and then some. Who knew whom he’d work for tomorrow?


Axelrod grew up in a small apartment in a high-rise housing development in New York City. His mother, Myril, had been an education reporter for the experimental Marshall Field IV-owned Manhattan newspaper PM in the late 1940s, and she named David and his older sister, Joan, with an eye toward memorable by-lines. The driven Myril became a vice-president of the advertising firm Young and Rubicam. Her husband, Joseph, was a psychologist in private practice, a man Myril describes as “morose and depressed.” Joan, now a psychologist herself, differs: “You could say he was depressed, but that’s not what came through to us. Love did.” The Axelrods separated when David was seven and divorced when he was 15.

Myril and Joe had a more than passing interest in liberal New York politics, and their son wolfed down newspapers from the time he could read. When Robert Kennedy ran for the U.S. Senate in 1964, David handed out flyers at the Bronx Zoo. Later he stumped for mayoral candidate John Lindsay and Presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey.

David entered the University of Chicago in 1972, majoring in political science. “One of the things I found difficult was that the focus at the U. of C. back then was on nothing that happened after 1800,” he says. “Everything was theoretical. I was frustrated. See, I was on the South Side of Chicago, with all its problems, and in school the subject matter was arcane. As a defense mechanism I started writing about politics.” His outlet: the Hyde Park Herald, where at 18 he was spinning out a weekly political column. “I covered the hell out of that area,” says Axelrod immodestly. “I was pretty aggressive.”

Only a year later a policeman came to Axelrod’s apartment to give him the news that his father had committed suicide. “We were very close,” says Axelrod. “He was always very supportive. I think my father’s problem was that he was there for everyone, but he had no one himself. His dying meant that in one fell swoop I had to grow up fast, but more than anything else I missed him.”

Axelrod’s output at the Herald captured the attention of leftish political guru Don Rose, who recommended Axelrod for a summer intern’s job at the Tribune when he graduated. There were 13 young prospects that summer, bucking for four permanent slots at the paper, and Axelrod considered his chances nil. On the contrary, he proved “a standout” as an intern, according to Sheila Wolfe, the editor in charge of the program, and he was hired.

“I felt I had made the big leagues,” says Axelrod. There were some small scoops (he was facile enough to crash Michael Bilandic’s wedding to Heather Morgan and share hors d’oeuvres with veteran alderman Vito Marzullo), but mostly he flourished on a steady diet of “murder and mayhem, you know, the regular stuff.” In 1979 he was handed the task of covering Jane Byrne’s seemingly quixotic stab at the mayoralty. “She was fearless and very determined,” Axelrod says. “She was convinced she was going to win and when she did, all of a sudden I was hot.”

Soon after, Tribune political reporter William Griffin was lured over by Byrne as her press secretary, and Axelrod assumed his second-banana status under then political editor Richard Ciccone. As he covered the Byrne administration, Axelrod’s relationship with the Mayor soured. Once, when Axelrod asked a question, she replied, “David, if I respected you I’d answer, but I don’t respect you.”

Ciccone was elevated to managing editor in 1982, and Axelrod became the lead political writer, with his mug shot topping his own column. His style took second place to his reporting. “Axelrod was the first political reporter at the Trib who was really associated with the liberal reform movement,” says Don Rose. “He was sympathetic to the movement, open to its plaints, and he developed a lot of contacts. One of the reasons he looked good was because the people he had developed associations with were on the ascendancy, like Harold Washington. He brought the Tribune into another era.” He was glib, and he turned into a fixture on Chicago Week in Review; in time he landed his own interview program on WXRT radio. He drove around in a filthy Chevy Nova with yellowing newspapers on the seats, and his desk at the Tribune was piled with junk. Despite appearances, however, Axelrod wasn’t concealing his outsize ambition.

Jeff Lyon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tribune features writer, met Axelrod on his first day as an intern, when Lyon was instructed by his editor to take “this political junkie with a brand-new stiff suit” along to cover the touchdown of a tornado in Lemont. Over the years Lyon has come to marvel at Axelrod’s “bipolar nature": “David’s about the brashest guy I’ve ever met, to the point where often he’s reckless. At the same time he’s astonishingly sensitive. He’s always coming back at you to ask if he did the right thing about one thing or another. I’ve always wondered, does the one side of his personality just not know about the other side?”

“I developed a love-hate relationship with what I did,” says Axelrod. “It was energizing, but it also was nerve-racking to be wrapped up in journalism to the exclusion of my wife and kids. Besides, newspapering is not a business to grow old in. You have to bring a youthful enthusiasm to it, but at 28 and 29 I felt myself doing things reflexively. Plus, I didn’t want to be a spectator my whole life. It occurred to me to find out what life was like on the other side of the fence.”

What finally pushed him to jump the fence was internal machinations at the Tribune. In 1983 Steve Neal was imported from the Trib’s Washington bureau to cover politics as well. “I was pissed,” admits Axelrod, who was also annoyed that the paper’s management refused to anoint him political editor. Tribune editor James Squires maintains that he determined no one should receive the title political editor, since the term implied that its recipient performed some editorial function—which was not the case. “We did away with such incongruous titles across the board,” says Squires, who cites the abandonment of editorships in urban affairs and religion during the same period. “David likes the game of politics more than covering it,” says Squires. “He was just looking for an excuse to leave.”

So off Axelrod went, to join Paul Simon and enter a profession at which he has developed certain noticeable skills. His television commercials owe their technical quality to a sharp Chicago filmmaker named Ron Lichterman, best known for his TV ads for WXRT. “But David’s rea1 value is his vision,” offers Ken Glover, who, as Washington’s re-election campaign manager, huddled with Axelrod and other aides every morning. “He can translate what he sees into a media program.” Says Stevenson, “David is a creative, somewhat mercurial guy, and he has a genius for encapsulating your positions. He goes instantly to the heart of what you want to say.”

Axelrod showed particular prowess in preparing Stevenson to debate Jim Thompson. In pre-debate coaching, Axelrod and Northwestern University professor Irving Rein peppered Stevenson with questions and video-taped his responses. “They told me I had to get things down to a 30-second news bite,” says Stevenson, who in his first go-round with Thompson was especially salty and rough. “Wrong again, Governor,” went Stevenson’s well-remembered refrain. In subsequent debates, Stevenson notes ruefully, Thompson had wised up and ”he went on the offensive.”

Axelrod is known to have his disputes—and sometimes to lose them. When Jeanne Quinn appeared before Democratic slate-makers in late 1985, Axelrod wanted her to blast the dickens out of Stanley Kusper. “But I didn’t want to come out with both guns blazing,” says Quinn, “because I felt it was totally out of character. I told David no, which disappointed him.”

     Anxiety often overtakes Axelrod, as in the Stevenson and Quinn campaigns. “When all our money dried up and with all the hammering in the press,” says Stevenson, “he was feeling the pressure. He is by nature nervous, and he was very nervous that fall.” Quinn recalls that Axelrod became so tense before some of her press conferences that he would skip the actual events.

If there is an antidote for Axelrod’s tightly wound self, it is the telephone—he is constantly on it, cracking jokes, shooting the breeze, counseling current candidates, and prodding possible ones. Within one recent hour, checking in with Axelrod by wire at his office were a pol1ster, a job seeker, a gossip columnist, Pat Quinn, and David Schulz, former Milwaukee County parks boss and a predecessor of Quinn as Chicago revenue director. And recently Axelrod installed a phone in his car (the Nova is gone, replaced by a Dodge Caravan). “It’s the kind of phone that plugs into your lighter,” he notes in utter seriousness, “so I can take it with me.”

Overall, life has improved for the Axelrods. Susan says that she and their three children—aged seven months and four and six years—see more of David than they used to. And Axelrod’s income has certainly improved. His firm charges fees of $15,000 to $60,000 per race, plus a commission of 15 percent on the commercials it places. He made $42,000 in his last year at the Tribune, but he now earns around six figures.


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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