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The Art of the Campaign

Q & A with David Axelrod, the hottest political consultant between the coasts.



He was a "winner of 1989" and a "face to watch in the 1990s." He's one of the "Democratic Party's rising stars," the man "with the mysterious magic touch." "He is now the precinct captain," says a Democratic regular. The Sun-Times's Steve Neal admires his ability to frame issues and calls him "the kingmaker."

The rising star of the Democratic Party is not a sleek, airbrushed politician in a carefully tailored suit, and he's never run for nor been elected to anything. On this particular afternoon he looks decidedly scruffy in a lavender T-shirt, baggy gray pants, sneakers, a droopy mustache, and unkempt hair that could use a trim. His office is given over to family pictures, sports memorabilia, and artifacts of the brewing industry--a tall Schlitz trophy, an electric-guitar-shaped Budweiser sign, an enormous clock that also commemorates Bud--almost as much as it is to political mementos: framed tributes from Richard M. Daley and Harold Washington, the pen that Paul Simon used to sign his oath of office for his first Senate term, and a note from Lynn Martin that says, "Dear Dave, Although we do not know each other well, I'd like to pass on a real compliment. Whatever the reason, I'm glad you won't be with Paul Simon. You're very, very good."

David Axelrod is hot. Seven years after he left the Tribune, where he was a political editor, to work on the first senatorial campaign of Paul Simon, the 36-year-old former Manhattanite and graduate of the University of Chicago is the only heavy-hitting political consultant between the coasts. In the 1990 Illinois primaries, every single one of his candidates made the cut: Dick Phelan, Dawn Clark Netsch, Patrick Quinn, David Orr, Cecil Partee, Chuck Bernardini. He also works for candidates in Utah and Ohio and Iowa, and he generally gets them elected. He knows how to use the news media and knows how to make convincing TV commercials.

Axelrod is intense, aggressive, manifestly intelligent, extremely verbal, argumentative, and highly competitive. His politics are standard leftist: he talks about Republicans as "country clubbers" with the fervor of one who really believes it, despite the electoral evidence of the last few years. He jiggles a leg constantly as he answers questions. He wheels his Saab--sans seat belt--through heavy traffic with one hand constantly on the car phone, expertly transferring from one call to the next, in a virtually nonstop virtuoso demonstration of the utility of call waiting. He lives in Oak Park with his wife and three young children.

Axelrod & Associates now boasts eight employees: seven (including Axelrod) work in an industrial-chic office on North Franklin that feels curiously unfinished, and one works in Washington. Together they seem likely to continue their rise to political prominence as the premier media manipulators of the baby-boom generation.

Bryan Miller: Let's start with a little background. How did you get into political reporting, and from there into consulting?

David Axelrod: I started writing while I was at the University of Chicago. I was always interested in politics and in news, and I worked on political campaigns even as a young kid in New York. I came out here, and this was an interesting sort of laboratory for politics. And I got a job writing for the Hyde Park Herald, a political column, and stringing for Time magazine. Then I got an internship at the Tribune the summer I graduated, which was 1976, and I got hired after that.

I worked my way onto the political beat, and then in 1981 or so I became a political writer for the paper, wrote a column. And then I left in '84 to go to work for Paul Simon, who was running against Percy. I was supposed to be the communications director, and I ended up as the manager after a few weeks, because [the campaign] was kind of a mess. We won that race--I was deeply involved in framing the message of that campaign--and off of that experience I opened up this business.

We started in borrowed space--Forrest Claypool, who used to work for Mayor Daley and now works for Pat Quinn, and I started it--in a little ten-by-ten office, and we've grown over time. We've done a lot of races across the country, and obviously a lot here.

BM: When a reporter goes over to the enemy side--joins a campaign or takes a political job--the pure of heart all roll their eyes. Did you see being a reporter as a way to get into political work, or did your thinking change along the line?

DA: Well, first of all, I don't necessarily view the two pursuits as polar opposites to start with. I certainly didn't start as a reporter with the idea of making the move. I love reporting, I love journalism--and I was good enough to know that I was starting to report the same stories over and over. I wanted to leave before I got burned out.

There were changes at the Tribune that probably precipitated the move, because it became a lot more bottom-line oriented. And when I got there, there was an almost romantic sense of mission.

I always had a mission to make government more honest and more responsive--and I don't think that's changed. I still have the same reverence and regard for journalism, and most of my friends are still reporters, not politicians. But there's an advantage to being in the room when events are being shaped, instead of just reporting on them. I enjoy shaping the news the same as I enjoyed reporting on it--not more, the same. And when you're a reporter, there are limits to how partisan you can be and to the impact you can have.

BM: What was the reaction among your colleagues? Did anyone accuse you of turning your coat?

DA: Most of them were sympathetic. Everyone's aware of the burnout aspects of journalism. I can only remember one person, an editor at the Tribune, who said, "You're making a terrible mistake." And I think today he'd admit that he was the one who was mistaken. It would have been a terrible mistake if I hadn't gone.

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