Jason Zengerle: How David Axelrod learned to conquer race





In 1992, a Chicago woman named Bettylu Saltzman met Barack Obama, who had graduated from Harvard Law School one year earlier and was now in her city leading a voter-registration drive called Project Vote. Saltzman, an heiress to a shopping-mall fortune who's long been active in Democratic politics, was volunteering for Bill Clinton's presidential bid when, one day, Obama dropped by the campaign's Chicago office to discuss Project Vote. Saltzman came away from the encounter very, very impressed. "It could have been because I was working in a presidential campaign that I was thinking this way," Saltzman recently recalled for me, "but, after meeting Barack, I told a number of people that I thought he'd be president some day, and he'd be our first black president."

One of the people Saltzman told was David Axelrod, whom she had first gotten to know while working on Paul Simon's victorious 1984 U.S. Senate campaign, which Axelrod, at the age of 29, had managed. Since then, Axelrod had gone on to become Saltzman's good friend (they have Chicago Bulls season tickets next to each other) and the preeminent Democratic political and media consultant in Chicago, having spearheaded Richard M. Daley's recent election as mayor. Intrigued, Axelrod soon set up a meeting with Obama. For him, it was little more than a favor to a friend and, possibly, a political scouting trip. But, for the 30-year-old Obama, who had come to Chicago with dreams of becoming mayor himself, it was a crucial encounter with the person who could help him achieve that ambition.

Initially, though, Obama failed to make the sort of impression on Axelrod that he had made on Saltzman. Although their meeting led to the two becoming friends who would socialize and play basketball together, Obama and Axelrod's relationship was more personal than political--with Axelrod always maintaining a professional distance from Obama during the early years of Obama's political career. To be sure, Obama used Axelrod as an informal sounding board when he ran for the state Senate and got Axelrod to host a fund-raiser for him when his district was redrawn to include Axelrod's downtown neighborhood. But, despite his best efforts, Obama was unable to convince Axelrod to take him on as a client. When he ran for Congress in 2000, trying to unseat Bobby Rush, Axelrod sat on the sidelines. Ostensibly, Axelrod took a pass because he didn't want his working for Obama to be construed as payback by Daley, whom Rush had unsuccessfully challenged for mayor the year before. But Chris Sautter, an Axelrod friend who wound up working as Obama's media consultant on that losing campaign, says, "I think David was also pretty down on Obama's chances." And, a few years later, when Obama first approached Axelrod about joining his 2004 campaign for the U.S. Senate, Axelrod demurred. Indeed, according to David Mendell's biography of Obama, Axelrod told Obama to forget about statewide office altogether. "If I were you," he advised, "I would wait until Daley retires and then look at a mayor's race."...

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