It began as a hunch, with a political strategist who thought a young Illinois state senator could aspire to more. Soon, the senator became a president, and the strategist a presidential adviser.
Now, a year after David Axelrod helped Barack Obama win the presidency, partners at his old firm are learning how to work without him. Conversations with clients and Chicago politicos indicate that AKPD Message and Media is doing just fine without the old boss.
“I think people may be attracted to the glow,” says Don Rose, a Chicago political consultant and longtime friend of Axelrod’s. “I think there are people who might say, even without Axelrod, it is still the Axelrod firm.”
Rose met Axelrod when the now-famous presidential adviser was a cub reporter at the Hyde Park Herald. Rose was working as a political consultant in Chicago’s South Side, and dealing with Axelrod on some stories led him to write a raving recommendation letter to editors at the Chicago Tribune.
That letter helped Axelrod land an internship spot at the Tribune, Rose says. In 1981, Axelrod would become the paper’s political writer and columnist — the youngest in the paper’s history, according to a White House biography.
What happened afterward could very well have changed the course of the United States. In 1984, Axelrod left journalism to eventually manage media strategy and communications for more than 150 local, state and national campaigns.
Twenty years after entering politics, Axelrod helped Obama defeat six Democrats and go on to a landslide win for a U.S. Senate seat. Five years later, when Senator Obama became president, Axelrod turned from senior partner at the firm he founded, AKPD, to senior adviser for the president.
Officials at the White House referred all questions about AKPD to the firm, but partners nor staff there responded to repeated requests for comment.
Some former clients and competitors of AKPD declined interviews when reached directly or through spokespeople.
This summer, former Chicago Inspector General David Hoffman hired AKPD for his U.S. Senate campaign. He is trying to fill the seat held by outgoing fellow Democrat Roland Burris.
Hoffman faces stiff competition: Former Illinois Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, a friend of Obama’s, is considered the primary front-runner with about $2.4 million on hand at the end of September. Chicago Urban League President Cheryle Robinson Jackson and attorney Jacob Meister are also contenders.
Yet Hoffman says AKPD’s backing gave him greater momentum in his campaign. Inking a deal with AKPD was like a vote of confidence, he says.
“It was a significant moment for me, that a team with that experience believed in me and motivated me to be in this race.”
The White House has not issued an endorsement for the seat, but both Hoffman and Giannoulias have met with Axelrod in the White House. While the presidential adviser has divested his ownership stake in AKPD, he remains acutely involved with Democratic candidates on the national level.
That kind of access is part of what Rose, the longtime Axelrod friend, considers key to the firm’s continued success with clients. While Axelrod is no longer a partner at AKPD, he has not completely cut off ties with colleagues.
“It’s that very sense of contact,” Rose says. “I’m sure a potential client would know that at least these guys are friends and still talk.”
Dawn Clark Netsch, the former Illinois comptroller, recalls meeting Axelrod, her “informal adviser,” about 30 years ago. She says Axelrod’s transition to full-time work in Washington may be harder on him than on his firm.
Axelrod, whose daughter has a seizure-related condition, has been a key supporter of Chicago-based Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy, or C.U.R.E. Some of his family still lives in the city.
“He just has such deep roots here now,” Netsch says. “It was a little hard to get over the idea that he would decide to pack up and go to Washington, which he knows is a very different type of world.”
She says his colleagues at AKPD might still be adjusting to his absence in Chicago, but that she expects no dramatic change.
“There are some very good people there, and if they worked with David, they’ve got to be talented,” she said. “It may be different, but I think they will be able to survive without him.”