David Axelrod’s first exposure to the power of politics came when he was just five and sitting atop a mailbox in in Manhattan’s Stuyvesant Town housing development. It was 1960, and his babysitter, a black woman named Jessie, had taken him to see John F. Kennedy Jr. speak on a campaign stop.
Axelrod’s young eyes saw the street clogged with hopeful people, intent on Kennedy’s words as they boomed off the high-rise buildings. “I had a sense this was really important,” said Axelrod, speaking January 15 at the Law School. He wondered aloud what Jessie would say if she had known that her babysitting charge would one day work 20 feet down the hall from the Oval Office, then occupied by the first African-American president.
For his roles in President Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, Axelrod is regarded as one of the most influential and effective strategists in modern politics. After the 2012 election, he left the president’s side to open the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics. The center’s goal, Axelrod said, is to train future generations of leaders across the political spectrum, and hopefully to elevate the level of political discourse.
To that end, he implored law students to get involved in campaigns, big and small, and the center’s work.
“You guys are among the best of the best. We need your talent,” he said, expressing his faith in the generation of young Americans who are coming up in the political world now. “At the end of the day, all of you have the ability to change our politics. I think we have a country that is far better than its politics.”
Axelrod spoke with passion about the year-old Institute, which has hosted more than 200 speakers from all levels of government, as well as from campaigns and journalism. Visiting fellows offer weekly seminars; this quarter, they include former members of the House of Representatives (Democrat Lincoln Davis and Republican Sue Kelly), a former strategist to British Prime Minister David Cameron, a former strategist to Mitt Romney, and Mayor Kasim Reed of Atlanta. Last summer, the Institute’s internship program placed 160 students in paying jobs inside the White House, Congress, political offices, non-governmental organizations, and elsewhere.
Axelrod, a University alumnus, was a journalist before he started his political career, spending eight years at the Chicago Tribune. He left journalism to work for U.S. Senator Paul Simon and soon found himself not just working for campaigns, but running them. All told, Axelrod has managed media and communications strategy for more than 150 local, state, and national campaigns, including Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns. During the president’s first term, Axelrod served as Senior Advisor, which is why his office was just down the hall from the Oval Office.
He decided 2012 would be his last campaign, he said, because “I would never find a partner and a client and a friend like Barack Obama.”
Axelrod was a fitting choice to speak during the Law School’s Diversity Month celebration; he has long had a reputation for championing promising minority candidates, and for bringing together diverse coalitions. He talked about being a journalist during the 1983 mayoral campaign, when Harold Washington, who would become the city’s first black mayor, faced brutal racism during a stop at a Northwest Side church. Then, in 2005, when working for Obama as he ran for Senate, Axelrod had the satisfaction of seeing his client win the precinct where that church was located.
“I said to (Obama), ‘Harold’s smiling down on us and smiling down on our city,’” Axelrod recounted.
Part of his mission for the Institute is to foster diversity, of background and of opinion, because that is what makes America great, and what can make politics better, he said.
“We are a stronger country when everyone feels included, and when our leadership reflects the experiences and backgrounds of the people.”