On Monday, Politico reported that “no subject is more avidly considered in the corridors of Democratic power than the future role of his chief adviser, political consultant David Axelrod. Democrats who know the Chicago-based political consultant, the key architect of Obama’s campaign and of his public image, say Axelrod has signaled that he’ll seriously consider taking on a job in the administration.”
On the same day, the New York Times published a heartwarming piece about Axelrod under the headline “Long by Obama’s Side, an Adviser Fills a Role That Exceeds His Title.”
How sweet. And how quickly they forget.
Just nine days prior, the Times examined Axelrod’s other job – the one as America’s Astroturf King, creating fake grass-roots campaigns to persuade the public that it is on the side of his rather unappetizing corporate clients. That’s the side of Axelrod that rarely shows up in profiles that invariably assure us “really believes” in his candidates’ messages.
The puffy profiles, though, are hard to square with the facts, as laid out in devastating fashion by the Times’ story earlier this month and a similar investigation by the late BusinessWeek Chicago last spring that came and went with barely a flutter.
“Throughout the presidential campaign, Senator Barack Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, has not hesitated to call out his counterparts in opposing campaigns for having private business clients that he says conflict with their roles as political consultants,” the Times report said.
“During the Democratic primary, he criticized Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton over corporate public relations work by her top adviser, Mark Penn. Last weekend, he accused Senator John McCain’s campaign manager, Rick Davis, of selling access to public officials on behalf of his lobbying clients. In response, Mr. Davis asserted that Mr. Axelrod does the same thing.”
It turns out Davis is right. And Axelrod desperately doesn’t want you to know that.
“Mr. Axelrod’s corporate work has remained largely obscured – his clients’ names were removed from his firm’s Web site several years ago, part of a series of revisions that minimized details of that side of his business,” the Times found.
“The identities of some of his past clients appeared in the press over the last year, including AT&T, Cablevision and the University of Chicago Medical Center. A fuller picture emerges from a review of public records, including an archived version of his Web site that contains an early list of companies and organizations his firm has worked with.
“Among them were Household International, a subprime mortgage lender based in Illinois that faced accusations of predatory practices; Wisconsin Energy, which sought to counter opposition to its coal-fired power plants; and the Compete Coalition, a lobbying group in Washington that advocates deregulation of electricity markets.”
His work for the University of Chicago Medical Center – in conjunction with Michelle Obama – was particularly heinous, as it was directed toward a controversial plan to rid the hospital’s ER of poor patients.
Axelrod operated in the shadows on that one, but his work for ComEd and its parent company, Exelon, achieved a slightly higher profile.
“In Illinois, ASK created advertisements for Consumers Organized for Reliable Electricity – a group created by ComEd, a utility company that is a subsidiary of Exelon – that warned of possible blackouts if the state did not approve a rate increase,” the Times reports. “Exelon, a major contributor to Mr. Obama’s campaigns, also tapped ASK to help work on message strategy with the Compete Coalition, a lobbying organization made up of major electricity producers and consumers. A coalition membership list from earlier this year included ASK, although Mr. Sedler disputed that, adding that ASK’s dealings with the coalition were through Exelon and that it did not have a separate contract with the coalition.”
(BusinessWeek Chicago reported last spring that “After a complaint was filed with state regulators, ComEd acknowledged that it had bankrolled the entire $15 million effort.”)
The Times notes that “One of the coalition’s two co-chairmen is Ron Kirk, a Democratic former mayor of Dallas who is a friend of Mr. Obama and a fund-raiser for his campaign. Mr. Kirk said the coalition advocates for open competition in electricity markets, and has lobbied at the federal level. But he said he was not personally involved in lobbying, which would put him at odds with Mr. Obama’s prohibition on accepting campaign contributions from Washington lobbyists.
“’I’m not a federally registered lobbyist,’ Mr. Kirk said. ‘We have other people who do that’.”
The campaign on behalf of Exelon also included the “Ministers Coalition for Jobs and Economic Development,” which published an “open letter” to state legislators begging them to “keep the lights on” in their mostly poor black neighborhoods. How to do that? Raise rates.
“ASK devised campaigns to ‘drive the public discourse to areas of greatest advantage’ for a broad range of major corporations ‘seeking to influence public policy’,”the Times says.
Axelrod insists, however, that he does not lobby.
“Beginning in 2005, the year Mr. Obama joined the Senate, ASK’s description of its work went through a series of revisions that continued into last summer,” the Times reports. “Client names were removed, and the characterization of ASK’s methods was softened. Among other things, a reference to Mr. Axelrod’s ‘winning campaigns for Fortune 100 companies’ was stripped from his biography.”
Looking at Axelrod’s clients – who have made him a wealthy man – it’s easy to see why.
“One company was Household International, the subprime lender, which is now a part of HSBC,” the Times reports. “Mr. Axelrod’s firm was hired to create television advertisements for Household in late 2002, after the company reached a $484 million settlement of accusations that it had gouged borrowers with costly loans and hidden fees.
“Mr. Axelrod said the advertisements were not used to market Household’s products, but were essentially public service announcements about the risks of home equity loans, required as part of the company’s settlement.
“But a former Household executive recalled Mr. Axelrod also coming in to pitch his services for an earlier advertising campaign that sought to put a positive spin on the company’s loan products. Household, which ended up hiring someone else, wanted to ‘craft and deliver messages about the value of subprime lending, and cut the distinction between that and predatory lending,’ said the executive, who is still in business in Chicago, Mr. Axelrod’s base, and did not want to be identified.
“Mr. Axelrod said he did not recall that specific job, but acknowledged he ‘may have’ interviewed for it.”
“When Wisconsin Energy, a regional power supplier, needed help persuading residents to support its plans to build a new coal-fired plant about five years ago, it hired Mr. Axelrod’s firm to produce television and radio advertisements,” the Times reports.
“’It was more or less to bolster understanding, and also to inoculate us from attacks,’ said Barry McNulty, a company spokesman.”
Last April, BusinessWeek reported that Axelrod’s firm “discreetly plots strategy and advertising campaigns for corporate clients to tilt public opinion their way. He and his partners consider virtually everything about ASK to be top secret, from its client roster and revenue to even the number of its employees. But customers and public records confirm that it has quarterbacked campaigns for the Chicago Children’s Museum, ComEd, Cablevision, and AT&T.”
Axelrod’s work for the Children’s Museum was particularly galling; in one of most bitter political fights in the city’s recent history, Axelrod was on what the public overwhelmingly deemed to be the wrong side.
“ASK’s predilection for operating in the shadows shows up in its work,” BusinessWeek Chicago reported. “On behalf of ComEd and Comcast, the firm helped set up front organizations that were listed as sponsors of public-issue ads. Industry insiders call such practices “’Astroturfing,’ a reference to manufacturing grassroots support. Alderman Brendan Reilly of the 42nd Ward, who has been battling the Children’s Museum’s relocation plans, describes ASK as ‘the gold standard in Astroturf organizing. This is an emerging industry, and ASK has made a name for itself in shaping public opinion and manufacturing public support’.”
Axelrod refused to return phone calls and e-mail messages from BusinessWeek about for its article. Transparency isn’t his bag.