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Marin: Axelrod ready to hang up his running shoes

Carol Marin

Carol Marin

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Updated: October 9, 2012 2:55PM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — This is David Axelrod’s final campaign.

The guy who took an unknown Illinois state senator to the political mountaintop has declared the re-election campaign of President Barack Obama will be his last.

After all, what’s left?

“There’s nothing more you can do,” said political strategist and friend Pete Giangreco. “It’s like hitting a grand slam, [or] .400 in baseball.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel told me four years ago that to understand Obama’s 2008 victory, I should look for its beginning in the 1984 Senate campaign of Paul Simon.

In point of fact, that’s how to view David Axelrod’s amazing trajectory as well.

Axelrod, a star reporter at the Chicago Tribune, crossed to the dark side, became a consultant and in 1984 managed the Simon campaign. He formed a political consulting company that would quickly grow into a formidable, multimillion-dollar operation.

The people who worked on that campaign included Emanuel, Simon protégé Dick Durbin, and budding strategist David Wilhelm.

Simon, a crusading newspaper publisher from southern Illinois, had carved a political path through the Legislature and then Congress.

In 1989, Axelrod, along with Wilhelm, helped Richard M. Daley capture the office his father before him held.

“David is a true believer with his candidates,” Wilhelm told me. “Some might not believe that or be cynical about it.”

But he added, “Axelrod can shoot some sharp elbows. He’s tough. He wants to win. And he can go after the jugular.”

Axelrod’s list of campaigns includes big wins and some losses. In 2006, he tasted the triumph of getting Deval Patrick elected the first African-American governor of Massachusetts, but he also felt the pain of losing the 2006 Illinois congressional campaign of war hero Tammy Duckworth, who is running again.

I’ve known David a long time. In the early ’80s, he was a crumpled, mustachioed print guy chronicling the tumultuous tenure of then-mayor Jane Byrne.

Today, he wears expensive suits, travels the world and picks up very large paychecks. He still, however, has occasional doughnut crumbs clogging his BlackBerry keys.

Through the years, we’ve battled, we’ve partied. We’ve gone one-on-one in interviews tough and tender.

We have the shared experience of being parents of children with developmental disabilities, the consequence of epilepsy and brain damage.

David’s wife, Susan, with his support, built the CURE foundation, Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy, that every year grows in size and respect.

“In the city of Chicago, David has emerged as a civic leader,” said Wilhelm. “It’s not a typical thing.”

It’s been a remarkable journey. The next chapter will take him to the University of Chicago, where an Institute of Politics has been created for him to head.

Thursday night here in Charlotte, the Simon legacy was in full view as Paul Simon’s daughter, Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, watched from the front row, and Sen. Dick Durbin introduced Barack Obama.

And David Axelrod, somewhere off stage and out of sight, watched the winding down of his last campaign.

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