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David Axelrod’s memories of covering Byrne, Washington mayoral campaigns

Jane Byrne and Harold Washington

Mayor Jane Byrne shakes hands with U.S. Rep. Harold Washington in 1982. | Sun-Times Library

Long before he helped to elect President Barack Obama and engineered six of Richard M. Daley’s mayoral campaigns and one for Harold Washington, David Axelrod was a reporter covering mayoral politics.

He covered Jane Byrne’s stunning 1979 upset over Michael Bilandic, who was buried by the Blizzard of `79.

In a free-wheeling interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, Axelrod reminisced about the Byrne campaign, to which he was assigned because he was just a cub reporter in his early 20s, and she seemed destined to lose — until it started snowing.

“She ran as a reformer and did very well in the African-American community and among lakefront liberals and forged her victory that way. She governed in a very different way,” Axelrod said.

“It was a crazy time to be a reporter. I remember the Byrne administration trying to throw the Tribune out because they didn’t like our coverage. And I remember confronting the mayor about things she had said on tape. And she said, `I never said that.’ I watch what’s going on in Washington today and I feel like I’ve lived this movie before. “

In retrospect, Axelrod said he should have seen Byrne’s betrayal of her reformer roots coming.

The tell came during a candidate’s forum at a West Side church. Danny Davis spoke first. He was running for alderman at the time.

“He told this story about a homeless person coming into his ward office asking for food. And he said, `We don’t have food here. You can go to a [community] center. They have a food program.’ And the guy said, `I went there, but they said I had to have an absentee ballot to eat,’ “ Axelrod recalled.

Jane Byrne and Michael Bilandic

Jane Byrne and Michael A. Bilandic at Byrne’s inauguration as mayor in 1979. | Sun-Times file photo

“I was traveling in [Byrne’s] car with her — and I said, `Man that’s unbelievable. That’s so cold. Starve a guy if he didn’t give you [an absentee ballot]?’ And she just shrugged and said, `Oh, it happens all the time.’ I should have known at that moment that she was not a reformer. She was gonna govern as she governed. She was a complete machine product. She was an opportunist.”

Four years later, Axelrod was doing a “curtain-raiser” on the 1983 mayoral campaign. He met then-Congressman Harold Washington in his congressional office.

“He said, `Can we talk off the record.’ I said, `Sure.’ And he said, `You know what it’s like to be a congressman? They treat you like a king. You can come and go as you please. You can disappear for days and nobody gives a s—. Why would I want to be mayor? That’s a real job,’ “ Axelrod recalled.

“So, here’s what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna tell `em, `If you register 80,000 people, if you raise half a million dollars by such and such a date, I’ll run. They want me to run they’re drafting me. I can’t just walk away. So I’m gonna set the bar so high” they won’t be able to clear it.

The next time Axelrod saw Harold Washington, he was declaring his candidacy for mayor in a Democratic primary race he would ultimately win against Byrne and Daley.

“He saw me standing there. He pulled me aside. He said, `Remember that conversation? What can I do? They did it!’ He came to love the job, as you know. But he didn’t want to run for mayor.”

David Axelrod talks with Sun-Times reporter Fran Spielman at City Hall Friday, Dec. 7, 2018. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

David Axelrod talks with Sun-Times reporter Fran Spielman at City Hall Friday, Dec. 7, 2018. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times