THE BLOG
10/10/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

David Axelrod: A Tale of Two Firms

My friend Jen pinged me from New York on Facebook to comment on a travel article I had just published on Peru.

But we really were focused back here at home on the Democratic National Convention.

We had just seen Michelle Obama's speech and bioflick on TV. Jen, who is in her 20s and is a Spanish teacher in New York, said how impressed she was by Michelle O.

And why not? Mrs. Obama has risen high from her South Side roots, with her Princeton and Harvard pedigree. The movie told how she came back to her roots with a major law firm in Chicago, where she met and supervised the guy with the funny name, Barack Obama.

But Big Law wasn't the right fit for her. So she went to work at the University of Chicago, where she linked the Hyde Park intellectual powerhouse with its community, which includes many underprivileged folks.

But Jen didn't know, and the movie didn't inform her, about a different take on that U. of C. experience, as told by Joe Stephens in a front page story in the Washington Post on Aug. 22. he in the the Washington Post.

Stephens reported that the University of Chicago Medical Center, at the urging of Michelle Obama, had hired ASK, a shadowy public affairs firm co-owned by none other than David Axelrod, Barack Obama's political adviser.

The world of political advisers is small, so no surprises there.

But the work done by ASK might give pause to progressive Dems salivating at the prospect of a Barack Obama presidency delivering universal health-care coverage.

Stephens noted, "Michelle Obama, an executive at the medical center, launched an innovative program to steer the patients to existing neighborhood clinics to deal with their health needs."

Neither Michelle Obama nor Axelrod, the former Chicago Tribune political reporter turned political kingmaker, commented.

The Post said: "Axelrod's firm recommended an aggressive promotional effort modeled on a political campaign -- appoint a campaign manager, conduct focus groups, target messages to specific constituencies, then recruit religious leaders and other third-party 'validators.' They, in turn, would write and submit opinion pieces to Chicago publications."

ASK's approach is known as "Astroturfing", or manufacturing artificial grassroots. More on that in a moment.

The Post quoted a U. of C. spokeswoman:

"An ER visit for something that's not an emergency costs the medical center $1,200.That's sucking up dollars in health care that we don't all have to just blow through carelessly.

"Michelle inspired us . . . to step back and take a holistic approach to this problem."

So U. of C.-style holistic medicine meant that the university got money-losing poor people to go elsewhere for care.

Not everyone was pleased.

"I've had some complaints from my constituents," Alderman Toni Preckwinkle, a former teacher who represents Chicago's 4th Ward and was an Obama delegate at the Democratic National Convention, told The Post. "It's hard to know whether this is motivated by the interests of the patients or by the financial interests of the medical center."

Dr. Quentin Young, chairman of the Health and Medicine Policy Research Group, which works for a national health plan to cover everyone, sounded off in the Post as well. Young is personal physician to many pols. He was Mayor Harold Washington's doc and was health commissioner under Washington during the nasty Council Wars. Barack Obama is also a patient at Young's practice.

(Young is an old source of mine, going back nearly 30 years. When you call him, whether you're a patient or a reporter, you get right through. One time I called him while he was examining a patient. Quentin said on a speaker phone, "Howard, you know Jan, don't do you?" It was Rep. Jan Schakowsky, now a U.S. representative and then an Illinois State Rep, and she was in stirrups having a pelvic exam. Honest. She said: "Hi, Howard." I said: "Hi, Jan.")

Young described the U. of C.'s spending on charity as "ludicrous." "They are arguably, if not defrauding, then at least taking advantage of a public subsidy. We would like to see them give more than the minimum. The need is there."

Earlier this year, reporting for BusinessWeek Chicago, I had the first-ever interview on ASK with Eric Sedler, the "S" in ASK (the "A" is Axelrod). ASK prefers to lurk in the shadows as it promotes the causes and interests of its fat-cat clients with ad campaigns and astroturf tactics.

Sedler wouldn't let me and my prying eyes into his office, but rather spoke in a series of phone calls and e-mails and finally a sit-down at a downtown hotel outside a going-away party for me and my fellow business news staffers from the Chicago Sun-Times.

I reported in an article entitled "The Secret Side of David Axelrod/The Master of 'Astroturfing' has a second firm that shapes public opinion for corporations"
in BusinessWeek http://www.businessweek.com/bwdaily/dnflash/content/mar2008/db20080314_121054.htm?campaign_id=rss_dai

"Through his AKP&D Message & Media consultancy, the campaign veteran (Axelrod) has advised a succession of Democratic candidates since 1985, and he's now chief strategist for Senator Barack Obama's bid for President. But on the down low, Axelrod moonlights in the private sector.

"Axelrod 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."

Another ASK campaign is in the offing to stop proposals for an Illinois Constitutional Convention that some politicians fear might institute reforms such as recalls. So watch for some cooked-up group placing ads on TV and radio calling for the status quo.

Axelrod & Co. have had great success with ASK. They helped ComEd get a huge rate hike. They helped the Chicago Children's Museum beat back the open-land advocates who want to keep the museum out of Grant Park. Representing Madison Square Garden, owned by Cablevision, they outblitzed the New York Jets' plans to build a stadium in Manhattan.

Sedler, a former staffer at Edelman Communications and one-time staffer with Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, told me opponents mischaracterize what ASK does. "I reject the notion that a company can't advocate a public policy," he says. "These issues are complicated, and people have different points of view."

ASK is known for "Astroturfing," manufacturing grassroots support and using traditional strategies used to elect politicians to promote public policy. ASK draws the line at working for anyone who wants to get elected. That's AKP&D's role.

Alderman Brendan Reilly of the 42nd Ward, who opposed the Children's Museum's relocation plans and who succeeded Sedler in his public affairs job at AT&T and was his colleague on Madigan's staff (an ever-helpful Sedler told me Reilly "was one of the best operatives in the group), said in BusinessWeek that ASK is "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."

Sedler disputes that ASK operates in the shadows, saying that the firm is not secretive because it has a web site. But the ASK Web site is a rather anemic affair. ASK sells on word-of-mouth to major corporate interests.

Meanwhile, high-profile AKP&D Message & Media site online lists as clients: Obama for President, Edwards for President, Clinton for President, Simon for President, U.S. Senator Barack Obama, U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun, U.S. Senator Paul Simon, U.S. Senator Adlai Stevenson, U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, U.S. Rep. Rod Blagojevich, U.S. Rep. Glenn Poshard and U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski.

Heady stuff.

Ask ASK, and they prefer to keep their client list private.

If you're trying to help ComEd boost their rates, you may not want bragging rights while your sister firm is trying to get the "good guys" who allegedly take on and slay corporate dragons elected.

Illinois Lt. Gov Pat Quinn filed a complaint with the Illinois Commerce Commission against the fear-mongering ComEd rate campaign for not disclosing that ComEd funded the so-called grass-roots group behind the campaign. ICC dropped the complaint, but ComEd agreed to make the disclosures.

Pat Quinn is no shrinking violet when it comes to talking to the media. But his spokeswoman told me he wouldn't be available to talk to BusinessWeek. (She also--in a nice way--accused me and BusinessWeek as being tools for Hillary Clinton.)

There may be several reasons for Quinn's discretion: Axelrod served as Quinn's political adviser. Pols probably don't want to cross Axelrod. And maybe more importantly, Quinn plays basketball with Axelrod and Obama. (Sedler told me he himself was too short to play.)

Golden-boy Axelrod and his Teflon team appear to play ball with progressive pols and the special interests they love to hate, working both sides of the street.