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Watch now: In Normal, David Axelrod talks about Obama, political polarization – Bloomington Pantagraph

NORMAL — Despite an electrical outage earlier in the day that threatened to derail the event entirely, the McLean County Democrats held their second annual Obama Legacy Dinner at the Bone Student Center at Illinois State University Wednesday. 

David Axelrod, the former campaign strategist and senior advisor to former President Barack Obama, headlined the event, called the Obama Legacy Dinner. Formerly the Baldini Scholarship Dinner, the party fundraiser was renamed by local party officials in 2019 in honor of former president and first lady Michelle Obama. 

Wednesday’s dinner was the second iteration of the event after COVID-19 led party officials to call off the gathering last year. 

McLean County Democrat Chair Patrick Cortesi said Axelrod had been among the picks for keynote speaker given his proximity to the former president.

He joked that the party had hoped to land an Obama family member since “it is the Obama Legacy Dinner,” but Axelrod fit the bill as an “A-list speaker.”

Axelrod spent decades as a consultant to political figures including U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and U.S. Sen. John Edwards. He is now director of the non-partisan University of Chicago Institute of Politics and a commentator on CNN.

Onstage, Axelrod joked that he is “a lot less partisan than you would think,” saying friends from either side of the political spectrum who aren’t afraid to talk about their disagreements. 

“What we should never disagree about are the pillars of democracy, the rule of law, the adherence to facts and the certainly the free of free and fair elections,” he said.  “They should not be under debate, and yet we find ourselves in that situation now — and the result will be severe if we are complacent.” 

While crowd had been energized up by pro-Democratic messages from state Comptroller Susana Mendoza and Illinois Democratic County Chairs Association President Kristina Zahorik, Axelrod’s tone Wednesday night struck reflective as he described beginning his work with the former president by signing on to run Obama’s campaign for U.S. Senate in 2004. 

“We were in another period where this county was riven and polarized, when there was a great deal of cynicism about government in Washington and a sense that we could not work together to solve problems,” he said Wednesday.

“And here came this guy with a completely different message … and he gave people a sense of possibility. (We) built a movement in this state and it spread throughout the country and it was driven by hope and not fear; possibility and not cynicism; and we need more of that today.” 

Now 17 years removed from the first campaign that struck him as inspirational, Axelrod told the gathering there is a renewed need for hope against a rising tide of cynicism. 

“My admonition to you guys is, get out there and fight as hard as you can fight for the priorities that we care about that will improve people’s lives and fight for the democracy that gives us the power to change the course of history, that gives us the power to to petition our government and change our government in order to bring those priorities through,” he said.

“That’s also part of the Obama legacy: We were all about mobilizing everyday citizens to change their circumstances and change the country. We succeeded in doing that. We can’t give that up.” 

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