On April 2, Omaha voters head to the polls to trim the list of candidates down to two. Each day this week, The World-Herald is running an in-depth profile on one of the five big names with eyes on the Mayor's Office.
Schedule: Monday: Jean Stothert. Tuesday: Dave Nabity. Today: Brad Ashford. Thursday: Dan Welch. Friday: Jim Suttle.
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Brad Ashford is making the rounds on South 24th Street, shaking hands with the owners of taquerías and clothing stores and peeling off Brad Ashford for Mayor stickers for anyone who will wear them.
The conversations come easily. He tells the woman in the shop packed with frilly quinceañera dresses that his family was also in the clothing business. He stops by a table of teens eating potato chips and notes that he was sorry to see South High School lose at the state basketball tournament. He talks meat-carving techniques, pottery prices and business. And, in an ice cream shop, he runs into the kind of conversation he says has been a part of his political life for years.
A man watching Ashford chat up customers leans over to a campaign volunteer.
“Is he a Democrat?” the man asks.
The volunteer begins to offer an explanation about the registered independent who, at various points, has been both a Democrat and a Republican, a candidate as interested in business and lower taxes as he is in gay rights. The man shakes his head and smiles.
“Nobody knows what ... he is,” the man says.
But Ashford, a Nebraska state senator who has been in politics for nearly three decades, doesn't mind. He has tried the party thing. Didn't fit. He hears all the time that he's unpredictable, all over the place. But he says it's just his personality — and a useful strategy. This is how he makes waves in Lincoln on budgets, on hot-button social issues on reforms in the criminal justice system.
“In the Legislature,” he says, “being independent is what you have to be to get anything done.”
Now, Ashford is testing the idea that going it alone can get him Omaha's top job.
“When I decided to run for mayor, I decided to send a message to Omahans: 'I'm just going to be independent of everybody,' ” he said. “When I said that, everybody said it's going to be impossible to get elected to anything ... but I feel at peace with it. It's me running, not some party or some Washington lobby group or some union. It's just me.”
Political confusion aside, people in Omaha know Brad Ashford.
He gets stopped on the street and in the grocery store. Sometimes it's because people confuse the lanky, white-haired politician for talk show host and former Cincinnati Mayor Jerry Springer. Mostly it's because they know Ashford is a guy with influence.
His family has been in business here for more than a century, and Ashford himself has called Omaha home for most of his 63 years. After graduating from Westside High School, he attended Colgate University in New York before coming back to earn a law degree at Creighton University.
A decade later, Ashford was appointed by Democratic Gov. Bob Kerrey to serve as a judge on the Nebraska Commission of Industrial Relations, the state's labor court.
During the same period, he made his first political switch: Republican to Democrat, in part to support Bob Kerrey's gubernatorial campaign.
In 1986, he defeated former Omaha Mayor Robert Cunningham to represent the state's 6th District in the Legislature, his first political office. In short order, the rookie lawmaker was pushing hard on issues that could have a big impact on his city. Among them: Legislative Bill 775, which provided tax incentives for businesses that moved to Nebraska or expanded in the state.
State Sen. Steve Lathrop, an Omahan and a Democrat, said some of Ashford's earliest efforts in the Legislature were among his most important.
“He was intimately involved with (LB 775), which made Nebraska one of the leaders on business tax incentives,” Lathrop said. “It kept ConAgra in Omaha, probably kept Union Pacific in Omaha, as a direct result of work he was involved in.”
But while Ashford was making inroads in Lincoln, he wasn't making a stronger connection with the Democratic Party. As of early 1988, he was again a Republican. (The switch wasn't without its confusion; Ashford had already signed on to host a Kerrey for Senate fundraiser when he made the party switch.)
Ashford said he returned to his political roots because he wanted to be involved in a party that shared his interests in business and economic growth.
He wasn't, however, interested in some of the party's other messages. He sparred with the National Rifle Association and became the Legislature's leading proponent of gun control. A bill he spearheaded resulted in required background checks and permits for handgun purchases. He spoke up for abortion rights.
By 1994, when he launched a bid for the 2nd District seat in the U.S. House and the Republican Party was pushing its Contract With America, Ashford said, he found himself “uncomfortable about being told what my position was.”
“I remember running for Congress and the big deal was the Contract With America and thinking: 'Oh heavens no, I'm not going to sign that,' ” he said. “What would my constituents think? They elected me to think for myself.”
He didn't make it out of the primary.
After that, Ashford spent seven years on the Omaha Housing Authority board and was one of the initial board members of the Metropolitan Convention and Entertainment Authority. From 2004 to 2006, he served as executive director of the Omaha Housing Authority.
When he made it back to the Legislature in 2006, Ashford again pushed hard for Omaha projects and interests. He helped secure significant funding for what is now the CenturyLink Center with a law that implemented a “turnback tax” — allowing some taxes collected at and near the arena to be returned to the city to help pay for the facility.
“Nobody's created more jobs in Omaha than Brad,” said Dana Bradford, chief executive of the Waitt Co. “Name a major project that's been around, and Brad's fingerprints are on it.”
In this campaign, Ashford frequently brings up his work with MECA, the group that oversees the CenturyLink Center, TD Ameritrade Park and the Civic Auditorium. He said the successful experiment in turning a government operation over to blended public and private management could be repeated as a cost-saving measure in other city functions such as garbage collection and affordable housing efforts.
When public-private partnerships don't make sense, he says, government should be less redundant. He has spoken for years about an Omaha-Douglas County merger and says he wants more analysis of other taxing entities in the county, such as school districts and natural resources districts. He says more cooperation between the groups could make for a more reasonable tax bill.
Meanwhile, there's the selling point he makes again and again: that Omaha's mayor and city government need to work better with lawmakers in Lincoln. And if anybody knows how to make that happen, he says, it's him.
Ashford has served on a half-dozen committees in the Legislature and currently is chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
When he wants to learn about an issue, he takes it seriously.
“When the session ends, I generally go back to my law practice,” Lathrop said. “Brad goes out to places — like this summer, he's been to conferences and done tours in the state of Washington, conferences in Nevada and New York. The guy is traveling to the experts, going and looking at other detention facilities, finding out what the best practices are in child welfare.”
Ashford's tendency to juggle so many issues can make conversations with him seem jumpy, his attention divided.
“I've found myself with Brad sometimes having to find a way to slow him down to look at the more practical side of things, the political implications — if you do that, what will be the result over here?” said Greg Adams of York, the speaker of the Legislature and a Republican. “But even though he gets rather energetic and impassioned, all you have to do is raise the question to come back and channel his thinking.”
Bring up the absent-minded professor criticism with Ashford and he shrugs. His thought process happens out loud, he says, and he shares it with you, no matter if you're the governor, a shopkeeper he met 30 seconds ago or one of his regular lunchtime running buddies. (Ashford is a regular runner, logging four to five miles a day, five days a week.)
In the race for mayor, Ashford isn't interested in tailoring his speeches or fundraising efforts to attract support from one person or another. In fact, he isn't particularly interested in fundraising at all, except for the essentials.
In mid-March, when campaign reports showed he was raising less than all of his competitors, Ashford wasn't deterred. He said he was uncomfortable asking for money — and with some voters' perceptions that they would have to put up money if they wanted a candidate's time.
When his campaign realized that it had failed to file state election paperwork on its small donations — and that it actually had $28,000 more than previously reported — Ashford said it was a clerical error, an oversight he attributed to his focus on what he sees as his primary responsibility, his work in the Legislature. His campaign faces no penalty, and he struck back at assertions that the problem could indicate trouble with money management.
“I'm good at that,” he said. “That's what I do (in the Legislature); that's what I've done here for years. It's just that I'm maybe not very good at thinking about political campaigns only in terms of money.”
Nearly three decades after he got into politics, Ashford has allies from all over the political map — and all over the state. That includes former Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey, who endorsed Ashford and not fellow Democrat Mayor Jim Suttle.
Ashford sees working with the Legislature as key to nearly all his plans, such as cutting crime (starting with better resources for at-risk kids, including expanded job-training programs) and shifting the tax burden. He doesn't like business-specific approaches like the restaurant tax and instead would look to eliminate enough tax exemptions to lower property tax rates.
Overall, Ashford said, the city would benefit from getting rid of redundant operations. He wants to make the city both more affordable and more inclusive.
“We're way too focused on these little silos we've created for ourselves,” he said. “It's understandable, and it's not awful or evil. But it's a burden on our ability to grow, to work together.”
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