The Omaha area’s congressman was out jogging in August when he received a call from President Barack Obama.
Rep. Brad Ashford said they have a friendly relationship, and before getting into the serious reason that his cellphone rang — the Iran nuclear agreement — the pair bantered.
The president, who works out every morning, joshed that the fit Ashford didn’t need to exercise quite so much.
“But I’m quite a bit older than you, Mr. President,” the 65-year-old Ashford said.
Obama, 54, replied yes, but he had a lot more experience in politics.
The first-term congressman chose not to elaborate and say that he, too, had been around the political block, though at a lower level. As a college student in 1969, when the future president was a boy of 8, Brad interned in the office of U.S. Sen. Roman Hruska, R-Neb.
Ashford was first elected to office in 1986, served 16 years in the Legislature and has held other public-service positions, including executive director of the Omaha Housing Authority and board member for the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority.
Standing 6-3 and weighing 202 pounds, Democrat Ashford has looked the 6-1, 180-pound president in the eye at White House meetings. But on the Iran matter, they don’t see eye to eye.
And so, as World-Herald colleague Joseph Morton of our Washington bureau reported Tuesday, Ashford plans to vote no.
Friday night at La Festa Italiana in Omaha, KETV’s John Oakey and I competed in bocce with Brad and City Councilwoman Aimee Melton. (We almost botched a big bocce lead but eked out a win.) I also saw the congressman Monday, when he walked with the firefighters union in the downtown Labor Day parade.
In a chat before heading back to Washington after the congressional recess, he declined to be specific about the substance of Obama’s call.
“I’ve had a good relationship with the president,” he said, “but I’m just not able to go with him on this (Iran) issue. I’ve had the opportunity to work with him on the trade issue, and he has brought me to the White House a couple of times, which was exciting and interesting.”
At the time of the president’s phone call last month, Ashford was at his family’s vacation home in northern Minnesota. Obama was calling from his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard.
“He is passionate about the Iran deal,” Ashford said. “We had a little conversation that was not even close to a high-pressure discussion.”
The congressman has said that freeing up frozen assets under the pact would allow Iran to sponsor terrorism in the Middle East. All other Nebraska and western Iowa members of Congress also intend to vote no, but Democrats now appear to have enough votes to filibuster a resolution of disapproval, meaning that the agreement would take effect.
Ashford was eager this week to return to work in the nation’s capital for a job he calls “a dream come true.” He has enjoyed meeting ambassadors and world leaders and traveling to the Middle East, and he looks forward to the Sept. 24 congressional speech of another world leader — Pope Francis.
A Lutheran, Ashford has invited as his guest the Rev. Tom Fangman, pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church, 22nd and Binney Streets. He also arranged for the priest to attend a White House reception for the pope.
“Tom is a rare individual who can bring peace to a group or to a person,” the congressman said. “He is touched by God in that regard.”
Ashford said he first thought that the priest needed to meet the pope, but then he decided that “the pope needs to meet Father Tom.”
Just representing the Omaha area in Congress, Ashford said, has been the best part of his first eight months there. But memorable moments, he said, have included the president of Afghanistan asking about old friend Tom Gouttierre of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and the president of Liberia extending thanks for the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha and its role in the Ebola crisis.
Over the years in Nebraska, Ashford variously has registered as a Democrat, a Republican and an independent. Last fall, campaigning partly on the need for bipartisanship, he was one of only three Democrats in the nation to unseat a Republican incumbent in the House.
Early polling in the 2016 presidential race indicates an anti-politician mood, with Donald Trump and Ben Carson leading among Republicans. Ashford said he expects that Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton will end up the candidates of the major parties. But whoever the final candidates are, he said, he will support the one he believes would do the most to reach across to the other party.
“The country is stuck in cement,” Ashford said, adding that we need a leader who will “break the logjam.”
Obama was elected in 2008 amid hopes that he could do so, but Washington politics proceeded as usual.
In ’08, Obama received an electoral vote from the Omaha-based 2nd Congressional District. Nebraska and Maine are the only states that allocate electoral votes by district rather than winner-take-all, and that election was the first time the provision came into play.
Obama knows that Ashford is not a mere wet-behind-the-ears congressional first-termer and is a political veteran in Nebraska. At one of their meetings this year at the White House, the Omahan told Obama that in 1991 — as a registered Republican — he provided the final vote needed in the officially nonpartisan Legislature to change Nebraska to the district-allocation system.
The president, Ashford said, has been “extremely kind to me,” but the August call on the Iran nuclear agreement didn’t affect his plan to vote no.
In the nation’s capital, the inveterate jogger follows a 4-mile route from Capitol Hill to the World War II Memorial and back; a 5-mile route that passes the Lincoln Memorial; and a 7-mile route that takes him to the Key Bridge at the Potomac River and back.
He keeps his cellphone on. You never know who might call.
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