Brad Ashford: A little humor, trust and relationships

The way to a New Attitude

March 14, 2022 4:00 am

Former U.S. Rep. Brad Ashford of Omaha (Courtesy of U.S. House Office of Photography)

A message from Ann Ashford:

Brad originally drafted this in March 2021. On Friday, Feb. 18, 2022, we were given the preliminary results of a biopsy of a brain mass that told us Brad has brain cancer. Our world turned upside down in that moment. After a beat of silence, Brad calmly asked how we treat this. And he immediately followed that with the direction that we were going to keep on and strengthen our efforts to get his message out. That we need more tolerance, respect and kindness toward one another. That we need to listen to one another. That only by working together can we achieve anything meaningful. That we need to ignore the labels and discover the person. That we need humor, especially self-deprecation. And nowhere in our lives is that more necessary than in politics.

So now on to Brad’s words.

Despite the seriousness of the issues, politics can be incredibly funny.  I always took the issues seriously while also experiencing the power of laughter in reaching common ground.  Politics is not like other professions. We operate in the public eye. I rarely considered being the brunt of a joke as anything other than the breaking down of barriers leading to a resolution of an issue. The willingness to laugh at oneself creates an environment of trust, and trust means anything can be accomplished.

One of my favorite columnists is Mike Kelly, when he was at the Omaha World-Herald. I was often kidded for my physical resemblance to Jerry Springer. Mike wrote about the Jerry Springer resemblance in a 2000 column, “Ashford Hears ‘Jer-ry! Jer-ry.’”  On my travels I was often asked for an autograph. I must confess that on rare occasions I would sign “Jerry Springer” on a napkin or piece of paper in order to avoid disappointing someone. Kelly concluded that “a big difference in the two is that Ashford is known in public life as a reconciler and a mediator. Bringing people together. … Springer brings people together but then comes the tumult and the shouting.” I certainly never encouraged my colleagues to throw chairs.

During my first campaign for the Unicameral in 1986, it was clear I had no experience running a campaign. During the primary I decided to purchase a billboard at the intersection of two major streets. There were two problems with that strategy: The billboard was not in my district, and the print was so small no one could possibly read the words. After I lost the primary election by a large margin, I was introduced to Jim Crounse, a former staffer for Congressman Peter Hoagland.  Crounse was not shy about pointing out the absurdity of our rookie mistakes. Jim steered us to a win for the legislative seat with his strategy to walk to every house in the district twice and abandon the billboard.

During my first eight years in the Unicameral, I developed a reputation as being absent-minded and downright forgetful. My practice was to pick up my friend, State Sen. Jerry Chizek, to drive to Lincoln together and take him home in the evening. On occasion I would forget Jerry in Lincoln, and it became a running joke in the body. Jerry wasn’t the only fellow senator I would forget — that distinction was shared with Ernie Chambers.

For all the years I was a Republican, I considered myself a Rockefeller Republican. I often voted with Democrats in the Unicameral, but on occasion I would vote with Republicans. Nothing was closer to the hearts of Nebraska Democrats in 1991 than a bill to divide our Electoral College votes by congressional district. The last time Democrats had carried Nebraska was 1964, when Lyndon Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater in a landslide. So the Electoral College bill was a big deal.

I struggled with the bill, as it was evident that Democrats could carry the 2nd Congressional District, including Omaha, or come close. I also thought it would be good for economic development if Omaha’s vote for president actually mattered. However, it seemed that once in a while I should vote with Republicans.  At that time, most votes in the Unicameral were bipartisan, but this vote was going to be an exception.

The sponsor of the bill was Sen. DiAnna Schimek, a very active Democrat and a good friend.  She was right. Splitting electoral votes by district would put Nebraska on the political map.

It takes 25 votes to pass a bill in the Unicameral. Democratic Gov. Ben Nelson, a good friend, supported the bill so there would not be a veto. Normally the votes are tallied on a “scoreboard” behind the Speaker’s chair. As the votes were recorded, 24 votes were in favor.  I had voted “not voting.” It was up to me. I had time to change my vote. Mike Kelly recorded my recollection of the moment: “DiAnna was looking over to me with that older sister stare of hers. … I succumbed.”

Splitting electoral votes has made a difference. In 2008, Barack Obama carried our district and picked up an Electoral College vote, and Joe Biden did the same in 2020. It means something as national coverage refers to our district as the little blue dot in Nebraska. We could actually determine the outcome of a presidential election.  The “Schimek Stare” didn’t work only with me; it has become a Unicameral legend.

One of my last bills in the Legislature in 2014 was a transformation of the juvenile justice system in Nebraska — the culmination of five years of work. It was long obvious that we were detaining too many youths without proper services. In my travels across the state, I discovered that judges were frustrated that they had lost control of the youths under their jurisdiction.  My bill changed that practice and gave judges the authority to monitor cases more closely. It was a complicated bill, as it impacted every facet of the juvenile justice system.

On the first day of debate, I got up to explain the bill. My friend Sen. Heath Mello, who was the chair of the Appropriations Committee, asked me a few questions about the cost of Legislative Bill 561 and other details. My response to Heath was simple: “Trust me,” and by the second round of debate, all his questions would be answered.  My colleagues erupted in laughter, but they passed the bill on to the second round of debate anyway, and it eventually passed. Today, as the result of the work of so many, the detention rate for juveniles has decreased significantly, and there is an increased awareness that alternatives to detention of juveniles must be a priority. A little levity worked in the case of Legislative Bill 561.

In 1994, I decided to jog through the district as part of my campaign for Congress. Those were the days when I was running marathons, and I thought it was a good way to interact with voters. It didn’t work, though I did get my runs in. Joe Jordan, a reporter with KMTV at the time, did a piece about my odd campaign tactic. The video he shot showed me running down an empty street waving at nobody. I am sure the voters thought I was nuts to do something so odd. (Joe Jordan is a legendary political reporter. Years later he served as the communications director in my congressional office.) In my 2014 congressional campaign, I dusted off the run strategy, and many of my ads had me running through the district with 25 friends to emphasize my commitment to make 25 friends in Congress and bring about change.

When I finally arrived in Congress, I continued my habit of being slightly forgetful. The process of selecting an office was based on a lottery system. First we picked a number and then returned to select an office later in the afternoon. Luckily I drew No. 3. Not so luckily, I got the time mixed up for selecting the office. So I went from third pick to last. (But somehow I still got an office on the first floor of the Cannon Office Building, a wonderful office close to the entrance and easy for constituents to visit.)

One of the perks of being a member of the House is a membership to the House gym. The gym is a great place to make friends on both sides of the aisle, but I didn’t want to take a free membership. Our office administrator, Willa Prescott, and I found out the fair market rate for a gym membership, and then began a weeks-long search for a place or person to submit payment. Willa finally found a woman in an unmarked office in the basement of the Capitol who would take my check, though she wasn’t quite sure where it would be deposited since this sort of thing so rarely occurred.

Congressman Joe Wilson from South Carolina was infamous for yelling “You lie” when President Obama gave a State of the Union address. Early in my term I traveled to the Middle East with Joe. As serious as our business was, moments of humor permeated the trip. Whenever we would meet a head of state, Joe would hand out his business card as if he was selling office equipment. It was hilarious. In Bahrain, we met with the king at the air force base adjoining his palace. The king was attending an air show, and we were escorted to his box. What I remember most about the visit was his golf jacket with “His Majesty, King of Bahrain” embroidered on the front. I assume most people there knew he was the king. Of course, Joe gave him his business card.

When Joe and I were on a helicopter traveling from Kabul to Bagram Air Force Base to visit troops in Afghanistan, I had the temerity to ask Joe what possessed him to yell “You lie” as the president spoke. Joe smiled and told me that it wasn’t his best day. A number of Republicans had agreed to yell “You lie” at the same time. Of course, Joe was the only one who did so. Joe told me he had a tough couple of weeks following this incident, though his constituents in South Carolina seemed to support him.

When Pope Francis came to address a joint session of Congress, Father Tom Fangman from Omaha was my guest. Father Tom was the most enthusiastic visitor for an event such as this. He was so excited he was up at 5 a.m., before dawn, five hours before the Pope’s visit, to ensure he could get a seat, not realizing that as a member of Congress I had seats. On the White House lawn, waiting for the Pope to appear in the popemobile, Father Tom found himself next to Sen. Bernie Sanders. If anyone knows Father Tom, you know Sen. Sanders did a lot of listening that day.

My career is replete with these memories. I always took my role seriously, but I also felt that a little humor could break down barriers, help build trust and relationships, and actually result in pretty good policy. It is past time that we embrace a New Attitude. My mission now is to advance a New Attitude in every aspect of politics.

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Brad Ashford
Brad Ashford

Brad Ashford was a public servant and attorney. He served four terms in the Nebraska Unicameral Legislature and one term in the U.S. House of Representatives. Brad's later focus was on bringing a New Attitude to all involved in governance — to work together without regard to labels. He died April 19, 2022. His widow, Ann Ashford, continues to share some of Brad's essays with the Nebraska Examiner.