Brad Ashford’s Kindness Campaign

Can it work in Congress?

This illustration can only be used with the Nora Caplan-Bricker piece that originally ran in the 1-24-2015 issue of National Journal magazine. 
National Journal
Jan. 23, 2015, midnight

If you were to pic­ture the op­pos­ite of the U.S. House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives, you might come up with something a lot like the Neb­raska state Le­gis­lature. It’s the smal­lest one in the coun­try (only 49 mem­bers), uni­cam­er­al (a Sen­ate, but no House), and — un­like every oth­er state’s le­gis­lat­ive branch — non­par­tis­an. Neb­raska has no ma­jor­ity lead­er, no minor­ity lead­er, no Demo­crat­ic or Re­pub­lic­an caucuses.

(Tony Healey)Brad Ash­ford is hop­ing to bring some of that spir­it to Wash­ing­ton. A 16-year vet­er­an of the Neb­raska Le­gis­lature, he was one of only three Demo­crats to un­seat a House Re­pub­lic­an in­cum­bent last fall. Ash­ford cam­paigned on a pledge to make 25 friends from both parties in Con­gress and use that group to “change the cul­ture by work­ing to­geth­er.” Sit­ting in his new of­fice in the Can­non House Of­fice Build­ing in Janu­ary, he laugh­ingly ex­plains that he thought this up “be­cause you need 25 votes in the Neb­raska Le­gis­lature to get any­thing done.” The prom­ise was “sort of meta­phor­ic­al,” he says — but an ac­cur­ate de­pic­tion of the way he knows how to work. In Ash­ford’s mind, con­vi­vi­al­ity is the biggest con­tri­bu­tion he could make to Con­gress; more than any single policy change, he thinks the coun­try needs “a more open plat­form” in the place where policy is set.

“When he says he’s go­ing to go meet friends, if it was a lot of oth­er people, people would be like, ‘Oh, get out of town with that,’ ” says Vin­cent Powers, chair­man of Neb­raska’s Demo­crat­ic Party. “But with Brad, he’s sin­cere. He’s been that way his whole life.” Will it work, though? “We all want to be op­tim­ist­ic,” Powers says.

Ash­ford, who is 65, comes off as earn­est and cheer­ful — and not in the cal­cu­lated way en­dem­ic to Wash­ing­ton. The morn­ing of our in­ter­view, he lopes in­to his of­fice dangling a black North Face back­pack from one shoulder and wear­ing a but­ter­cup-yel­low ging­ham shirt with a blue-and-gray sports watch. The only time he doesn’t seem to be en­joy­ing him­self is when his press sec­ret­ary tries to cut our in­ter­view short. “I don’t want to say, ‘One more ques­tion.’ … That’s sort of like the test that says you’ve got 30 seconds left,” he ob­jects, sound­ing more like a kindly high school teach­er than a newly elec­ted House mem­ber. “She’s be­ing very nice to ask me these ques­tions.”

The con­gress­man doesn’t identi­fy all that strongly with the Demo­crat­ic Party — or with any party, for that mat­ter. Ash­ford was a re­gistered Re­pub­lic­an un­til he was 34, a Demo­crat un­til he was 39, a Re­pub­lic­an for most of his polit­ic­al ca­reer, and an in­de­pend­ent from 2011 un­til 2013, when he be­came a Demo­crat again. (He sup­por­ted Mc­Cain in 2008 and Obama in 2012.) In the state Le­gis­lature, he cast votes that angered both sides; his so­cial views lean lib­er­al, but he is in fa­vor of the Key­stone pipeline as long as it doesn’t run over Neb­raska’s Ogal­lala Aquifer. Already, his het­ero­doxy has been on dis­play in Wash­ing­ton: He was one of just two Demo­crats to vote for a re­cent fund­ing bill for the Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment that con­tained amend­ments to block Pres­id­ent Obama’s ex­ec­ut­ive or­ders on im­mig­ra­tion. (Ac­cord­ing to the Omaha World-Her­ald, he agrees with Obama’s im­mig­ra­tion ideas, dis­agrees with the way Obama has ex­ecuted them, dis­likes the ap­proach the GOP used to try to undo the policies, but voted for the bill be­cause he wanted to make sure DHS was fun­ded.)

As Ash­ford tries to kill Re­pub­lic­ans with kind­ness, the GOP is con­tem­plat­ing how to bring him down in 2016. He won his seat in a purple dis­trict mainly thanks to the blun­ders of the Re­pub­lic­an in­cum­bent — whose pop­ular­ity plummeted after he voted for the gov­ern­ment shut­down in 2013, then un­apo­lo­get­ic­ally con­tin­ued to take his paycheck. Which means that Ash­ford could be ex­tremely vul­ner­able two years from now. In Novem­ber, a spokes­man for the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee told re­port­ers, “Ash­ford would be wise to look for rent­al ar­range­ments, be­cause he’s not go­ing to be in Wash­ing­ton long enough to buy.” (“I don’t think people in Neb­raska are par­tic­u­larly in­flu­enced by that,” Ash­ford says. “I mean, I am rent­ing, but only be­cause it seemed like the thing to do.”)

“I do think that he’s ser­i­ously un­der­es­tim­ated the level of par­tis­an­ship in the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives,” says Paul Landow, a polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist at the Uni­versity of Neb­raska (Omaha). “And that will come as a sur­prise to him. An un­pleas­ant sur­prise.”

Ash­ford has already be­gun to ex­per­i­ence Con­gress’s di­vi­sions. In a Novem­ber in­ter­view with the World-Her­ald, he ven­ted his con­fu­sion about the way an ori­ent­a­tion event seated Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats in sep­ar­ate rooms. “It’s nuts,” he told the pa­per. “They don’t even have din­ner to­geth­er. It’s just bizarre.”

Dur­ing our in­ter­view, he tells me about a sem­in­ar for new mem­bers he re­cently at­ten­ded in Wil­li­ams­burg, Va. “I was struck by the fresh­men con­ser­vat­ive Re­pub­lic­ans I met,” he re­calls. “They said, ‘Our con­stitu­ents want something done on im­mig­ra­tion re­form.’ But now we have votes, and all they do is make the di­vide even great­er.”

Maybe someday, Ash­ford will know­ingly roll his eyes at such pre­dict­able par­tis­an­ship. But for now, he’s not ashamed to be per­plexed by the body he’s joined. “There’s al­ways this — this is really silly — this, ‘Well, you’re free to vote your dis­trict, be­cause you have to get reelec­ted,’ ” he mar­vels. “Well, ac­tu­ally, quite frankly, that isn’t why we’re here.”

Neb­raska’s most vet­er­an rep­res­ent­at­ive, Re­pub­lic­an Jeff Forten­berry, un­der­stands what Ash­ford is go­ing through. “Every time, frankly, it starts out with these ideals, and then it de­teri­or­ates as it goes on,” he tells me. “I think people are long­ing in the coun­try for more con­struct­ive out­comes in Con­gress, and less bit­ter­ness. But the con­straints of the in­sti­tu­tion, the dy­nam­ics of the me­dia, the short elec­tion cycle, they make it hard.”

Still, Forten­berry says, “It’s hu­man to want to build friends, to try to talk through is­sues.” And even Landow, though un­sure if Ash­ford will suc­ceed, agrees that the joke may ac­tu­ally be on those in­clined to laugh at the Neb­raska fresh­man’s ef­forts. It’s easy to ac­cuse Ash­ford of be­ing na­ive, Landow says, but “that could be a good thing some­times, and in this case it would be. It would al­low him to try when many oth­ers wouldn’t even both­er.”

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