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.”