Six months ago, as Springfield voted in the shadow of a year of bizarre weather that almost certainly affected the election, a potentially subtler electoral coup emerged besides Domenic Sarno’s landslide victory. Even as the weather had scrambled the predictions of the city’s punditocracy and commentariat for the at-large council race, few if anybody predicted that at-large Councilor Thomas Ashe would top the vote. Now, with former State Senator and current Clerk of Courts Brian Lees calling it quits after one term, Ashe is looking to move on up.
Although it is hard to divine any real wisdom from last year’s results, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the first election absent Jose Tosado, who topped the previous few elections, gave the most support to the largely quiet, low-key, Ashe, a freshman councilor.
This is not to suggest that Ashe lacks ambition. He had been on the School Committee for many years before 2009, the year he was elected to the council. In 2005, he engaged in a somewhat quixotic campaign for Mayor against then-mayor Charles Ryan. Still, his relatively quietness led WMassP&I to grant him one of our infamous non-endorsements and left him out of the spotlight in other media outlets.
Part of Ashe’s caution and low-volume approach may be due to that 2005 race. “It wasn’t an astute political decision,” Ashe now admits, but he did say it tempered his political instincts for the better. “I don’t regret it,” Ashe added about the 2005 campaign. Even so, well before Lees’ announcement, there has been an up-tick in activity at the Public Safety Subcommittee, which Ashe has chaired for three years.
During an interview with WMassP&I at Gus & Paul’s on Sumner Avenue in Springfield, Ashe cleared up one of the most pressing questions beguiling voters familiar with the many Ashes in elected office. He is not related to either Michael Ashe, Hampden County Sheriff, or Donald Ashe, Hampden County Registrar of Deeds. However, Councilor Ashe did have homeroom in high school with Sheriff Ashe’s son and worked for the elder Ashe at the Hampden County Jail.
Dressed in a white shirt and bright tie, Ashe did not necessarily fit a stereotype for a burly corrections officer, but his career in law enforcement, including in sheriffs’ offices from Springfield to Worcester dates back to his college days.
While an undergraduate at Assumption College, a Catholic school in Worcester, Ashe worked as a Corrections Officer both in Worcester and in Springfield, specifically at the former York Street Jail. He worked “on the blocks,” Ashe said recalling his early correctional career. Since then he has worked in Community Corrections programs, first in Springfield and then in Worcester.
That correctional history has followed Ashe into politics. Certainly that was a factor in then-Council President Jose Tosado and current Council President Jimmy Ferrera’s (to the extent that Ferrera’s own personal politics were not a factor in his decision-making) appointment of Ashe to lead the Public Safety Committee. However, Ashe’s public safety focus on politics dates to his time on the School Committee.
Ashe pointed to a strengthening of the discipline code that he pushed while on the Committee. At the time of its enactment, Ashe said, it was among the toughest in Massachusetts. A notable feature of the code removed students who disrupted class. Such methods are controversial in education circles, and some parents did push back at the time. At the same time, Ashe said the policy received considerable support too, especially as parents worried about the impact disruptions were having on MCAS preparation.
After ten years at the Committee, Ashe says he was prepared to move on and offer the School Committee a chance for some turnover. In 2009, Springfield held its first election under ward representation. Five out of the nine incumbent at-large councilors declined reelection for one of the city’s new five at-large seats, giving Ashe a chance to move across City Hall’s second floor anteroom to the Council Chamber.
There have been no shortage of challenges for councilors over the past two and a half years. From emaciated budgets to police oversight and public safety generally, the council has had its plate full.
As the city stares down the barrel of another lean, even painful budget, Ashe appears to be taking the same attitude he took in past years. On some budget votes, he joined with more fiscally conservative councilors to cut the mayor’s budget last year. This year, however, he sees the budget as about as lean as it can get, meaning cuts this year may be particularly painful. Still, whether the situation is caused by falling revenues or past decisions, Ashe owns whatever his role has been. “I always accept responsibility as a City Councilor,” a dramatic statement in a city where especially council elections only appear competitive when a seat opens.
Like the councilors who led efforts to cut the budget last year, Ashe is not in favor of raiding the city’s reserve account. He said that doing so could result in another control board swooping in and removing local control again. “You gave us the reins back & that’s what happens,” Ashe said calling such a decision an easy, but not a responsible move.
The extent to which Ashe has pushed back against the mayor and other executive officials may be tempered by again his low-key approach. He says he has disagreed and continues to disagree with deployment decisions made by Police Chief William Fitchet. There are concerns among many that the city over deploys during the day while under deploying at night, indirectly leading to claims by the mayor and others that too much attention is being focused on downtown to the detriment of other neighborhoods.
The issue of downtown and the recent focus on violence has to some extent brought Ashe more out of his shell. Earlier this year Ashe held a series of Public Safety meetings, which had more profile than in previous years. Among the proposals that came out of that committee was a partial, temporary closure of Worthington Street. Ashe has also criticized Sarno’s recent proposals to close bars in the city earlier and expects to hold hearings on the latest of those ideas.
“If we hope to market the MassMutual Center then we have to make the city vibrant at night,” Ashe said criticizing Sarno’s recent proposals, which in Ashe’s words punish everybody due to “a few bad eggs.”
During the interview, Ashe also praised the recent efforts of Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton and Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen, particularly their proposal to create a downtown committee with members appointed from among stakeholders in the city, in the district attorney’s office and in business.
Ashe also took a very public stand against the institution of a Police Oversight Review Board, which was proposed following Asher/Jones police brutality case. The proposal, which would have created a non-binding board composed of civilians to review police complaints was quashed as police rallied against it. Ashe defended his vote likening the review board to patients in a waiting room reviewing a doctor. That said, had the review board passed, Fitchet would have continued to have had final say in all discipline decisions, as he does now.
Ashe also consistently voted against the proposed Biomass plant on Page Boulevard. The original permit was granted in 2008 before Ashe joined the Council.
Shifting to the Clerk of Courts, race, Ashe called the decision to run, “Directly related to the work I’ve done in my professional life.” He cited his experience in law enforcement, including management positions, his knowledge of courts and their operation and his time in elected office, namely the latter’s retail aspect. Ashe also said he would very likely resign his Council seat if elected Clerk of Courts.
Indeed, Ashe noted that when he worked for the Hampden County Sheriff’s Office serving in the electronic monitoring division he spent a great deal of time throughout the county. Ashe also worked on campaigns for statewide office as a Hampden County coordinator for Tim Murray in 2006 and Guy Glodis in 2010.
Incidentally, the man who replaced Glodis as Worcester County Sheriff, Lew Evangelidis, may indirectly play a role in the Clerk of Courts race here, at least in the primary. Evangelidis is a Republican, perhaps the only one with any machine in the state. With several relatively minor, but notable Democrats backing Scott Brown in this year’s Senate race, it would be easy to fear that a Democrat like Ashe, with ties to a Republican like Evangelidis could move likewise.
Ashe quickly rejected any such notion. Although he likes Evangelidis as a boss, Ashe said he would be surprised if the Worcester Sheriff would try to influence him in that way. “I’ve always been an active Democrat,” Ashe said noting that he will be backing Congressman Richard Neal and Elizabeth Warren, if she wins the nomination as widely expected. Ashe notes that he is focusing on his campaign and the nomination battle the he faces between now and September. However, he expressed a willingness to campaign with Warren if and when both become the Democrats’ nominee for Clerk and Courts and US Senate.
On the campaign trail, Ashe says his pitch to voters will be his career in public safety. “Moving from Council to Clerk is a not a persuasive argument,” Ashe says noting that the position unlike many other elected offices requires more than a previous win in an election. Beyond selling himself via his public safety credentials first as a jail guard and now a coordinator in Community Corrections, Ashe says he tells voters that the Clerk’s office will be user friendly to those who come in looking for help. “Anybody who uses that office should get it [services] with a smile. You ought to be treated with respect,” he said.