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(Tom) Ashe Consolidating Springfield Support in Quest for Hampden Sheriff…

Springfield Councilor Tom Ashe looks to form a solid base in his hometown. (WMassP&I)

Springfield Councilor Tom Ashe, center, looks to form a solid base in his hometown. (WMassP&I)

SPRINGFIELD—At-large city councilor Thomas Ashe had been positioned to do well here in the Hampden Sheriff’s race. A sitting councilor who has appeared on residents’ ballots no fewer than eight times in the past fifteen years—including topping the at-large council vote once or twice—a decent performance in the City of Homes was always a good bet.

But unlike his fateful 2012 run for Clerk of Courts, Ashe has appeared better-positioned to hold down his hometown in what is shaping up to be a titanic race to succeed the storied—but unrelated—incumbent, Michael Ashe. Councilor Ashe’s advantages here were underscored when the elected Springfield universe behind him became complete with the endorsement of Mayor Domenic Sarno.

“The most qualified person to be our next sheriff is Tom Ashe,” Sarno told a ground amassed in and around Nathan Bill’s still-under-construction patio in the city’s East Forest Park neighborhood.

Springfield Council President Michael Fenton had already backed Ashe. (WMassP&I)

Springfield Council President Michael Fenton had already backed Ashe. (WMassP&I)

Sarno joins Council President Michael Fenton and several other councilors along with figures like West Springfield Senator James Welch whose district covers about two-thirds of Springfield proper. Though some of Ashe’s competitors have ties to Springfield, it’s not clear they will be able to eat into the city’s share of the countywide vote the way Laura Gentile did in the 2012 Clerk of Courts race.

In the Democratic primary for Hampden Sheriff Ashe faces former Springfield Mayor Michael Albano, former Connecticut Corrections official Jack Griffin and Ludlow House of Correction Assistant Superintendent Nicholas Cocchi. James Gill and John Comerford are running as an independent and Republican respectively.

No campaign is writing off the city, but each one is playing to its perceived strong suits.

At a debate last month, from right, Michael Albano, Thomas Ashe, Jack Griffin, moderator Mike Dobbs, James Gill and Nick Cocchi. (WMassP&I)

At a debate last month, from right, Michael Albano, Thomas Ashe, Jack Griffin, moderator Mike Dobbs, James Gill and Nick Cocchi. (WMassP&I)

Albano has also tried to curry favor with the inner city, particularly by opposing the Western Mass Alcohol Correctional Center’s move to Mill Street. Griffin’s appeal to substance abuse transcends geographic boundaries, though he is a Springfield resident. Cocchi’s has built a sizable pot of labor support, which still swings a big bat in the city—though Ashe has union support, too.

But despite joining the race some two years after Cocchi did, Ashe has moved to strengthen his hand in Springfield, which represented one third of the Democratic primary vote in the 2012 primary.

Though Fenton and Sarno are frequently at loggerheads, both have longtime relationships with Ashe. That joint support gives Ashe a foothold in several of the city’s political factions. Four years ago, Gentile split the Springfield vote and won high-voting precincts in East Forest Park. Whatever his opponents’ talents and abilities, that seems unlikely to happen this year.

Springfield Mayor Sarno addresses supporters of Councilor Ashe. (WMassP&I)

Springfield Mayor Sarno addresses supporters of Councilor Ashe. (WMassP&I)

While the crowd Wednesday night reflected East Forest Park—wealthier and whiter than the city as a whole—Ashe’s two Latino colleagues were there, too and historically he’s had ties to some black leaders as well.

“We have harnessed the momentum in this race,” Ashe told the crowd.

More Ashe endorsements are expected and some noteworthy names from outside the county have also lent their voice to his effort.

Cocchi has huge assets, to—the endorsement of Sheriff Ashe—and has shown off his familiarity with the Hampden Sheriff office specifically in debates. The incumbent has already appeared in Cocchi campaign commercials, too. A tell that Councilor Ashe is shaping up to be a threat, the sheriff pointedly states in that ad that he is backing Cocchi and not the like-named councilor.

Whomever he is backing, the sheriff still commands respect even among Cocchi’s opponents.

Hampden County (via habitatspringfield.org)

“I love the sheriff,” Sarno told WMassP&I, but, he added, “This is about people supporting the people they believe in.”

Calling the candidate a “great blend” of government and corrections experience—Ashe worked for Hampden and Worcester Sheriff’s offices for much of his adult life before taking a post with the YMCA—Sarno feted Ashe’s resume and personality as a good fit for the job.

“From day one, we’ve been talking about my record and qualifications,” Ashe said in an interview.

That emphasis of qualifications is key. It is part of what doomed his bid against Gentile. Yet in 2016, it puts him on par with Cocchi and, to a certain extent, Griffin. Hampden County voters have taken to electing veterans of the esoteric county-based offices that remain even after the county was legally disincorporated.

Despite a firmer hand in Springfield, it is not yet a lock. Ashe must also build across the county to win lest his campaign appear too provincial, a point his new endorser acknowledged.

“Take nothing for granted,” Sarno advised, observing, whatever Ashe’s strength here, “he’s working hard in other areas of the county.”

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