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Only a Few Clambakes Left to Retirement…

Sheriff Michael Ashe at 2012 clambake. (WMassP&I)

Sheriff Michael Ashe at 2012 clambake. (WMassP&I)

If your ear was to the ground, you probably suspected the announcement by Sheriff Michael Ashe that he would not seek another term in 2016 was coming.  The earliness of Ashe’s declaration of his intentions may have caught a few off guard, but his reasons for doing so seemingly fit with the image the long-serving Hampden County Sheriff has built over four decades of service.

The Republican’s Patrick Johnson wrote a round-up of Ashe’s career that is worth a read, especially if one’s political memory does not extend much further back than the Clinton Administration.  The piece relates how Ashe took extraordinary actions to get the state to replace the aging and overwhelmed York Street Jail in Springfield, but also his early entry onto the political stage.  His statement is available here.

US Rep. Neal, Senator Warren & Sheriff Ashe in 2012 (WMassP&I)

Ashe, a Democrat, also played pivotal roles in the campaigns of Congressman Richard Neal, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey and more recently, lent his support to Senator Gale Candaras who is seeking the Democratic nomination for Hampden Country Registrar of Probate this year.

Over four decades, Ashe assembled a great deal of good will and accolades from across the political spectrum and among the disparate groups in the Valley Political classes.  Ashe like any politician had his detractors, but for the Valley’s often divisive politics it was a coup that Ashe, like Neal, could earn praise from many establishmentarians and reformers alike.

Rep. Neal in 2011 (WMassP&I)

Rep. Neal in 2011 (WMassP&I)

Neal, who has represented the Greater Springfield area since the late 1980’s and was mayor of Springfield before that, commended Ashe’s administration of the Sheriff’s office, which runs the Hampden County Jail. “The model he employed was very simple,” Neal said of Ashe in an interview with WMassP&I, “rehabilitation where possible and punishment where necessary.”  Neal added that Ashe professionalized the staff and built up an institution that became a model for the country.

Senator Warren (Twitter/official)

Senator Warren, who got to know Ashe during the 2012 campaign offered praise as well. “Sheriff Michael Ashe has built an incredible legacy in his forty years in office,” she said in a statement to WMassP&I.  “No one is more dedicated to public service and the people of Western Mass than Sheriff Ashe.”

Indeed a consistent theme among Valley politicos was that Ashe did not take a passive approach to his office, which is possible for many county offices except district attorneys.  Since Massachusetts largely dissolved county governments in the 1990’s, county offices became state ones with jurisdictions concurrent with the counties.  Some exceptions exist such as the Northwest District Attorney’s office (which is Hampshire & Franklin Counties) and various merged offices among the three counties of Cape Cod and the Islands.

Councilor Mike Fenton,   (WMassP&I)

Councilor Mike Fenton, (WMassP&I)

The tone of the praise for Ashe also identified his role as a political mentor for countless figures across the region.  In an email, Springfield Ward 2 Councilor and Council President Mike Fenton said Ashe will be greatly missed and called the sheriff, “a pillar in Hampden County.”  Fenton described Sheriff Ashe, who swore in Fenton as President earlier this month, as a mentor and added, “I can say with no reservations that he is quite simply the best there is.”

Ashe’s clambake was a critical stop for politicians both locally and throughout the commonwealth and both parties.  Warren stopped by the event two years in a row, once as candidate once as senator, and Republicans like Don Humason who in 2013 was seeking a seat in the State Senate.  Treasurer Steve Grossman and Attorney General Martha Coakley, both gubernatorial hopefuls have made stops in recent years.

The Sheriff’s Clambake is one of the summer’s preeminent events in the Valley (WMassP&I)

Warren, in her statement, thanked Ashe for his “leadership and his personal counsel.” After complimenting his “outstanding job” producing “corrections and reentry programs based on his values of strength, decency, firmness and fairness,” she added, “and, he runs a fantastic clambake.”

Campaigns actively courted Ashe’s support.  His backing of candidates like Markey and Warren was crucial, given a level of priority not unlike the pursuit of Boston Mayor Tom Menino’s support. Whatever the science of the impact of endorsements, Ashe endorsement mattered and provided benefits. “When Mike got into a campaign, it was never half-hearted,” Neal said.

Ashe really could move votes or at least keep many wavering Dems in check in the face of attractive Republicans like Scott Brown, who did not scoop up as many public endorsements from Dems in Greater Springfield as he might have.  Political leaders in the Greater Springfield often oversell what they can offer other politicians, promising everything and delivering little.  Ashe, like Neal, has an organization that can provide actual value to other campaigns.

Linda Melconian (via mtholyoke.edu)

But it was not just about what he could offer another politicians looking for something.  He left an very clear impression on political figures and the political landscape.

Former State Senator and Senate Majority Leader Linda Melconian remembered Ashe’s decision to take over a state armory when the old York Street Jail’s exceeded its capacity. “It was a classic act of civil disobedience against the state’s malign neglect of Hampden County’s security caused by untenable overcrowding of outdated York Street jail,” Melconian said in an email.

Councilor Tom Ashe in 2012 (WMassP&I)

Councilor Tom Ashe in 2012 (WMassP&I)

“I can’t imagine the Hampden County Jail or the world of politics without Mike Ashe in the center of it,” Springfield at-large Councilor Thomas Ashe (no relation) said in an email.  Councilor Ashe worked for the Hampden County Sheriff’s office from the 90’s into 2001 and said he’s known him for close to 35 years.  Like Fenton, he considered the Sheriff a mentor, “I’ve admired and looked up to him long before I knew him in any kind of professional capacity.”

Fenton offered a broad assessment of Sheriff Ashe’s role in Valley politics, “His commitment to public service has set the standard for all elected officials in our region.”

The impact of his retirement will be hard to quantify for some time especially as Ashe will not be retiring until 2016 when his term expires.  However, his decision to announce now and encourage potential candidates to meet with him and learn about the job suggests a desire to see the office be taken over by somebody interested in its function and not merely use it as a political springboard as he clearly did not.

Almost nobody is likely to declare for the seat for nearly two years, but when candidates appear, Ashe did not rule out an endorsement.

At this early stage, it is impossible to know who for sure would seek the seat.  Springfield’s Councilor Ashe and Mayor Domenic Sarno have been mentioned among political chatter prior to the sheriff’s announcement.  Councilor Ashe declined to comment on any speculation this far out and kept his statement focused on the retiring sheriff.

Domenic Sarno has stated before that he intends to seek reelection as mayor of Springfield in 2015.  Given Ashe’s term does not end until the year after, the opportunity to seek another office would still exist.

The talk of successors may be premature and while his retirement has no doubt piqued the interest of pols across Hampden County, the initial response is centered on the sheriff and his legacy.  Warren, for her part, wished him the best for the last few years of his term.  Melconian also noted that Ashe is not done yet and said the decision was classic Mike Ashe and compared him to Former US House Speaker Tip O’Neill, “he understands the time is now to say goodbye to elective public service.”  “That is perhaps the most courageous act of all, to know when to leave the stage on top of your game,” she added.

Neal called Ashe “a terrific friend, supporter, and organizer” and that he was fortunate to have Ashe’s backing in nearly every campaign.  “I think Mike Ashe has had a remarkable career,” Neal said.

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