A Generalist for Sheriff: Thomas Ashe Touts Well-Roundedness…
SPRINGFIELD—Fairly or not, Thomas Ashe’s political scorecard perhaps invites charges of being a political climber. An ambitious run for mayor and a stab at Clerk of Courts were unsuccessful.
But unlike those other bids, the four-term councilor appears to have many of the goods voters Hampden County voters might want in a sheriff.
“I would argue that my experience is much more profound as it is well-rounded,” Ashe said in a recent interview.
Critics say the Hampden Sheriff’s office is too important to entrust to a pol. A product of Springfield’s waning, but traditionally Hibernian-American political establishment, Ashe fits the typical Springfield political pedigree, but has more to offer than knowing the right people.
Ashe, 50, is seeking the Democratic nod for sheriff alongside Ludlow jail Assistant Superintendent Nicholas Cocchi and Governor’s Councilor and ex-Springfield mayor Michael Albano. The nominee will face independent James Gill and Republican John Comerford in November. Incumbent Sheriff Michael Ashe—no relation—is retiring after an auspicious 42-year tenure.
Speaking to WMassP&I at his Allen Street campaign headquarters, Ashe said he delayed a sheriff’s bid until he was reelected last November to “Get a grasp of our health, politically.” Ashe’s victory hinges on a strong showing in Springfield, which will represent a large chunk of the Democratic turnout.
Both Mayor Domenic Sarno and City Council President Michael Fenton, a frequent Sarno foe, are on board. Unlike in his 2012 Clerk’s bid, no other Springfield resident is running and Ashe has consistently enjoyed comfortable reelections to the Council. However, strength in the city is not enough.
Ashe has raised about $100,000, thus far with no loans to himself, and tried to build a modern campaign even as it establishes a beachhead in Hampden counties city using old-school tactics.
“We’ve been working very, very hard,” Ashe said referring to outreach outside Springfield. “Knocking on doors at night and on weekends and getting a great reaction.”
Ashe did score a coup when fellow Springfield resident Jack Griffin dropped out—he remains on the ballot—and endorsed the city councilor based on Ashe’s proposal to address the opiate crisis.
Ashe has proposed using unused pods in the Ludlow jail to provide opiate addiction treatment. Speaking to WMassP&I, he was clear it would house those in civil commitment initiated by the individual or their family. The pods Ashe proposes to use, he said, are in a disused pre-lease area outside the maximum security perimeter.
“Why not use those beds to address this problem?” he said.
The idea has attracted criticism that the plan criminalizes addiction. “I was hoping it was be less of a political issue,” Ashe said. “There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that it is a genuine emergency.”
There are logistical issues, too. To finance it, Ashe said he would audit the department’s finances and utilize savings. He has spoken to West Springfield Senator James Welch, a supporter, about securing additional funding. The legality of the program would also have to be assessed.
“I’m not suggesting that January 4, seventy-seven beds (the number he hopes to have) will be filled,” Ashe said. “A little work around this issue is absolutely within the realm of possibility because the issue is too important.”
Unlike some, Ashe has not taken a bat to the sheriff or his legacy. Throughout the interview, he cited the sheriff’s legacy as a leader in community corrections and rehabilitation. He has drawn contrasts though, sometimes forcefully
“At a time when the inmate population has decreased by hundreds and the correctional officer staff has been reduced by a count of 90, it is clear to me that there should similarly be a reduction in the ranks of the administration of the Sheriff’s Department,” said Ashe in a recent release. Ashe has promised to clean house if elected.
The Sheriff’s office, in a recent Masslive article, justified the current staffing, in part, by pointing to the office’s low recidivism rate.
Albano and Cocchi have both assured an end to superfluous top-level contracts, although bloat and far more naked contracting around retirement benefits occurred during the former’s mayoralty.
Nevertheless, Ashe knows he faces a steep climb.
“That fact that the sheriff has been so involved in the campaign has been a big challenge for us, there’s no doubt about that,” Councilor Ashe said, referring to the sheriff’s fervent support for Cocchi.
Experience has become a flashpoint in the race. Though his resume includes work in sheriffs’ departments dating to his college days, critics say it is inconsistent or not relevant.
Ashe’s seven years as an at-large councilor is his most public experience. Throughout that time he has chaired the Public Safety. Before that he served on the School Committee.
While the city council has dead weight, it is unfair to lump Ashe with the ballast. His committee often produces legislation, if usually in concert with the administration. Ashe is a reliable ally of Sarno’s, but has sided with Fenton, too, such as on biomass.
Ashe’s pawn shop ordinance, which among other things, were designed to help police track stolen goods, prompted a months-long battle and an intervening election. Yet Ashe emerged triumphant. He also cited his hawkers & peddler ordinance as another achievement on the Council.
Ashe said he would resign from the Council if elected sheriff.
Ashe began his corrections career as a college student, working in both Hampden and Worcester counties. Unable to secure a permanent CO gig after college, he did a stint as a restaurant manager before finding work in the Hampden sheriff’s office in the classification unit and day reporting program.
A copy of Ashe’s Hampden Sheriff’s Department personnel record provided by the campaign describes Ashe as a generally good employee. Early reviews called for better communication with supervisors, but subsequent reviews showed improvement and critiqued little more than a disorganized desk.
Ashe left in 2001 for a position at the Basketball Hall of Fame, but later returned to corrections in Worcester County, holding roles as a community liaison and heading community corrections in Webster. Ashe said state cuts eliminated his position, but Sheriff Lew Evangelides would have found him another position. Instead, Ashe took an educational post at the YMCA and later became a senior Vice-President currently overseeing, among other things, facilities and programing.
Attempts to reach Sheriff Evangelides’s office for comment were unsuccessful.
In corrections, Ashe experience was low-key, but real. It is decidedly different, but not necessarily inferior to Cocchi’s background as a career corrections officer. Albano, a political consultant by profession, has none. The current sheriff was a social worker before his election.
When asked how his experience with nonprofits and community corrections could be applied as sheriff, Ashe said it added an “understanding of the issues that cause offender to be a part of the criminal justice system.”
Whether an electorate skeptical of politicians taking county posts will agree is hard to say. Ashe’s political career is complementary to his experience, but will voters see it that way or as a vice?
“I just think you need to look at my record, it is an open book,” Ashe said. Of his campaign, he added “I think it’s been a successful effort when we do explain our credentials and our experience and put that up against other candidates in the race.”
For Ashe to win, voters countywide will have to see and credit his whole resume and not just his time as a city pol.