OMAHA — Brad Ashford was elected to both the Nebraska Legislature and the U.S. Congress, but he always was more policy wonk than politician — passionate about the intricacies of public policy and idealistic about the ability of public officials to make people’s lives better.
And whether he was walking the halls of power in Lincoln or Washington, running the Omaha Housing Authority or just writing a guest opinion column for his local newspaper, his love of Omaha and passion for making it a better place always shone through.
Ashford died early Tuesday after a months-long battle with brain cancer. He was 72.
“His passion for public service is a huge legacy Brad is going to leave that we can all learn from,” said Ken Bird, a former Omaha Westside Schools superintendent who was a longtime friend. “He loved advocating for Nebraska and Omaha.”
Ashford’s family posted a message on Facebook, saying his death “was peaceful though much too premature.”
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“He was positive through the end and would want you to take today and every day to give yourself a pat on the back for a job well done, tell your loved ones you love them, read some history to learn something, and reach out to lift up your fellow human.”
Few figures in Omaha history had a longer or more varied life of public service than Ashford.
He served as a judge on the state workmen’s compensation court. He was four times elected to the Nebraska Legislature, serving two different eight-year stints. He served on the boards that run OHA and Omaha’s arena and convention center.
And in 2014, he achieved the hallmark of his public service career when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, fulfilling a lifelong dream.
Omaha voters elected Ashford as both a Republican and a Democrat, and he once even ran for mayor as an independent. The truth was, he wasn’t a good fit for either party, which was why he at times seemed to be wandering in the political wilderness.
Ashford tended to be more liberal on social issues, opposing the death penalty, backing choice on abortion and fighting the National Rifle Association on gun control. He trended more conservative on matters related to business and growth, supporting tax cuts and business incentives.
But no matter which party he was in, he always proved a consistent voice for social justice, advocating for the poor, supporting gay rights and pushing for opportunity for people of color.
“I don’t think party politics ever was a big part of Brad’s character or value system,” Bird said. “It was always about the right policies and consensus building, and he was willing to take a risk to do what was the right decision in the end.”
Similar tributes to Ashford were coming in from all over the country Tuesday, and from all across the political spectrum.
“Omaha lost a giant, strong pillar today; a family man who had deep roots here and dearly loved this community,” said U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, a Republican who defeated Ashford in a congressional race but then became his friend. “Even when we were rivals, I respected his decency and good heart. I am a better person and representative because of the influence of Brad.”
Said longtime state Sen. Ernie Chambers, a political independent who long represented North Omaha: “Brad was a genuinely good person, kind-hearted and gentle, and as upright an individual as I have ever met. He was not traitorous or treacherous. And in regard to his political affiliation, the formal one, none of that I was really aware of, because Brad was always the same.”
John Bradley “Brad” Ashford said his views on politics and public service were shaped by his parents, who owned and operated a third-generation clothing store that was started in Omaha in 1886. Though pro-business Republicans, Ashford’s family came from the party’s progressive wing, with strong beliefs in equality and social justice.
“The old clothing mantra is, ‘If you don’t have customers, you can’t sell ties,’” Ashford once said in describing his political philosophy. “It’s important to have a thriving business community, but it’s also important to look out for the welfare of others.”
Ashford graduated from Omaha Westside High School and grew up fascinated by Washington, serving as an intern during college for U.S. Sen. Roman Hruska, R-Neb. After graduating from Creighton University’s law school, Ashford took a staff attorney job in the U.S. Department of Transportation, angling for a job on Capitol Hill and dreaming of being elected to Congress.
Then came a life-changing 1975 phone call from his father in Omaha. The family business, Nebraska Clothing, was failing. Ashford put his dreams on hold to try to save it.
He couldn’t. The business was voluntarily liquidated a year later. He always would consider the episode one of the most painful in his life. As a tribute to his family’s roots, he for a time two decades later reopened Nebraska Clothing in Omaha’s Old Market.
Ashford was in private law practice in Omaha in 1984 when then-Gov. Bob Kerrey appointed him as a judge on the state’s labor disputes court. Ashford had switched political parties, from Republican to Democrat, to support Kerrey’s 1982 bid for governor.
That was just the first of four changes in party affiliation Ashford made over the next three-plus decades. As the two major parties became increasingly polarized, he didn’t feel truly at home in either one.
In 1986, Ashford was elected for the first time to the Legislature. His first term was most marked by a three-year clash with the NRA that ended with the passage of Nebraska’s first law requiring a background check for the purchase of a handgun.
Ashford showed then he could be savvy in taking on a controversial issue and going against a powerful interest. To show how easy it was to get a gun, he began a public hearing on his bill by sending an aide to buy one. The aide returned with a handgun just minutes later, before Ashford had even finished explaining his bill.
In 1994, Ashford walked away from the Legislature to make his first bid for Congress in the Omaha-based 2nd District — as a Republican. He had switched back to the GOP in 1987. But as a pro-choice, pro-gun control Republican, he finished a distant second in the primary.
Ashford then became a player in city politics. Republican Mayor Hal Daub appointed him to the board of the Omaha Housing Authority. He spent 10 years with the agency, including three in which he stepped in as its chief executive.
During Ashford’s time with OHA, the agency finally resolved a long dispute over building scattered-site public housing throughout the city. The homes replaced large public housing complexes in North Omaha that were being demolished.
It took almost five years — and a lawsuit against the city — but Ashford helped the homes get approved and built.
“Think about it: He sued his own damn city for racial discrimination, and he won,” said George Achola, an OHA lawyer at the time. “In Brad’s own words, it was the right thing to do.”
Ashford also served on the board that runs Omaha’s downtown arena and baseball stadium. In that role, and at Daub’s behest, he led a successful lobbying effort to get the Legislature to set aside sales tax dollars to help pay back the arena’s bonds.
“His productivity should be a real lesson to people that public service can be constructive, honorable and a useful tool for the good,” Daub said Tuesday. “He certainly has left our state better than he found it.”
Then, in 2006, Ashford was reelected to the Legislature. He soon became an active player in a heated boundary dispute that erupted between Omaha Public Schools and suburban districts. He helped broker the compromise that led to creation of the Omaha metro Learning Community.
Other major issues he tackled over the next eight years included gang violence and reforms of the juvenile justice and prison systems.
Ashford’s style was to work with people of all political stripes in search of common ground. And he became a big advocate of public-private partnerships, which he saw as the best of both worlds: government working with the private sector to make the world better.
“He was the quintessential crosser of party lines,” said Burke Haar, who served with Ashford in the Legislature and practiced law with him. “But you could always trust Brad.”
Ashford also developed a well-earned reputation as kind of an absent-minded professor, able to think through complex problems but unable to remember where he parked his car. Colleagues said he got so obsessed with whatever issue was on his mind he lost track of everything else.
“Brad is a free thinker who’s able to start down a road and see a bigger picture that takes him to another road,” former state Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus once said of Ashford. “But he usually gets somewhere.”
When term limits ended his second stint in the Legislature, Ashford again made a bid for Congress, this time as a Democrat. In a bit of an upset, he defeated longtime Republican incumbent Lee Terry to win the seat.
His time in Congress proved brief. He frustrated the Democratic establishment by declining to spend time raising money for his next race, focused instead on making policy. But he also would claim a major accomplishment.
Working with the Veterans Administration and Omaha’s philanthropic community, he passed a bill creating public-private partnerships to build new health care facilities for veterans. The bill paved the way for construction of a new outpatient clinic serving Omaha veterans, a project that had been stalled for more than a decade by backlogs within the VA.
By the time the bill passed in the final days of the 2016 Congress and was signed by President Barack Obama, Ashford was a soon-to-be former congressman, narrowly turned out of office in the Republican wave that ushered Donald Trump into the White House.
Survivors include his wife, Ann Ferlic Ashford, brother Carl, children John, Ellie and Tom, and grandchild Rose Ellen Ashford.
Funeral arrangements are pending.