LINCOLN — It’s been said that Brad Ashford could have trouble finding his car in the parking lot at the State Capitol.
But when it came to finding solutions to some of biggest issues confronting the state and his hometown of Omaha — from gun control, to immigration, to sales taxes and funding a new arena — Ashford often found a way.
The former state senator and U.S. congressional representative died Tuesday from complications of cancer. He was 72.
A native of Omaha, Ashford served two eight-year stints in the Nebraska Legislature and then two years in the House of Representatives before being defeated for re-election in 2016.
He led an agency that served Omaha’s poorest and diverse populations, guided students on the art of public-private partnerships and collaboration, and as a guest columnist began to share decades of experience in local news media outlets.
Friends and colleagues say he will be remembered for bringing political parties and opposing camps together on issues, as well as for his boundless enthusiasm and a staunch nonpartisanship.
In his lifetime, Ashford was a registered Republican, then a Democrat, then an independent, and, since 2013, a Democrat.
“You couldn’t tell if he was a Democrat or a Republican,” said former Nebraska Corrections Director Bob Houston, who grew up with Ashford in a neighborhood near Elmwood Park in Omaha.
“He wasn’t outspoken about politics. He spoke loudly about the effectiveness and possibilities of government, and of innovation,” Houston said. “He just wanted to do the right thing … and get things done.”
Perhaps the best illustration of that was Ashford’s work was when, during his congressional term, he introduced legislation to form a public-private partnership to build a new health facility for veterans, with private donors providing $80 million of the $136 million cost.
He worked with U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer, a Republican from the Sandhills of Nebraska, to sponsor the bill and, after being defeated for re-election by Don Bacon, worked with the newly elected GOP representative to get the proposal passed.
“Two people who ran against each other came out as friends and worked together on that — that says more about Brad Ashford than anything,” said veteran Lincoln lobbyist Walt Radcliffe.
Bacon said this weekend that even when he and Ashford were rivals, he respected his “decency and good heart.”
“He was an idea man and a visionary who saw great potential everywhere he looked,” said Bacon. “I admired his decades of service and the wisdom that came with it. I am a better person and representative because of the influence of Brad.”
Ashford was in the middle of several landmark pieces of legislation, including the creation of a “turnback” tax that directed state sales taxes paid in the vicinity of a sports arena to be “turned back” to a city to help finance the facility. That helped close the deal to build the Qwest Center in Omaha, now the CHI Health Center.
He helped broker passage of contentious bills concerning collective bargaining, juvenile justice reform and granting voters the right to increase sales taxes in cities, like Omaha, to offset high property taxes.
Gun control, gang violence
Ashford was an advocate for gun control and supported same-sex marriage but also backed efforts to address gang violence.
To demonstrate the need for gun control and how easy it was to purchase a handgun, he once had a legislative aide leave a public hearing at the State Capitol. The aide returned, minutes later, with a handgun he had just purchased.
It led to passage of a state law that requires someone wishing to purchase a handgun to obtain a state permit and undergo a criminal background check.
A longtime legislative colleague, State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, said Ashford was “one of those people who no one minded working with.”
“He was always pleasant to everyone. That made it easy to sit down and try to work out something with Brad,” Lathrop said.
A former Speaker of the Legislature, Sen. Galen Hadley of Kearney, said he recalled that Ashford was on one side of a sales tax issue one year, and then on the other side the next year.
But Hadley added that Ashford had a keen sense of the nonpartisan tradition in the Legislature.
A graduate of Omaha Westside High School, Ashford earned an undergraduate degree at Colgate University and a law degree from Creighton University.
He helped his parents run the Nebraska Clothing Co., a landmark former downtown Omaha business that competed with big regional retailers, including Brandeis. Later, Ashford would have his own Old Market specialty store that eventually closed.
Like so many chapters of his life, Ashford held dear his family’s role in the development of downtown Omaha and often regaled those who listened with stories about the heyday of downtown retail and other pivotal events and turning points.
He recently recalled, in vivid detail, an invite in 1968 from Old Market pioneer Sam Mercer, who wanted to show Ashford and Ashford’s dad the spot where Mercer planned to open the French Cafe.
Ashford described that as a sort of symbolic changing of the guard because the end was near for big downtown department stores such as Nebraska Clothing. It was demolished six years later to make way at 15th and Farnam Streets for the new W. Dale Clark library.
The French Cafe would be a start of more smaller specialty and entertainment businesses in downtown. Ashford became the Mercers’ attorney. He chuckled once as he recalled the Mercers sending him on a mission to Paris to recruit an exotic restaurant for the Old Market. He sealed the deal.
Community leader and businesswoman Lyn Wallin Ziegenbein remembered Ashford, a few years ahead of her in high school, as a basketball star at Westside. They crossed paths often over the decades in that “only in Omaha” way, she said. Both were lawyers whose grandparents had come from Sweden about the same time and had families that ran downtown businesses.
“I’ve always enjoyed how direct Brad would be,” Ziegenbein said. She said the two didn’t always agree. “But that didn’t make a difference in the friendship, and I appreciated that.”
Ashford’s mom, the late Ellen Swanson Ashford, owned a downtown boutique and was an astute businesswoman, Ziegenbein recalled. She believes that had much to do with Ashford’s respect for women as professionals and equals.
During college, Ashford served as an intern for then-U.S. Sen. Roman Hruska, R-Neb. In 1986, when he was a Democrat, Ashford considered challenging then-U.S. Rep. Hal Daub for his seat before deciding instead to run for the Nebraska Legislature.
It was Daub, as mayor, who appointed Ashford in 1996 to the governing board of the Omaha Housing Authority. At the time, the state’s largest provider of low-income housing was going through upheaval and federal financial probes.
Ashford went on to serve as executive director of the OHA from 2003 to 2006. A “labor of love” is how Ashford later described that time in his career.
Passion was contagious
In the Legislature, Ashford was best known for chairing the Judiciary Committee, which dealt with issues like gun control, abortion, the death penalty and criminal punishment.
He opposed capital punishment, but his opposition was as much about it being “bad public policy” as it was “his heart,” according to Houston, a lifelong friend.
Houston said some would say that his friend was “confused” — leading to jokes about misplacing his car in the parking lot. But, he and others said, that was because Ashford was always thinking, and rethinking, solutions to problems.
He was a prolific user of text messages, but his enthusiasm and passion were contagious, Radcliffe said.
“He was at his happiest when he was in the mix,” said Lathrop.
Yet Ashford also was known for standing firm and being blunt when the occasion called for it. After returning from a bipartisan trip to the Middle East as a member of the House Armed Services Committee, for example, he did not mince words when talking about Islamic State militants.
“Kill them,” he told a World-Herald reporter. “This has got to be unconditional, no compromise, no negotiation, nothing.”
In 2018, he tried to regain his congressional seat but was defeated in the primary by Democrat Kara Eastman.
In 2020, Ashford’s wife, Ann Ferlic Ashford, challenged Eastman but was defeated in the Democratic primary. Rather than endorsing Eastman, Brad Ashford endorsed Bacon, a Republican, saying he was the best choice to find bipartisan solutions.
Just recently, Ashford said some people might “laugh” at his support of working across the aisle, but he added, “that’s what I believe in.”
He was hospitalized in 2019 due to a fluid backup in his lungs which caused blood clots. More recently, he underwent surgery for brain cancer. His health issues led him to give up one passion, jogging. He was also an avid bicyclist, traversing the roads in Europe with Houston and another friend, Mike Heavican, the chief justice of the Nebraska Supreme Court.
Ashford remained active and involved in public life.
Asked in 2017 by influential business leaders to take the helm of an advocacy group called Midtown 2050, Ashford agreed and looked at ways (including a streetcar) to ignite development in the city’s core. He ended up resigning after key players feared that Mayor Jean Stothert would abandon the project because Ashford started to campaign for her rival in that year’s mayoral race.
Ashford’s spirit of collaboration carried into his latest venture at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he taught young people about public-private partnerships.
The new undergraduate program, in part, matched students with “hands on” internships aimed at understanding the government and business sector relationship. Ashford said often that solving problems depended on the ability to set aside differences for the betterment of the whole.
He was writing a book and went back and forth on the title. A draft copy Ashford gave to a reporter had the original title crossed out: “Public-Private Partnerships, a Nebraska Solution.” Ashford replaced it with: “Public-Private Partnerships, Working Together is the Only Solution.”
Ashford had been writing guest columns for the Omaha World-Herald and, more recently, for the Nebraska Examiner. Indeed, up until his final hours, he talked enthusiastically to family and colleagues about his next column.
He said he was not giving up, and was tracking down a historical photo of Bozo the Wonder Dog, which was a popular promotional gimmick used decades ago for his family’s downtown store.
Ashford leaves behind his wife and three children, John, Ellie and Tom. Services are pending.