OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — Former Omaha congressman and longtime Nebraska lawmaker Brad Ashford died Tuesday from complications from brain cancer.
He was 72.
The man was unpredictable in politics, always searching for what was best for constituents, not necessarily what either party wanted him to do.
He was a Republican, an Independent and a Democrat.
“This as a guy who was opposed to the death penalty like any good Democrat. He was all in favor of any tax cut that he could justify in his own mind like any good Republican,” said Joe Jordan, a longtime political reporter at KMTV who later served as Ashford’s Communication Director.
While his political party frequently changed, his values did not. This helped him forge some unlikely friendships and alliances that led to things actually getting done and a legacy he can be proud of.
“I’ve known Brad for over 65 years. His mom was my den mother in Cub Scouts,” said State Sen. John McCollister.
John McCollister knew Brad Ashford longer than most, first meeting him at Dundee Elementary as grade-schoolers.
The two — McCollister a Republican, Ashford a Democrat at the time of his death — weren’t afraid to break with their political parties at times.
“Brad didn’t let political parties bother him too much and nor did I.”
Ashford served four terms in the legislature, one term in the House of Representatives and a brief and failed run for Mayor of Omaha.
He also escorted President Barack Obama through the city during the former president's 2015 visit. And Ashford was famous for physically jogging through the Ralston Fourth of July Parade every year.
Ashford passed away after a life filled with friendships — including one with the man that defeated him in the 2016 congressional race.
“We started out as rivals but we became great friends. There was a period of time for like weeks we’d talk everyday, said Congressman Don Bacon.
Bacon also said Ashford was a problem solver and while many in Washington refuse to compromise, he learned from Ashford that you can find common ground.
“You just see very hyper-partisanship out of Washington right now and very little of the Brad Ashford spirit of working across the aisle, our culture needs more of that bipartisanship,” said Bacon.
Ashford was beaten by Bacon, a Republican, and the Republican Party was in control of Congress in the final two months of Ashford’s tenure.
Yet, Ashford still was working on building a veterans clinic in Omaha.
“It was hanging by a thread,” said Jordan.
He says Ashford wouldn’t give up.
“Most congressmen at that point, they’re done. Well Brad Ashford goes back to Washington, spends November and December talking to both parties, people on both sides to try and figure out how to get this thing done,” said Jordan.
Bacon said Ashford did some heavy lifting to get the bill to the finish line.
“Our leadership in the House didn’t want to give Brad that victory, and I talked them into it,” said Bacon.
The bill passed. The clinic was built.
While in Lincoln as a state senator, he worked on criminal justice reform as Chair of the Judiciary Committee. He also helped create a turnback tax — a funding mechanism Omaha used to build the CHI Health Center.
“Without that policy, there might not be an auditorium or convention center and arena in downtown Omaha right now,” said Jordan.
He was also a family man. His brother Carl recalled an 18-year-old Brad defending his little brother in a movie theater during a phone call Tuesday.
“[He] just jumped and just got in his face and told him to move on,” said Carl Ashford, also recalling a conversation Brad Ashford had with his niece just two days before passing away, his mind still sharp.
“He was still there, he was definitely still there,” said Carl Ashford.
And while Brad Ashford died Tuesday — he leaves behind a long legacy.
“It wasn’t the parties that he was interested in. It was the policy and the public service that he was interested in,” said Jordan.