Tim Ashe: The pragmatic Progressive takes Senate helm

Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, the next President Pro Tempore of the Vermont Senate turned 40 in December, which will make him the youngest Senate leader since former Lt. Gov. Doug Racine held the position 28 years ago at age 37.

Ashe’s meteoric rise up Vermont’s notoriously backlogged political ladder, has been abetted by the close bonds he’s built with fellow lawmakers, his aura as a policy savant and his ability to read a room, observers say.

Ashe entered politics after graduating from the University of Vermont in 1999, when he took a job in Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Burlington office. He joined the Burlington City Council in 2004, won a Senate seat in 2008 and in 2013 became chair of the Senate Committee on Finance.

The only hiccup in his political ascendance came when he lost a bid to become mayor of Burlington in 2011. Ashe proved the viability of Progressive, Democratic fusion candidacy in his first two Senate campaigns, but failed to secure the Democratic mayoral nomination in a close contest with Mayor Miro Weinberger.

Tim Ashe
Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, is the chair of the Finance Committee. File photo by Roger Crowley/VTDigger

Ashe said that defeat, his only failed campaign, was a huge personal disappointment, but one that taught him an important and humbling lesson.

“When you’re in elected office, sometimes you think ‘It has to be me in that position otherwise things will crumble to the ground,’” he said.

Losing reminded Ashe that’s not the case, he said, and in some ways freed him to dive back into his work as a Senator. In the half-decade since, he vaulted from chair of a key committee to the Senate’s anointed heir.

Outside politics, Ashe has worked as a labor organizer with united academics early in his career. He worked for the nonprofit senior housing developer Cathedral Square for a decade until 2015.

Ashe now teaches economics at Johnson State College and Community College of Vermont.

What are the Pro Tem’s politics?

Ashe entered politics as a pure Progressive, and depending on who you ask, he’s migrated toward the center or stuck to his lefty roots. The end result is he’s not generally viewed by colleagues as a partisan. So what are his politics?

“Everywhere I go that’s the question, right?” said Amy Shollenberger, a lobbyist and organizer with the firm Action Circles, “My answer is that he picked Peter Sterling, and it’s not so much that he asked Peter to work for him as it is that Peter took the job.”

Sterling, whom Ashe tapped as his chief of staff, is a longtime advocate for affordable health care — an issue Ashe has championed as well — and is widely seen as an ardent progressive.

Ashe recently described his interest in driving down health care spending as a “low grade obsession,” and one that he will certainly make a priority for the Senate in the coming legislative session.

The Senate Pro Tem is an ideal position from which to attempt that, because he sets the Senate’s agenda and determines when legislation will come before the body. In that role, he will also serves as one of three members on the Committee on Committees, which determines the makeup of Senate committees.

Republican Kurt Wright, a state representatibe and Burlington City Councilor, who is a self-described “big Tim Ashe fan,” despite having traded barbs during the 2011 mayoral race in which Wright was the Republican nominee, said Ashe appears to have moved to the middle.

“He was a Progressive councilor and has sort of moved more toward a Democrat, Progressive, but maybe more of a Democrat,” Wright mused.

Rep. Kurt Wright, R-Burlington.

As evidence, Wright pointed to the mutual affinity between Ashe and his right-leaning Democratic colleague Grand Isle Sen. Dick Mazza. How does Mazza see Tim’s politics? “Right off the bat I heard rumors that he had this big Progressive agenda, but the more I got to know him and work with him, he’s an intelligent man who treated everyone with fairness,” Mazza said.

Phil Fiermonte, a longtime Sanders staffer who worked with Ashe and remains a close friend, said he doesn’t see any centrist drift in Tim’s politics.

“I think Tim’s very pragmatic, but he’s got very deeply held progressive values,” Fiermonte said.

Asked to describe his own political views, Ashe said he believes in “progressive government,” but he also believes government should “squeeze every penny of value out of taxpayer money.”

Ashe says he is unwilling to throw money at problems faced by state government, and, in his view, “good financial management and progressive values should go together.”

He’s also interested in building consensus in the Senate. That approach may be even more pronounced when he becomes Pro Tem.

“There’s what Tim would do if he’s the only one, and then there’s what Tim does working with 29 other individuals,” Ashe said.

“When you respect other people’s opinions and really try to make sure you’re reaching a solution that nears unanimity, sometimes that has a moderating effect. That doesn’t make the person a moderate, it makes the outcome more reflective of the entire state’s political views,” Ashe said.

Insiders say Ashe may become the bridge between a Republican governor, a Progressive, Democratic lieutenant governor and a Democratic majority Legislature.

Elusive in the game

Katharine Montstream, who has played soccer with Ashe for nearly a decade — first pickup and then in a co-ed indoor league — says that while Ashe is competitive on the field, he cares deeply about getting everyone involved and building team chemistry.

“We all want to win, but ultimately he’s a team player and wants the experience to be good,” said Montstream, a Burlington artist.

Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P-Burlington.

“I’m not as experienced a player, but he always has encouragement for me. He’ll say things like, ‘Montstream, get up to the goal, ask for the ball and act like you mean it,’” she said.

The four-term senator brings a similar level of camaraderie to lawmaking. It’s evident in the strong relationships he’s built with his colleagues that span party lines and are a primary reason that he’s now poised to lead the Senate.

But there is another aspect of his style on soccer pitch that is identifiable in his political career, one that has won him an odd mixture of enmity and respect from the lobbyists, advocates and interest groups used to brokering power in Montpelier.

Montstream says that teammates describe Tim’s game as “elusive and wily,” because no one is certain where his looping runs will land him. That’s something Statehouse insiders say is also true of his political schemes.

What’s endearing to teammates is discomfiting for the Statehouse set who are used to doing business in a more scripted fashion.

Last-minute bargains

There are 564 lobbyists registered with the Vermont Secretary of state, and many of them have gotten frustrated with Ashe at some point because of what they perceive as his unwillingness to be pinned down on the issues.

They sometimes ruefully quip that Ashe doesn’t really start working until the last days of the session when grand budget bargains are made and lingering legislation dies or moves on to the governor’s desk.

“I think that he never wants to be cornered into a position earlier than he has to in order to be able to do the calculus as the process moves forward. Of course that irks people because it’s contrary to an open process where the proposals get debated publicly,” said one lobbyist who asked not to be identified so they could speak candidly about Ashe.

“Sometimes in that building putting something out there is the death knell of that thing. Even the people working with him don’t have full light on where he’s going until it’s all said and done,” the lobbyist said.

Shollenberger, with Action Circles, said she’s found Ashe to be clear about what he needs to see in order to go in a certain direction or if something is a long shot to gain his support, but as for his ultimate designs she said: “I think he’s careful about taking strident public positions because he knows he’s going to have to negotiate.”

Rep. Janet Ancel, D-Calais, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, has negotiated with Ashe in the final session deals that allow the Legislature to pass a budget year after year.

In Vermont’s Democrat dominated Legislature, there is often more of a division between the House and Senate than there is across the aisle in either chamber. Ancel and Ashe are among the leaders that have to bridge that fractious divide.

“He is a hard negotiator. He’s pretty clear about what he wants and what values drive him, but it’s not at all hard to work with,” Ancel said, “I often didn’t get everything I wanted but neither did he. It never felt tense or unfriendly. It was always actually positive.”

“People sometimes describe him as unpredictable and hard to read, but that’s not unique to him,” Ancel said, adding that many lawmakers, herself included, are reluctant to stake out a position too early in the game.

“None of us are going to say, ‘Here’s how I see this at the end of the day,’” Ancel said.

Tim Ashe, Janet Ancel
Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, and Rep. Janet Ancel, D-Calais, listen to presentations at a Joint Health Reform Oversight Committee meeting Monday. Photo by Anne Galloway/VTDigger

A ‘policy sponge’

The same lobbyist that asked to be off the record to discuss Ashe’s style in the Senate also heaped praise on Tim’s incisiveness, policy acumen and his drive to get results.

In Vermont’s part-time Legislature, where many lawmakers rely on the expertise of lobbyists and advocates, Ashe is a glaring exception, according to several people interviewed for this report.

He has a reputation as a “policy sponge,” and it’s one that he’s earned. Over the course of a two hour editorial board meeting with VTDigger in December, Ashe was conversant and able to delve into specifics in every policy beat reporters’ area of coverage.

The Harvard Kennedy School of Government graduate said his passion for policy may be an extension of his childhood love for reading. Virtually every weekend included a pilgrimage to the library or bookstore, which enabled him to process new information quickly.

His policy chops give him a level of independence that some say allows him to look down his nose at Montpelier’s influence peddlers. Kevin Ellis, a longtime statehouse lobbyist with the firm Ellis Mills Public Affairs, said that Ashe seems to disdain lobbyists and entrenched interests.

“The big parlor game of Montpelier is all the lobbyists talking about ‘How are you going to deal with Senator Ashe’,” Ellis said, “Lobbyists don’t vote, and a lot of times people forget that. Tim Ashe is reminding them of that.”

Several people interviewed for this profile described the senator as a “healthy skeptic,” a descriptor Ashe also applied to himself. Every lawmaker should view powerful interests with a critical eye, he said, whether it’s a government agency, a trade group or anyone else that can pay a lobbyist to represent them in Montpelier.

“If there’s a monopoly utility or a monopoly health care provider, my questions are going to be harder, and I’m going to have a longer list of questions than for some itty-bitty grant recipient. The stakes are so much higher with those large players,” Ashe said.

Tim Ashe
Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden. File Photo by Morgan True/VTDigger

Ashe said he’s aware of people’s perception that his intentions are difficult to read, and he thinks there’s another factor at play. Ashe said he prides himself on the open ended committee process he’s fostered in Finance, which has, in his estimation, created a laboratory for original legislation.

“It’s a belief that the best ideas don’t miraculously appear only if some interest group produced it before the start of the January session,” Ashe said.

A recent example is a work group that came out of his committee’s exploration of how to make the Public Service Board more accessible to the average citizen. No one asked his committee to do that, Ashe said, and the board, the Public Service Department and utilities resisted the idea.

The work group just released a report with recommendations that Ashe said he believes could “humanize the public service board process for normal people.”

The committee also spent an entire year studying how payments flow through the health care system. No specific legislation came out of that work, Ashe said, but he believes it greatly increased the Senate’s understanding of health care financing.

“When you’re trying to have a creative process that hasn’t been prescripted by the administration or some interest group, it’s a little unusual for many of the people who habituate the statehouse,” Ashe said, “They’re not used to seeing a process that unfolds that way.”

It’s a style that Ashe, as Pro Tem, is likely to encourage more Senate committees to adopt.

The ubiquitous disclaimer

Any profile of Tim Ashe would be remiss if it did not mention his partner, Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. The two have been together for almost 15 years, a period that spans Tim’s career in public life.

A friend writing a profile of Routly for the Middlebury Magazine described her this way: “She has lost all but her most devoted friends—of which there are still many, I should add—because she is obsessed with her work and will cancel long-made social plans at the last instant to improve the first paragraph of a not-earthshattering news story that arrived a bit late. A former ballet dancer, she is a control freak with steely resolve. She can pinch a penny until it yodels.”

It’s easy to see how the two get along. Both are workaholics who pride themselves on stretching limited resources. Rep. Chris Pearson, P-Burlington, said they also share deep intellectual curiosity and their mutual respect and admiration is obvious to friends.

During Tim’s mayoral bid in 2011, Routly announced in the newspaper that she would not “assign or edit stories or columns about Burlington politics for the duration of the campaign.”

Since then, that announcement has evolved into the ubiquitous disclaimer at the bottom of any Seven Days article that mentions Ashe, which states, “Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly.”

Ashe said he and Routly have 12 years of practice maintaining a firewall between her work at Seven Days and his work as a politician. In that time, Ashe said he couldn’t recall a single instance where he was accused of passing Seven Days information that wasn’t meant for them, or of Seven Days coverage being beneficial to him.

“To me, if our integrity broke down, the world would have been talking about it,” Ashe said.

Ellis, of Ellis Mills, said he agrees, adding that if anything, Routly and Ashe may feel compelled to go overboard in avoiding the appearance of a conflict. Far from benefitting them, as many might assume, Ellis said such a relationship can be a detriment for the media outlet and the politician.

“They’re going to bend over backwards to keep those walls up,” he said.

As the Middlebury Magazine profile notes: “Such are the problems of Vermont’s power couples.”

A quirky sense of humor

Another often overlooked facet of Tim Ashe’s rise in politics is one he shares with many successful leaders: People like him.

Both Pearson and Wright, a Progressive and a Republican, said said they enjoy sharing a ride to or from Montpelier with Ashe, because he’s an engaging conversationalist.

“He’s just a remarkably consistent person,” Pearson said, “The same witty, snappy demeanor that people see at the statehouse is what you’re going to get having a beer with him in Burlington.”

Ancel, in describing what it’s like to negotiate weighty tax deals with Tim, volunteered how much she values his sense of humor. Montstream, his soccer teammate and friend, described a boyish charm and expressive face that helps to bind people to him.

“He says a lot with his smirk and the eyes. It’s pretty awesome,” she said.

For his part, Ashe said he couldn’t be more excited for the 2017 legislative session and his new role as Pro Tem.

“I’m someone who walks into the Statehouse everyday with a nice bounce in my step,” he said, “I say it sometimes, and I don’t think people appreciate how serious I am that if I didn’t have that same bounce, I wouldn’t go back.”

Note: This story was updated at 10:08 a.m. Jan. 3 with information about Ashe’s work history.

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  • Bruce S. Post

    The truly sad aspect about this article is not Tim Ashe but that Vermont has 564 registered lobbyists!

  • Good profile, except for one thing. There is no mention of his non-political background. What does Mr. Ashe do for a ‘day job’? I’d like to know more about that as I find real world experience can be valuable in government.

  • Thanks for the comprehensive profile of our soon to be new pro tem. I could not agree more with Bruce Post’s comment below about the proliferation of lobbyists feeding at the legislative trough. As a retired state employee, I started being involved with legislative debates more than 30 years ago. At that time it felt that you could fit all the lobbyists at one house committee table; that is, fewer than 11.
    I take my hat off to Tim for his reported efforts to level the playing field between those who are paid to advocate a position for a client and those individual Vermonters who care enough, and are involved enough, to personally share their views with their elected representatives.
    It is critical to the welfare of our democracy that we don’t follow DC in lock-step where money buys not only access to members, but also overly influences policy decisions.

  • Gary Murdock

    Good grief, can he walk on water to? This report, steeped in glowing accolades, is as unbalanced as the legislative body Ashe will lead.

    • Irene Stewart

      I totally agree, Gary. Tim Ashe is a Progressive, very, very liberal Senator. His ideas are the same as those we have heard for 30 plus years from Sanders, such as universal health care. This state cannot afford universal health care, as Vermont only has 350,000 residents that actually pay state taxes. But I truly believe he will try to bring this back once again, even though Shumlin had to reluctantly tell all Vermonters, that it is unaffordable in Vermont. Tim represents the liberals in Chittenden County and forgets that there are 13 other counties in Vermont, and the residents in those counties do not agree with his proposals, very often. I hope, that in the future, he runs in his own Progressive Party, and does not hijack the Democratic Party to run as a Democrat. Remember, readers, Progressives run against Democrats when it suits them well. Progressives want higher taxes for all their “free stuff”.
      Vermonters said “NO” this past November and will continue to say NO!

      • Peter Liston

        He didn’t hijack the Democratic Party — He asked Democrats for their votes and they voted for him.

        He didn’t kidnap babies for a ransom. He campaigned. He won.

        • Irene Stewart

          Sanders, Ashe, and Zuckerman USE the Democrat Party! They belong to the Progressive Party, but since they are not that organized, they hitch themselves to the Democrats. They are either Progressives OR Democrats, but they should not run as both. Progressives are NOT Democrats. They want party lists that have taken years to research and prepare, they want all the resources that the party has from Democrats donating to their party. Look how quickly Sanders dropped the “D” after his name, when he lost the primaries. These 3 have never been Democrats and never will be Democrats. They use the party every two years. Does the office sign for Ashe in the State House say Democrat? I doubt it! He is a Progressive.

      • Doug Hoffer

        “Vermont only has 350,000 residents that actually pay state taxes”

        That is not accurate. All adult (and many young) Vermonters pay taxes. Sales taxes are paid by everyone who shops in Vermont (and it can be a very substantial percent of income for low-income Vermonters). Property taxes are paid directly by homeowners and indirectly by renters whose rents include the landlord’s property taxes. Anyone who drives pays gas taxes, as well as related fees for licenses and registrations. Everyone who eats out pays the meals tax. And so on.

  • John McClaughry

    In Tim Ashe and Mitzi Johnson the legislature has two experienced legislative leaders who learned at the JFK School at Harvard how to take ideas and issues seriously instead of indulging in Sanderista sloganeering. This is a very good thing for Vermont.

    • David White

      why is that a good thing?