Where Are The Ashes Of Yesteryear?

Objects In The Mirror May Be Fuzzier Than They Appear

The following was written in 2003. I’d ask you to guess the author, but I’ve already given away that game.

I should be a Democrat. From Massachusetts, mother a teacher and father a civil servant, family of Kennedy-philes… I’ve got a long life of political activism ahead of me. My loyalties are to ideas and not a party, so if my energies are not going to the Dems, they’ll be going somewhere else.

… Younger people like myself can understand the importance of getting the message to different types of voters. But we also understand the nature of a chameleon, and we don’t want to vote for a leaf and elect a reptile.

That’s a short excerpt from “Letter from a Democratic Party Pooper, and it was indeed penned by Young Tim Ashe, progressive firebrand. The letter was included in Crossroads: The Future of American Politics, written in 2003 by the future governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo. (This tidbit came to my attention courtesy of urban archeologist and Twitter buddy Ed Adrian.)

In the letter, Ashe bemoans the Democratic Party’s habit of tacking to the center. He certainly sounds like a former Bernie Sanders staffer and future Progressive Party officeholder. He doesn’t sound much like Ashe the Senate President Pro Tem, who’s known for cosseting the chamber’s old guard, a cadre of change-averse centrists.

So. Which Tim Ashe is running for lieutenant governor?

When his predecessor as Pro Tem, John Campbell, announced he wouldn’t seek re-election in 2016, Ashe immediately jumped forward and put his hat in the ring. Like, the very same day. Campbell’s decision was a surprise to many, so Ashe must have had inside knowledge.

He also must have been working the room pretty hard. Others with more seniority took a sniff and backed away — including Phil Baruth, who was then majority leader, the second ranking member of the Democratic caucus.

Ashe has allowed the Senate’s senior members to hold sway on chamber organization and on many policy fronts. He has sometimes, to be fair, used his influence to give the old lions a push, such as the 2018 debate over new gun restrictions. That would never have happened under Campbell.

But overall, he’s been more tactician than cutting-edge voice for change. During his tenure, the Senate has disappointed small- and large-P progressives as often as the House. He has maintained the internal power structure, with Dick Mazza being kept on as the third member of the powerful Committee on Committees, which has put the most senior Senators in the chamber’s most powerful positions.

There are 11 bill-writing committees in the Senate. Eight chairs are 72 or older. Only one of the 11 was born since the Eisenhower administration. (Baruth, 1962)

Senior senators also dominate the membership of the two money committees, Finance and Appropriations.

Now, there are advantages to seniority. Jane Kitchel has decades of experience in state government. Dick Sears can recall the pluses and minuses of criminal-justice debates since the early 80s. But having so many elders near the top is what makes the Senate what it is — a body that tends to resist change.

And Ashe has been complicit in keeping it that way.

Apparently, though, many in the Progressive Party believe that Young Tim is poised for a comeback. How else to explain the Party’s almost-endorsement of Ashe, per VTDigger?

In the first round, 45.2% of party members listed Ashe as their first choice and 42.5% listed [Brenda] Siegel. [Molly] Gray and [Debbie] Ingram both had 1.4%, and about 10% favored no endorsement at all. In the final round, Ashe received 63% of the vote — just missing the two-thirds majority needed for endorsement.

Ashe the triangulator? Ashe the enabler of the Dick Mazzas of the world? Ashe the guy whose party identifier has morphed to the point where “Progressive” seems more appendix than vital organ? That guy nearly won the nod over Siegel, who is clearly the more “progressive” of the two?

This is the Progressive Party that values purity over consensus, right? This is the party that’s been pushing youth and collecting senior scalps on the Burlington City Council, right?

I can only think of one explanation for the vote. Well, two intertwined explanations. It’s familiarity and tenure, plus the party’s center of gravity is in Burlington, Ashe’s home turf. I can’t explain it in terms of policy.

The phenomenon of the Two Tims has even been a feature of his own LG campaign. One day he’s boasting of his progressive ideas; the next he’s touting his insider experience. One day he bashes Gray as the candidate of the elite; the next he’s touting the support of Senate bluebloods like Mazza, Kitchel, and Bobby Starr.

To some extent, this is a problem inherent with holding a position of legislative leadership. A leader’s job is to keep the chamber running and to keep the caucus as unified as possible. That doesn’t leave much opportunity for taking charge on an issue.

Ashe hasn’t overcome this problem. Indeed, he continues to try to have it both ways.

Methinks he’s something of a chameleon himself. I wonder if Young Tim Ashe would vote for this guy.


3 thoughts on “Where Are The Ashes Of Yesteryear?

  1. Sue

    Ahhhh, of course Ed Adrian would have to chime in. I was just thinking of him the other day and the mess he created in Burlington. A muckraker (and pompous to boot) so I can see why you two would get along. Adrian has always had a thing about Progressives. I see he got out of politics but apparently still feels the need to be relevant by digging up old articles on Tim. Whatever floats your boat, Ed.

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      Actually, we don’t get along all that well. Ed’s to my right on a bunch of topics, like for example he supports Phil Scott. My point, for those just joining us, is that Ashe’s Progressive credibility is very much in question. Your mileage may vary.

  2. Bill

    I don’t agree with the sentiment expressed. I see Ashe as the exact same individual, policy-wise. Just more patient, mature, and pragmatic.

    I saw him when he was a Burlington Councilor. Both in regular Council meetings, as well as sub-committees. Same Tim. He’s just grown up. Smarter and wiser. Like the rest of us, I’d like to think.


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