The Fighter: Victor Ashe

“Why do you always carry $2 bills?” I ask Victor Ashe as he digs a tip out of his wallet for the waitress at his favorite local haunt. He stares back at me over the spectacles that sit upon his nose as he reads. “Well because they’re better than $1 bills,” he says whimsically, grinning from ear to ear. This is the kind of dry, clever retort I have come to expect from my friend over the past couple of years.

As far back as I can remember, I knew the name Victor Ashe. I’m not unique, it’s a name every Knoxvillian grew up knowing for a generation, even those like me who were still knee high to a grasshopper when he left behind the mayor’s office that he had dominated for the better part of two decades.

In college I worked on a construction crew that delivered materials to Ashe’s house. I had never met him at the time. I remember being awestruck the first time I set foot in his regal basement office, the rich wooden facade almost eclipsed by shelves and shelves of photos with popes, presidents and other decorated officials. Winston Churchill is prominently featured on the walls, and years later as a young Burchett staffer, I would learn during many hours spent in that office of the many similarities between the two. I consider Ambassador Victor Ashe to be one of my mentors, and he was kind enough to sit down with me for a few hours at Savelli’s, one of his favorite spots, and discuss his life and achievements.

In 1968 at the age of 23, Victor would have been the youngest man ever elected to the Tennessee State Legislature, had his good friend and future roommate Dick Krieg (22) not been elected with him. He was hot off of a successful venture as a campaign aide to Howard Baker, completed his six months of active duty in the Marine Corps Air Reserves, and had a Yale diploma in his back pocket. At 23, he was a part time legislator and law student at the University of Tennessee.

Victor was an entirely new brand of politics. Door to door campaigning was a new concept, foreign to this market. Ashe utilized it like no one before, and successfully wielded it against dozens of opponents throughout his career. This, paired with his keen intelligence and razor wit made for a formidable foe. He challenged a much older and more experienced incumbent, and beat him handily. His reason? “I don’t think he was very effective. He wasn’t doing anything.” Even from an early age, the Churchillian Victor loathed inactivity. He is always in motion. Even at 76, he is always traveling, writing, attending events or hosting lectures. How much more so at 23?

The legislature brought great experience but also new enemies. Jack Comer, a representative from a neighboring district and owner of Deane Hill Country Club, especially disliked Victor. After a round of redistricting, Comer sued over what he claimed was a gerrymandered district for Victor, and won. Just like that, in 1972 and only 4 years into a political career, Victor’s future was in jeopardy, having been drawn into a new district from which he probably could not win re-election. So what did he do? The only thing that made sense to him. He moved into Comer’s district and ran against him instead. Victor won by over forty points. “He made it clear this town wasn’t big enough for the both of us,” Victor remarked with a wry grin. This would be a common trend throughout his career, outfoxing the foxes.

In 1974, Victor was a barred attorney and ready to make the jump to the next level. At age 29, he pulled a petition to run for a vacant state senate seat. He was opposed in the primary by popular county sheriff Bernard Waggoner, but he easily disposed of him, winning again by over 40 points. After securing the party’s nomination, his election seemed imminent, until his old foe Jack Comer reared his ugly head. Victor had been assured by the state attorney general that since he would be 30 years old by the time he took the oath of office, he was eligible to run for the senate. Comer sued over Victor’s age, and won yet again. Victor, the Republican Party nominee, was thrown off the ballot because he was not of age at the time of the election for a senate seat. But, as always, he had a plan. The party nominated Victor’s mother to run in his stead. “Well Andrew, wouldn’t your mother help you out if someone took something from you and you’d done nothing wrong?” he remarked. “She just told people if she and my father knew this would be an issue they would have gotten to work a little earlier.” Mrs. Ashe was elected and took the oath of office. The next day she resigned, and newly 30 year old Victor was appointed to the seat by the county court. Mr. Comer was outfoxed again.

He defended his seat two years later against car dealer Ted Russell. In 16 years in the legislature, he established themes that would endure throughout his public life. He had a deep commitment to government transparency and accountability, and helped establish financial disclosure laws for campaigns, and a primary election system to block corrupt county conventions. He worked to pass the preservation act, preserving scenic sites in our state. He weaponized parliamentary procedure against the ruling democrats, effectively blocking some hair brained schemes.

In 1984, he made a rare political misstep. He ran for US Senate against the popular and then very moderate future Vice-President Al Gore. Gore bested him in what was at the time still a very blue state. Ashe went home to Knoxville, and soon opportunity knocked again.

Kyle Testerman was tired of fighting by 1987. Conservative Knoxville had battled the reformer every step of the way, and he was ready to pass the baton. Enter Victor Ashe. He ran a devastating campaign in a wide open 10 way primary election. Victor captured 42% of the vote, 20 points more than the second place finisher.

His political style was aggressive and effective. He again utilized door to door campaigning to great success. “I outworked them,” he remembers. A message of financial responsibility, hiring more policemen and firefighters, and bringing unity to the city found its mark. Shortly after being elected, he utilized his campaign skills yet again by pushing through a ballot initiative to raise city sales tax rates. It had failed 4 times before. Victor passed it with over 60% approval, because he, as the mayor, went door to door explaining to constituents that if they wanted new roads, more policemen and better services, the city needed a little more money. He pointed out that at that time, the vast majority of city sales tax revenues were captured from those living outside the city.

In 16 years as mayor, he exercised a vice-grip on city politics. He had 7 votes on council, and nothing happened without his say so. No pol has exerted such control for so long in our town’s history. He built a convention center, restored financial stability to city government and feuded with a sheriff and a couple of county executives along the way. After all, what fun is it all without a worthy adversary? He is most proud of the many new parks he established and the 35 miles of greenway he built as mayor. His toughest battle was over the Tennessee Smokies baseball team leaving town. He regrets that he was unable to find a neighborhood willing to accept a new stadium, or get sound financial estimates from the team.

Political novices would label Victor as “part of the establishment.” This betrays an ignorance of local politics. There is no singular establishment, but rather several competing factions. More accurately, Victor is his own establishment.

Virtually the only time he ever lost a battle with city council was when he pushed for a civilian oversight board for the police department, a notion that has aged like fine wine in today’s climate. The council voted down his proposal. He went on to create it anyway through executive fiat. Let them try to stop him. It still exists and serves a vital role today.

In 2004 an old Yale buddy came calling. Ashe’s father and then President George W. Bush’s grandfather had been old friends, vacationing together at Jupiter Beach, and both were active in the Presbyterian church. At Yale, Ashe and the junior Bush developed a friendship themselves. When Bush 43 needed a new ambassador to Poland, he called up his old friend. Victor became the longest tenured US Ambassador to Poland. He implemented many new ideas, traveling to areas no other ambassadors visited and engaging new audiences otherwise unreached by diplomats. “I always thought I was ambassador to Poland, not just Warsaw,” he said.

Today he remains politically active, writing a weekly column for the Knoxville News Sentinel. He does what he’s always done, the homework no one else is willing to do. He reports on niche topics like transparency and spending that would otherwise go unnoticed. He is unquestionably outspoken, as he has always been, and I once counseled a friend who found himself blistered in print regularly to bury the hatchet, because Victor does not give up until there is a resolution.

Victor Ashe is dedicated to detail and perfection. During my campaign days, he would regularly call me, offering advice and critique, immersed in the minutia only a master politician picks up on. He urges me to send personal notes and letters on behalf of my bosses. He meticulously records everyone’s birthday so he might remember to call them. Tricks of the trade he has passed on to me. He is unquestionably brilliant, and somewhat paradoxical, a strange fusion of power politics and deeply held conviction. We do not always agree, as he is from the more moderate wing of the party, and I the conservative, but we have always had a mutual respect. He is loved by many, hated by some, but known by all. He’s Victor Ashe, and I’m glad to call him a friend.

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