Tenacious (D) | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

June 30, 2005 News » Cover Story

Tenacious (D) 

Democrat Pete Ashdown faces an uphill battle against stalwart Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch. Is he ready for the fight?

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In the summer of 1998, Pete Ashdown and his girlfriend Robin Ballard hiked through Roswell, N.M., wearing silver robes and matching moon boots. The young Utah couple had driven down to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the region’s alleged UFO crash site, eager to partake in an awesome people-watching spectacle. They took his father’s weathered camper'the Blue Goose'a 21-foot-long, sky-blue 1973 Superior motorhome.

Robin and Pete cruised along trading favorite Star Trek episodes, car-jamming to ska horns, and predicting what sort of techies, geeks and conspiracy theorists would flock to the hallmark celebration. Robin made costumes, carefully tailoring the cloth to Pete’s narrow frame. Once there, they went scavenging for remnants of the legendary spaceship, looking for a slightly tougher version of aluminum foil.

In keeping with folklore, Pete fashioned a ring out of similar material. Robin slipped it on, and together the newly engaged Trekkies walked into the sunset, pledging to “live long and prosper.”

Ashdown has always trained his eyes on new horizons. Thirteen years ago, the XMission founder and CEO helped introduce the Beehive State to rave culture, importing breakout electronic music from overseas. Ashdown, then known as DJ XDZebra, accessed the scene through online discussion groups, swapping sound files and compiling post-rave reviews for other forward thinkers.

As the wiry king of acid house music, he transmitted tracks from Orbital, the Orb, 808 State, Ravesignal, Aphex Twin and other up-and-coming artists slowly surfacing on mainstream frequencies. Ashdown, along with partner John Webster, earned a reputation for throwing cathartic concerts where shiny, happy people enjoyed the freedom to dance like Muppets, make questionable fashion choices and, to his chagrin, explore the wonders of Ecstasy. Unlike former President Clinton, however, Ashdown didn’t inhale. Or snort. Or pop. Or shoot up.

“I never took drugs during the raves, and I never encouraged anyone to do so,” he says. “We gave out smart drinks loaded with vitamins and such, but I made an effort to not equate raves with drugs. A large reason why I left the scene is that it became more of a dealer and pusher situation.”

During the scene’s heyday in the early ’90s, Ashdown approached rave promotion as he did all his personal and professional endeavors, pouring excessive time and money into its success. At the peak of his involvement, he spent upwards of $400 a month on records'over half his monthly salary.

“I’m still not sure how the math worked out on that one,” he says, smiling with the look of a man whose triumphs hinge on equal parts sweat, tears and good fortune.

Of course, sometimes the wheels of fortune spun against him, most notably the promotion of a triple-threat concert featuring Orbital, Meat Beat Manifesto and Ultramarine. Ashdown and Webster stayed true to the underground and vetoed advertising, a move that left them $2,500 in the hole.

“I mean, for the people who were there, it was a great show,” he says of the raucous affair. “But it was sheer stupidity the way we promoted it.” He’s since grown more cautious.

At 26, he took a chance on technology, launching local Internet Service Provider XMission in an era when terms like “modem,” “collocation” and “routers” held little meaning for potential investors. Such widespread skepticism made it difficult for the University of Utah student to gather enough cash to get his company off the ground. He pulled in a $14,400 annual paycheck as an Evans & Sutherland computer operator'hardly enough cash to fund a small business.

His father, Bob, while just as confused by the new technology, dug into his savings to help Pete turn his innovative vision into reality. Bob wrote out a check and said, “Pete, if you don’t do this, you’ll be working for someone else for the rest of your life.” Somehow, he knew it was worth the gamble.

Now 38, Ashdown is taking a risk with another bold career move: Last March, he declared his candidacy against political stalwart Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a popular conservative whose 24-year tenure almost secures his re-election. In fact, some political pundits think it’s impossible for anyone to challenge a man who is revered almost as a god by many constituents. Most Utah Republicans and Democrats alike wouldn’t even bother trying to unseat Hatch. They claim he’s invincible'that his relatively unknown opponent is at once brave and crazy. Some contend, however, that Ashdown just might be crazy enough to win.

Ashdown is many things, if not crazy. He’s quirky and eccentric, working in an office mapped out like an obstacle course charting seas of computers, joysticks, circuit boards, multicolored cords and collectible Star Wars action figures. He’s also earnest, brilliant and determined'an enterprising businessman with a taste for risky ventures. More importantly, he’s not one to pull out when things get rough.

“If I start something I want to see it through to the end,” he says, adding that he’s not running this race for fun. His stomach turns at the thought of Hatch enjoying six more years in Washington. Ashdown sits in a swivel chair, shifting like a flag'his tall, lanky form draped in pinstripes and patriotic colors. He strokes his red, white and blue tie, focused on the question: Does he think he might regret taking on Hatch?

Not one for rash responses, Ashdown takes time to consider. In social settings, he’s the wallflower observing others through piercing blue eyes. You might assume Ashdown is hesitant and shy, but when he speaks, his confidence is remarkable.

“In much the same way that I was utterly frightened to start my business, this campaign is even more daunting,” he says. “Yet I know the price of doing nothing. I have had so many people sincerely thank me for putting my neck on the line that I feel I can do nothing else but try.”

Trying means stopping Hatch’s assault on technology. In June 2003, the techno-tyrant senator devised a plan to “blow up” computers caught in the act of downloading copyright materials. Hatch’s proposal suggested outfitting PCs with remote sensors to track illegal downloading, allowing copyright holders to send offending users two warnings before remotely destroying their computers’ internal hardware. When Ashdown first read Hatch’s comments, he could hardly control himself.

“I was just really disgusted by it,” he says, gripping the wheel of his green Honda Element. The typically calm Ashdown charges through lunch-hour traffic, recalling his initial rage'one shared by countless techies and Internet-savvy liberals directing ire toward Utah because of Hatch’s irrational conservatism. Ashdown wants to prevent future misconceptions about Utah’s grip on technology by introducing legislation to loosen outdated laws on copyright material.

“The United States government has extended copyright to the point where nothing is going to fall out of copyright for the next 20 years,” he says, adding that such stringent laws prevent books, movies and software from being expanded and preserved. “I believe artists should be able to protect their work but I also think that the public should be allowed access to that work after it falls out of copyright.”

Ashdown thinks that those with the most intelligent thoughts on copyright are being ignored, including members of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group of lawyers, technologists, volunteers and visionaries working to extend constitutional rights and freedoms to the Internet. If elected, Ashdown would craft legislation reflecting their progressive solutions to battles over copyrights and patents. Right now, he has trouble pointing to anyone in Congress who’s able to speak on behalf of the Internet industry’s potential to benefit, rather than harm, the recording and film industries. Should he lose, Ashdown hopes his positions on science and technology will inspire future politicians to follow suit.

Ashdown initially looked for someone else willing to take on Hatch'someone with actual political experience. When no one accepted the challenge, Ashdown stepped up himself. He talked it over with friends, family and employees, all of whom encouraged his involvement. Robin, now a local actress, agreed to accept the demanding role of candidate’s wife despite being pregnant and due in October. She cites Ashdown’s support of her acting career, noting that he stayed home to watch over their two children, Henry, 4, and Madeline, 11, while she pursued acting in Los Angeles. Without him, she might not have had the freedom to perform at The Groundlings comedy club. Now it’s her turn to help him pursue his dreams'regardless of the cost.

“People keep saying, ‘Are you ready for this nasty campaign? Hatch is really nasty and has a lot of money, and he’s researching your family,’” Robin says. “For myself, it doesn’t bother me. But I think it might bother Pete. If he gets a customer who is grouchy about something, it really affects him'he’s a really honest person and works hard for people.”

She cites her husband’s commitment to XMission, noting his refusal to sell the company or outsource its services despite receiving tempting offers on a monthly basis. Ashdown takes pride in his business and takes harsh criticism to heart. Robin imagines he could get hurt if the campaign gets dirty. She just hopes their children aren’t caught in the crossfire.

Webster, whose 17-year friendship with Ashdown includes 10 years of working under him at XMission, doesn’t think there’s much cause for concern.

“Pete doesn’t really have any skeletons in his closet,” he said. “I’ve always been the one who’s been a little reckless and crazy. He would be the one telling me, ‘Oh, no, that’s not a good idea.’”

Webster added that Ashdown has established himself as a genuine, caring friend and employer. He always looks out for others, particularly his employees, Webster said. Ashdown refused, for example, to put employee livelihood at risk by using XMission dollars to fund his campaign.

“He tends to take on the cause of the few and the many. I always thought he would run for something like city council or county mayor,” Webster said. “I’d take a bullet for the guy.”

Ashdown pulls into a parking spot at the Pleasure Palace, a discreet lair known among Salt Lake City’s liberal elite for its smashing soirees and cheeky charm. He purchased the property years ago, using the second home to host political fund-raisers, birthday parties and formal dinners. Ashdown recently turned the part-time residence into a campaign headquarters, housing a skeleton crew of supporters including Lisa Allcott, Nancy Davenport and campaign manager Carla Wiese, former Northern Utah Coordinator for the Democratic Party. Allcott, who’s been working in politics for 16 years, believes in Ashdown. “I wouldn’t be helping him if I didn’t think he could win,” she says, adding that the biggest hurdle is convincing fellow Democrats to place their faith in Ashdown. She thinks Paul Van Dam’s crushing defeat by Sen. Bob Bennett is partly to blame for the reluctance to support another dark horse candidate. “But this is a completely different race,” she says. “We are the top of the ticket.” Paul’s efforts, she said, coincided with the gubernatorial and presidential races. “We don’t have that problem'this is the biggest thing going on next year.”

Ashdown details the layout of his future campaign headquarters, passing through rooms where he’ll spend the next year working tirelessly to further his chance for success: This room has the biggest chandelier. This one boasts an indoor gazebo. The basement is a mirror image of any secondary school built in the ’60s, with checkered beige linoleum, dull fluorescent lights and a broken, rust-stained drinking fountain.

Each room is drenched in psychedelic color. Carpet matches furniture matches wallpaper. It’s both chic and garish. Comforting and unsettling.The master bedroom features a sunken Jacuzzi situated below a bubble-top skylight. A nearby kitchen is set up as a faux courtyard, turning even a breakfast of Cheerios into a grand affair.

But the real draw is a rooftop pool, an inviting body of water overlooking Bryant Intermediate School. “When we came here it was just amazing to me because this view is so incredible,” he says, turning full circle to take it all in. “It does wonders for your outlook.”

In a way, the Pleasure Palace’s blend of kitschy antiques and modern décor helps illustrate Ashdown’s outlook on life. While clearly wired to the future, the technologist also keeps a steady eye on past people, places and events. He tracks Internet advancements, but collects ancient arcade games, storing nearly 50 salvaged machines in a veritable shrine to Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Popeye, Gorf, Narc and more.

His family took numerous summer road trips, cruising cross-country in vehicles like the Blue Goose, the beat-up camper he and Robin took down to Roswell. Ashdown’s first memory recalls one of their many sojourns. He sat with his brother at a rest stop, 23 miles southwest of Rapid City, S.D., marveling at Mount Rushmore through bug-splattered glass.

At the time, he perceived the human-made monument as a natural extension of Zion National Park. Of course, his confusion likely stemmed from the fact that he only had 6 months of life experience as reference. It seemed right for a baby to connect the stone-carved faces of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt to southern Utah’s redrock wonderland. Some might find it implausible for an adult to recall a memory from his infancy. But Ashdown isn’t keen on popular logic. Whether myth or fact, the far-fetched tale hints at his unique outlook on life and continuing path down roads less traveled. On Jan. 11, 1967, Ashdown took his first breath at LDS Hospital. His mother, Greta, an immigrant from Denmark, brought him into a family of prodigies. Each Ashdown displayed an early aptitude for his or her future profession. Older brother Jan, for example, now a surgeon, used to dissect livers at the dinner table while his younger sister, Jane, now a budding biologist studying encroaching species, obsessed over bugs. Ashdown himself pushed buttons on a toy computer that his father, a full-time teacher with a knack for construction, fashioned out of wood.

Ashdown’s dad built many structures over the years, none so impressive as his expansive Bountiful home. The once-isolated property, now flanked by cookie-cutter houses, sits atop a mountain range still linked to untamed forests. An unpaved driveway leads to the dwelling nestled among decades-old evergreens with roots as deep and thick as the Ashdown family tree.

Bob Ashdown is about as American as they come. He traces his ancestry to Utah’s early pioneers, and even further back to the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. He lived through the Great Depression and tried to enlist with the Navy during World War II. Recruiters passed him over for failing a routine eye exam. “I think the good Lord had his arm around me,” he says, noting that at the time, he had 20/20 vision. “Fate has a funny way of dealing with us.”

Pete Ashdown’s parents were always fierce Democrats, unfazed by their relation to Republican country. In the ’80s, Greta made her own Jesse Jackson sign and placed it on the lawn so that their neighbor'Ronald Reagan’s campaign manager for Utah'could see it every time he drove by. It took years before her son felt comfortable with his parents’ lifelong politics. “I had a hard time coming to the realization that I could be part of a political party,” he says. “I always fancied myself more of an independent. But I think when you jump into politics, it’s hard to be an independent and get much done.”

“Pete’s been a wonderful son,” Bob says, staring at a photo of Greta. Her death in 1990 proved a turning point in Pete’s adulthood, bringing him closer to his father. Bob acknowledges that while he’s proud of Pete for standing up against Hatch, the campaign could wreak havoc on his son’s emotional and financial well-being.

Pete Ashdown hopes a touch of his family’s good luck will rub off on him in 2006. Of course, he’s not relying on chance alone. He’s meeting with past and present political figures to reap insight and form alliances. Ashdown has sat down with luminaries such as Cal Rampton, Rocky Anderson, David Magleby, Megan Brisbain, Donald Dunn, Dave Jones, Ed Nein, Frank Pignanelli, and Rod Julander, among others. While these political honchos give Ashdown props for taking on Hatch, most temper praise with caution.

“I’ve had a lot of people tell me, ‘I think what you’re doing is noble, but what you’re doing is impossible,’” Ashdown says, adding that others are more blunt about his chances. “I had one guy e-mailing me asking, ‘Why are you wasting your time and money?’ I can’t say that anyone has been that rude to my face.”

Ashdown is cognizant of the tough road ahead. He recognizes the need to steer Republicans away from a straight-party vote and raise enough funds to compete with Hatch’s tremendous war chest. He must convince Utah voters their incumbent isn’t wholly invincible, otherwise even Democrats might withhold support'unwilling to back a sacrificial lamb.

Kelly Patterson, associate professor and director of the Center for Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, says Ashdown has significant hurdles to clear. Given the state’s overwhelmingly Republican Party registration, the race isn’t favorable for any Democratic challenger, let alone one who’s never tried his hand at politics. Incumbents usually trounce newcomers by using the power of name recognition. For the most part, voters know and trust incumbents. They have little need to further explain their positions. Most importantly, incumbents know who to go to for financial support.

“Most newcomers don’t know how to raise money,” Patterson says. “And if you can’t raise money, then you have a very difficult time getting your message out, hiring staff, introducing yourself to voters, and other organizational and media-related items that incumbents take for granted.”

Of Hatch’s previous challengers, at least two lost due to insufficient fund-raising. Former Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson had money, but his campaign staff fell apart, leaving him with 41 percent of the vote'close, but not nearly close enough.

Ashdown is confident he can do better. He believes his ideas on alternative marketing techniques, both on the Internet and through direct contact with people, will be effective and less expensive than traditional fund-raising approaches.

“I like to tell people when they’re interested in donating money to my campaign that they can count on my resourcefulness'I can make their $2,000 act like someone else’s $10,000,” he says. “I can make their money go so much further with my abilities.”

Ashdown has committed a fixed personal investment, but plans also to tap national technology groups'people and companies willing to cut checks based on a fierce dislike of Hatch and his anti-Internet policies. He also offers online contribution options on his Website, www.pashdown.org, where he says contributing time to his campaign is the most important thing people can do, and makes it clear that even small financial contributions will help.

And while incumbents like Hatch seem to be elected for life, Patterson says they are not invincible.

“The general weakness that all incumbents face is the idea that they’ve spent too much time in Washington, D.C., and therefore no longer reflect the values of the voters back home,” he says. “All incumbents, and Hatch is not immune to this, face the issue of being too closely tied to the Washington establishment.”

Patterson points to former South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle who lost re-election to John Thune, a Republican strongly backed by the White House. Thune coined the nickname, “D.C. Daschle,” to highlight his opponent’s disproportionate investment in Washington. In this case, voters clearly wanted someone to pay more attention to their needs. Patterson notes that if Ashdown decides to play the out-of-touch card, he needs to tell voters why he’s different.

Allan Ayoub, labor liaison for the AFL-CIO, agrees. “If you don’t offer alternatives in Utah, they’re going to vote Republican,” he tells Ashdown during lunch at a local Chinese restaurant. “We’re the reddest state in the nation. You have to offer a distinct difference. You have to be able to differentiate why it matters to have somebody other than that person'if they’re Republican'or you’re going to lose.”

“That’s why I’m asking you how mean you can get, because you might have to be mean'and I don’t mean ‘mean’ as in nasty,” Ayoub says. “You have to be tenacious and you have to offer substantial difference. Why should they vote for you as opposed to this guy that they’ve always voted for?”

Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson has first-hand experience running as a Democrat in a Republican stronghold. He thinks that, with the right message, Ashdown could make this a competitive race.

“Pete needs to find two or three issues that will deeply resonate with the voters and then effectively communicate that message,” Anderson says. “I hope that we’re reaching the point in this state where people will vote for the right person and on the issues, rather than simply on the basis of whether the candidate is Republican or Democrat.”

Anderson thinks Ashdown should focus on pocketbook issues, particularly support for massive tax breaks for the wealthy at a time when the country is facing historic deficits.

As an employer shelling out $13,000 per month on employee health-care benefits, Ashdown also plans to address skyrocketing medical insurance. He knows how difficult it can be for someone to afford even routine doctor visits, but realizes that a more ideal single-payer system isn’t likely to happen anytime soon. Instead, he proposes implementing private insurance co-ops with regulation to ease the transition.

Ashdown could appeal to youth, preaching the gospel of digital media rights. He could swing the other way, recruiting older voters who understand why Hatch, 71, might have a hard time keeping up with his demanding job.

He could also stand on a “pro-life” platform while espousing a woman’s right to choose an abortion'that men have no business forcing women to decide either way.

“I will never have an abortion, because I will never be pregnant. Nor will I ever fully understand the anguish resulting from a pregnancy caused by rape, abuse or incest,” he says. “This is a women’s issue, and any change should be decided by women only. If my wife or daughter were raped,you can be damned sure I would demand the morning-after pill and if that didn’t work, an abortion. And I’d want it to be safe.”

Some pundits believe Hatch is on thin ice with constituents for his outspoken support of judicial nominations and for advocating stem-cell research. The latter issue could alienate Republicans. It could also just as easily attract Democrats. Anderson believes Hatch’s willingness to depart from right-wing extremists distinguishes him from more traditional conservatives.

“There is a streak of independence with Hatch that I think he could emphasize during the general convention. It’s the sort of thing that provides a lot of appeal for people of all parties,” Anderson says. “It should make for an interesting race.”

He adds that when Hatch first ran, many people didn’t think he stood a chance against Sen. Frank Moss who had three terms under his belt. The strength of Hatch’s campaign came as a huge shock to Moss and his supporters.

Hatch’s campaign manager, Dave Hansen, isn’t taking Ashdown’s challenge lightly. He knows just how dangerous it is to underestimate an opponent’s strength.

“Nobody is invincible in politics. The way that you become successful is by running a very aggressive, strong campaign,” he says. “Were going to do everything we need to do to win this race.”

Hansen expected at least one Democrat to enter the race, however he’s less concerned with mounting a defense than he is focused on forming a powerful offense.

“When it comes right down to it, when you’re running a race involving an incumbent, it really isn’t a contest between two people'it’s a judgment of the person in office,” he says, adding that there’s no reason to “fire” Hatch.

In politics, anything can happen. Scandals break out, campaigns fall apart and contenders win over constituents with promises of positive change. A few things are certain. Ashdown is passionate about technology, health care and free enterprise. He wants to break down barriers, open channels and stay in touch with the needs of local constituents. If elected, he plans on buying an apartment in D.C., and keeping a home in Utah.

You could write off Ashdown as a dreamer, full of na%uFFFDve hopes, but his campaign is rooted in realistic concerns and feasible plans. He takes chances because risk informs his success. Whether promoting electronic music, building a business from the ground up or devising a clever marriage proposal, Ashdown knows what comes of thinking outside the box. Now, he just needs to convince skeptics his innovative vision is suited for politics.

In the fall, Ashdown will hit the campaign trail in a modern VW Eurovan through territory both familiar and strange. He’ll tap into communities in Davis and Utah Counties'places most Democrats regard as hopelessly Republican. Ashdown figures that if competing global interests can unite online, there’s no reason he can’t form connections by land. His forward-thinking plans don’t require believers to wear silver spacesuits'just a willingness to try something new.

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