FROM A VOTING BOX TO A BOX OFFICE Democratic Party, election chief to pursue new passions

When Trey Ashcraft was a boy growing up in Grady, he envisioned driving tractors as a farmer. But instead of tending to crops, he soon found himself engaged in political endeavors and tending to Jefferson County voters as the state’s youngest-ever county Democratic Party and Election Commission chairman.

“That was 13 years ago, and I was only 24,” Ashcraft said. “When I was first started serving on the commission, Anne McLaren had been a member for 31 years, more years than I had been alive. And Don Eilbott had served 22 years.”

In other words, Ashcraft was still dining in a high chair and wearing diapers when Eilbott joined the commission, which is composed of an at-large member and the chairpersons of the county’s Democratic and Republican groups.

Except for a brief absence, primarily while serving as a quorum court-appointed county clerk, Ashcraft — who credits his interest in politics to his late grandfather, long-time Lincoln County Justice of the Peace Harold Venable — has since been continuously leading both the party and commission. But he’s stepping down from the posts Jan. 28 to start a new chapter in his still young life after determining he’s “ready for a change of direction.”

Ashcraft, who was also successful as a political consultant and in other jobs during his tenure, is getting more in touch with his artistic side. Already established with his Ashven Photography business here, he’s now engaged in the production of a film and also plans to devote some time to motion picture script writing in Los Angeles. He’ll also be working out of northwest Arkansas.

“I’ve always loved history and writing,” he said, “and I just decided it was time for me to do something with those interests as well. I got burned out on politics, and found that I could do photography full time.

“I love photography,” added Ashcraft, noted for his wedding packages and work with models and beauty queens. “I call photography my accidental career.”

He’s long been interested in motion pictures and decided he should try his skills in that arena, too, but as he begins that journey, he says he figures he’ll increase his opportunities for success by practicing lessons he’s learned from the persons he’s worked with and experiences they’ve shared in political service and elections in his home state.

In addition to Eilbott and McLaren, that local group included Election Coordinators Taylor Eubank and Will Fox and commission members Ken Bethge, Pam Jones, Tommy Kelly, Stu Soffer, Jim Townsend and Shara Williams, along with poll workers and scores of others — too many to mention without fear of missing a significant name. At higher levels, Ashcraft’s had close relationships with several elected officials, including as an aide to then-Attorney General Mark Pryor, a Hurricane Katrina response liaison to then-Gov. Mike Huckabee, and a successful campaign coordinator for then-state Rep. Brenda Gullett.

“I’ve gone through a lot together with all of them,” Ashcraft said. “We dealt with people in stressful situations, when emotions can run so high. We shared in a lot of accomplishments and there were also some mistakes along our way, and I was responsible for a number of those, but we learned from everything we did.

“I think one of the most important things I learned is that when you’re working with anyone in service to the public, you have to leave your differences at the door,” he said. “I’ve worked in that regard with the commission and with Mark Pryor and Mike Huckabee. Mark and I are Democrats and Mike is a Republican and we sometimes had different political opinions, but those opinions went out the window when it came to serving people, because that was our purpose. Stu and Shara and Will and I have different opinions politically, but when we’re working on commission responsibilities, we never allow those opinions to interfere with our professional duties. We realize that we’re here to serve voters, not our own political interests.”

Ashcraft rates the commission’s greatest challenges during his reign as the change from old lever-style voting machines to computerized models, two “strenuous” reapportionment “processes” that altered voting precincts and ward and district alignments, and the transition from Eubank to Fox, the current election coordinator.

“But we survived those, and the election process is still alive and well,” Ashcraft laughed. “I hope I’ll be as happy and successful in my new endeavors.”