Lobbyist Ashley Turton's sudden death shakes Capitol Hill again

Ashley Turton's sport-utility vehicle was badly damaged.
Ashley Turton's sport-utility vehicle was badly damaged. (Gerald Martineau)
Locator map of area where Turton's body was found
Gene Thorp/The Washington Post
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 10, 2011; 9:56 PM

For a close-knit circle of Democrats working in politics, Monday morning delivered the second devastating punch. Less than 48 hours after news of the attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson came word that Ashley Turton was dead following a fire in her BMW on Capitol Hill, the victim of what appeared to be an inconceivably freakish accident.

Turton, 37, a top congressional staffer-turned-lobbyist and mother of three young children, was married to Dan Turton, 43, a senior White House aide. She was less famous than Giffords but no less sought-after inside the political establishment. The Turtons were a power couple in the old-fashioned sense: two heady careers and bright reputations that led each of them from one successful job to the next.

But Ashley and Dan Turton weren't out there "on the circuit," as one friend put it - not the cocktail-party kind of power couple, friends said. They preferred a low-key lifestyle, including a tight group of friends in their Capitol Hill neighborhood.

"They're both not only admired for their political savvy and great minds but because they are really good, decent people," said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who got to know the couple when they both worked in the House. McGovern said he would often see the Turtons on weekends at Eastern Market, wheeling their kids around.

Yet even outside of the workweek, both Turtons worked hard. Just this past Saturday, Dan Turton came in to the White House to help manage the fallout from the Giffords shooting. In his role as the liaison between the Obama administration and the House of Representatives, Turton has always been called on to handle many tough moments. It was Turton who took the heat from angry House Democrats last summer after press secretary Robert Gibbs predicted the party might lose power.

Now, friends of both worry about Dan Turton and the trauma he now faces.

The tragedy comes on top of another recent one for the family: Not long ago, Ashley Turton's brother was badly injured in a vehicular accident that left him in the constant care of their parents in North Carolina, two friends said.

Brian Wolff, former executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Ashley had called him on Sunday to say she had just gone to church to pray for her brother, who had learned his health insurance would no longer pay for his therapy.

Still, Wolff described her as someone who rarely seemed down: chipper and lively, she liked to get together with friends to share a few drinks and discuss "life's problems," he said. Just last week, Wolff said, he and Turton went to lunch at the restaurant 701 and drank sauvignon blanc - out of coffee mugs, to avoid raised eyebrows from other lobbyists who might judge them for drinking at lunch.

"We were laughing the whole time," said Wolff, who was friends with Turton for more than a decade. "She was so much fun."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Turton "seemingly did it all: mentoring younger staff, dispensing sound advice and caring for her family."

Like so many in Washington, the couple met in the line of duty. Dan Turton started out answering phones in the front office of former representative Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.), who was then the House Minority Leader. He met Ashley Westbrook, a "whip-smart" blonde with a North Carolina accent, after she came to work on Capitol Hill - for Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.) and then for Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.). Ashley Turton served as DeLauro's chief of staff - and one of her closest loyalists - for several years, leaving to take a job in the private sector only so the family could afford for her husband to return to the House to serve as a senior adviser on the Rules Committee in 2007.

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