Jefferson’s new press aide to deflect hard question of $90K in the freezer

Ashley Wilson, 23, fresh from graduate school, was surprised to be offered the new press secretary job for Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), whose image has been tarnished ever since the FBI found $90,000 in cash in his freezer as part of a bribery investigation.

“I was probably more shocked than anything,” she said. “This is the job that I thought I’d get maybe two or three years from now.”

Wilson’s strategy for improving Jefferson’s image is simple: refer all legal questions to Judy Smith and stick to promoting his legislative agenda. Hired last year, Smith has advised Monica Lewinsky, the family of deceased Hill intern Chandra Levy, and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas on public relations matters. She also served as deputy press secretary for President George H.W. Bush.

As a result, any references to scandal, corruption or legal entanglements roll serenely off Wilson’s back. She focuses instead on Jefferson’s ongoing efforts to help post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans recover and rebuild.

“I just keep getting the information out,” she said.

Wilson said her experience as an intern for Jefferson two summers ago and her history in New Orleans likely played into her new boss’s decision to hire her.

“I love being connected again to New Orleans,” Wilson said. “Having been there, it kind of makes all legislation a little bit more personal.”
When she first came to Washington to intern for Jefferson, she worked closely with his press secretary. But at the time, she had no plans go back and work in a congressional office.

Wilson earned a degree in mass communication with a public relations focus from Dillard University in New Orleans. The school was evacuated a few days before the hurricane made landfall, so Wilson experienced subdued wind and rain in Jackson, Miss., while watching footage of the ordeal on the news.

“I didn’t really feel like it was real, like it was actually happening until I was driving home, and I was getting text message after text message from people talking about how to figure out what they were going to do for the semester,” she said.

By January, Wilson saw the remains of “houses [that had been] picked up and moved away from their foundation into the street or into somebody else’s yard,” in many cases leaving only concrete steps where a home used to be. 

She then pursued a master’s degree in public relations at Boston University. But television shows and news reports reminded her of working on Capitol Hill. One news story about a late session of Congress featured a picture of staffers bringing in pizzas for a long night of work. Wilson couldn’t understand why, but she longed to be there.

“It made me realize how much I actually miss it, and how I actually really wanted to come back,” she said.

In addition to politics, Wilson loves to write and hopes eventually to publish a collection of her short stories, mostly contemporary fiction. Travel is another passion. She didn’t leave the country until she was 18 — having grown up in a military family that moved around from Nebraska to D.C. to Georgia. But she quickly put mileage on her passport with trips to Cameroon, Chile, Germany, London, Paris, Ireland and India. When asked where she would like to travel next, a string of places spill out of her mouth: India again, South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, Morocco, Zambia, Madagascar and Mozambique.

“Once I went to Cameroon,” she said, “the whole continent, all the cultures and all these languages were just fascinating to me.”