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Area native wins D.A. job in western NC

Ashley Hornsby Welch won the district attorney's seat in the 30th Judicial District in a 61-39 landslide. Ashley Hornsby Welch won the district attorney's seat in the 30th Judicial District in a 61-39 landslide.

Ashley Welch says she "was never a kid that knew really what I wanted to do."

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At age 13, that's not unusual. But one day a teacher at Flat Rock Junior High School assigned the class "to pick a profession and follow them around."
"Mom and dad were both in the medical field and I knew I didn't want to do that," she says. Her parents are Dr. Ty Hornsby, an oral surgeon, and Jackie Hornsby, a registered nurse. "I just sort of said I'll follow a lawyer around."
"And they put me with a criminal defense attorney and I started following him around — they were at the old Courthouse at the time — and he was defending a guy charged with killing an infant,," she recalls. "I was sitting there watching that at 13 and this man stood up and in my 13-year-old words, he was arguing for that baby. When I went back to school, I said I don't know what that man does but that's what I want to do."
It was her epiphany.
In one day, she changed from not knowing, to knowing.
Twenty-three years later, Ashley Hornsby Welch is still trying to absorb her landslide election as the first female — and first Republican — district attorney in the 30th Judicial District, which is made up of Haywood, Jackson and five other counties in southwestern North Carolina. Never mind that the little 13-year-old is at age 36 still sort of little. Her tenacity and hard work have pushed her to the top of her profession.
"I'm used to being underestimated," she says. "I sound very young. I'm only 5-2, I'm a little person and sometimes I'm the smallest person in the courtroom. I'm used to being underestimated because of that, and it usually works to my advantage because when people underestimate you, they're not ready for you."


'No one will outwork you'

After graduating from East Henderson High School in 1996, Welch earned an undergraduate degree from UNC at Chapel Hill (also her father's alma mater) and law degree from William & Mary.
She was happy as an assistant district attorney working for then D.A.-Jeff Hunt in Hendersonville when Michael Bonfoey, the prosecutor based in Franklin, called her and invited her to come visit. She agreed to drive over, not realizing until she got there that he was he was recruiting her to join his office. She said no when he first offered a posting in Murphy and relented when he offered to base her in Franklin.
About two years ago, Bonfoey let his staff know he wasn't going to run for another term. After encouragement from her husband, Brian Welch, a former Hendersonville attorney who is now staff counsel for the Macon County, and from her father, one of her biggest fans, she decided to run. Dr. Hornsby and his wife donated to her campaign, an act of generosity that made the daughter nervous.
"I said, 'What if I lose?' He said, 'Even if you lose I know that no one will outwork you.'"
Dad was right.
"I went everywhere," Welch says. "I was at every barbecue dinner that you could imagine. It is a 24-7 job."


A nasty business


Growing up, Ashley trailed her mother, a Henderson County School Board member, to campaign forums and meet-and-greets. Those campaigns were genteel compared to the battle in the seven-county 30th Judicial District.
"Politics can be sort of a nasty business, which I quickly learned," Welch says. "During the course of the campaign I was raised a certain way, so I never did anything that would embarrass myself or my family, my boss or the people who had supported me.
"There were elected sheriffs and Congressman Meadows had openly come out and endorsed me. When they do that, they're sort of putting their reputation on the line as well. It got a little nasty there and I just had to learn to keep my head up and not respond and just keep going."
This was 2014. Welch thought of herself as a proven and experienced prosecutor. She did not expect to confront a campaign that seemed to have parachuted in from the 1950s.
"Being a young female running for office you opened yourself up to a level of scrutiny that I just didn't anticipate was going to happen," she says. "It was really sort of gender specific, which surprised me. It's not like it was when I started but it's a pretty male-dominated career. When I go into a courtroom I'm treated like a man. My boss has always treated me just like he treats male assistants and the judges do, too, so I thought we were sort of past all of that.
"The things that were thrown at me were things that would not have been thrown at a man. It shocked me, especially coming from the other side. People always say that the Republican Party has a war on women, and it was the Republican Party that was embracing me."


'Fair, tough, consistent'

The Democrats' tactics failed badly.
Carried by a strong Republican year, her own hard work and credentials, Welch defeated Jim Moore, a fellow assistant district attorney, by 21 points. She says she plans as district attorney to make good on her promise to be "fair but tough and consistent," and to let victims know that "we were moving cases along in the way that they needed to be moved."
"It took several days for it to really sink in," she adds of the election outcome. "I'm very excited. I feel like this is what I was made to do."
She credits then District Attorney Alan Leonard for embracing her aspirations when she was just 13. He told her Flat Rock Junior High teacher, "Have her come to the office. We'll let her follow us around." Leonard made sure the one young Ashley followed was Jill Rose, an up-and-coming female prosecutor who would go on to the U.S. Attorney's office for Western North Carolina.
"I was probably a pain," she says. "I was there all the time."
The little girl with a heightened sense of justice and bulldog work ethic won the respect of the voters in the western part of North Carolina.
"It's a little mesmerizing," she says. "It sort of sends a message to people that you can grow up and go to public school and you can go on to do very successful things. I think sometimes people think you've got to go to a fancy private school and come from a big city. I started at Hillandale and graduated from East High. It's just a little overwhelming. I think it's still sinking in."