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Key Baker aide, Jay Ash, seeks top Cambridge job

Jay Ash, secretary of housing and economic development, says he wants a job that allows a more in-depth focus on problems.
Jay Ash, secretary of housing and economic development, says he wants a job that allows a more in-depth focus on problems.(David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)

Governor Charlie Baker’s economic development and housing chief, who helped lure GE’s world headquarters to Boston and oversaw a sharp drop in the number of homeless families in motels at state expense, may soon exit the administration.

Jay Ash, the former longtime city manager of Chelsea, has applied to be Cambridge’s next city manager and will leave his current position should he get the new job, he told the Globe.

One of Baker’s first big moves after his 2014 election was announcing that Ash, a Democrat, would be his secretary of housing and economic development. That was widely viewed as a sign that Baker, a Republican, planned to govern in a bipartisan way.

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Should Ash leave, it would likely be the first major departure from the administration.

Ash, 54, said he loves working with Baker. And he said he enjoys his current gig overseeing a wide-ranging bureaucracy — departments that lure businesses to Massachusetts; oversee the licensing of specialists like psychologists, athletic trainers, and funeral directors; and provide shelter to homeless families. But, he said, the job opening in Cambridge is an opportunity to further explore his area of expertise: municipal management.

Ash, an affable raconteur, also suggested that he finds the statewide Ping-Ponging his job requires to be trying, and he struggles with the necessarily quick and superficial relationships with many of the people he meets along the way.

“Every time I go into a community, I hear what the community’s wants and needs are. I want to stay there and help them solve those wants and needs — and I have to get to my next appointment,” Ash said. “So the ability to focus more intensively on one place than a little bit of attention on a lot of places is something that is appealing to me.”

Should Ash win the position, he’s poised to see a hefty salary bump. In 2015, Ash, who works out of an office building on Beacon Hill, made $156,000, state records show. The current Cambridge city manager’s annual salary is $330,000.

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A Chelsea native who early in his career served as a State House aide, Ash made a name for himself as his hometown’s city manager from 2000 to 2014. He is widely credited with turning around the economic fortunes of what was once seen as one of the Boston area’s grittiest municipalities.

As a Cabinet secretary, he sees his biggest economic development accomplishments as helping reel in General Electric to move its world headquarters to Boston, he said, being part of the team that enticed IBM’s Watson Health business to Cambridge, and helping to convince Kronos Inc. to keep its headquarters in Massachusetts.

But Ash, who grew up poor and whose family struggled with homelessness for a time when he was a child, said he is most proud of helping to reduce the number of homeless families housed in motels.

When Baker and Ash began their new jobs in January 2015, there were 1,500 families in state-funded motels and hotels. On Wednesday night, there were 331, according to a public records request.

Massachusetts is the country’s only right-to-shelter state. When eligible poor families can show they are homeless because of domestic violence, natural disaster, no-fault eviction, or health and safety risks, the state is mandated to provide housing. That can take the form of a room in a shelter or, if there aren’t any left, a hotel or motel.

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But hotels and motels are often an inadequate option for families because they separate them from relatives and friends, familiar schools, a clean place for children to play, a kitchen, and public transit.

Ash and the administration have focused on ramping up a program started under Democratic Governor Deval Patrick that now provides up to $8,000 to help pay for rent, utilities, and other housing expenses so families can stay in their homes, or defray the costs of staying with a friend or relative.

“If you told me I could have GE or empty out hotels and motels? No question, you know. You’re going to empty out the hotels and motels,” Ash told the Globe earlier this summer.

Ash was expected to soon file a formal but voluntary disclosure about his job application to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest, said his spokesman, Paul McMorrow.

Asked about Ash’s Cambridge application, Tim Buckley, adviser to Baker, responded in an e-mail. He said the governor and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito believe Ash is “doing a terrific job on behalf of the people of Massachusetts and support his decision to explore this opportunity.”

Baker, Polito, Ash, and other top officials gathered at a State House event Wednesday for Baker to sign into law a bill aimed at spurring economic development across the state.

The Cambridge City Council plans to pick a city manager in late September, according to its website.

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Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos and subscribe to his e-mail update on politics at bostonglobe.com/politicalhappyhour.