By Jim Sullivan and Jeremy Fox, Boston Globe Staff & Globe Correspondent
Governor-elect Charlie Baker, reaching across party lines, has selected Chelsea city manager Jay Ash (Class of 1983) as the first member of his Cabinet, where the Democrat will lead the state's housing and economic development agency, according to people familiar with the decision.
Baker approached Ash, Chelsea's longest-serving chief executive, over the weekend and offered him the position pending a standard background check, a Baker adviser said.
In picking Ash, manager of a Democratic-leaning city and a former State House aide who maintains good relationships with lawmakers, Baker is hoping to underscore his efforts to focus on bipartisanship.
After besting Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley in last week's gubernatorial election, Baker said he planned to assemble a team from a range of political stripes, an imperative for a GOP chief executive on Democrat-run Beacon Hill. He wasted little time in making his point.
"Charlie has talked a lot about bipartisanship and building a bipartisan team," said Jim Conroy, who is chief of staff of Baker's transition team and has said he will not join the administration.
Conroy said other positions have not yet been filled, but he expects the process to accelerate shortly.
A Chelsea native, Ash has also served as president of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and was a founder of the Metro Mayors Coalition. He was one of many local officials who lobbied on Beacon Hill for the gambling expansion that led to the state's current law sanctioning casinos.
The choice also allows Baker to emphasize his concern for local governments, a major campaign theme as he worked, with some effectiveness, to pick off the support of Democratic officials from Coakley's coalition. Ash quietly provided Baker with policy advice during the campaign, according to two people familiar with the relationship.
Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone of Somerville called Ash "a solid choice."
"I've always enjoyed working with Jay," Curtatone said. "He's smart, he's innovative, he's a passionate regionalist. He's going to do a fantastic job."
Ash, 53, is widely credited with having led a renaissance in the state's smallest city by land area, which spent much of the 1990s in state receivership.
Significant economic growth and a flurry of residential development have helped it wriggle out of its rap as a haven for corruption and mismanagement.
"I used to have to go knock on doors to get developers to come here," Ash said in a July 2013 Globe story. "I'm getting calls from developers every day because of the success of the residential development. We're a community a lot of people will have to rediscover again before they believe it's changing, but it's developments like these that are making that happen."
City councilors said Tuesday Ash's strong record on development helped Chelsea win an All-America City designation from the National Civic League earlier this year.
"He's done an outstanding job for us, and I expect he'll do an outstanding job for the state," said Brian Hatleberg, a councilor at large. "He's helped bring new opportunities to the city; he's helped existing opportunities to develop."
Leo Robinson, a longtime city councilor, lauded Baker's selection, but said it was "a sad day for Chelsea."
"Jay's a wanted commodity and a proven commodity," he said. "Eventually there was going to come a time when something was going to come along that would be a new challenge for him and he was going to leave."
Ash has worked to connect Chelsea and Boston with Silver Line bus service, and has championed the sort of transit-oriented development hailed by former governor Mitt Romney's development czar, Doug Foy.
Foy's position was created with the authority to work across bureaucratic silos, and he was granted latitude to deal with housing, environment, and transportation projects.
The parameters of Ash's brief within the Baker administration remain unclear. The power of individual agencies and cabinet secretaries often fluctuates sharply between administrations.
Ash would succeed Governor Deval Patrick's housing and economic development chief, Greg Bialecki.
The 6-foot-7-inch Ash was captain of the basketball team and a member of the track and cross-country teams at Chelsea High School. He also captained the basketball team at Clark University before graduating in 1983 with a bachelor's degree in government.
Ash was Chelsea's director of planning and development from 1996 to 2000, when he became city manager. Prior to that, he worked as chief aide to former House majority leader Richard Voke.