Brett Smiley leaving mayor’s office to be Raimondo’s chief of staff

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Brett Smiley, right, at a 2014 campaign event with future Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Brett Smiley, who has served as Providence’s chief operating officer since Mayor Jorge Elorza took office in 2015, confirmed Monday he is leaving his job in City Hall to become chief of staff to Gov. Gina Raimondo.

The announcement marks the end of months of speculation around who Raimondo would tap as her closest aide and closes the book on Smiley’s tenure in a city administration that has struggled to find its footing during its first 19 months in office.

“I’m excited to take the next step of everything I learned here and take it to the governor’s office,” Smiley said in a phone interview. He said his first day will be Sept. 6, giving Elorza nearly six weeks to replace him. David Cruise, who has been serving as Raimondo’s acting chief of staff, will remain in the job for the summer and become her senior adviser once Smiley arrives.

Smiley “comes to us with a breadth of financial and managerial experience, and he truly shares my focus of making Rhode Island a place of opportunity for everyone,” Raimondo said in a statement.

The website GoLocalProv was first to report Smiley’s departure Saturday evening.

Smiley, 37, holds his undergraduate and MBA degrees from DePaul University in Chicago. He moved to Providence in 2006 to run Democrat Charles Fogarty’s unsuccessful campaign for governor against incumbent Republican Gov. Don Carcieri and later launched a campaign finance and fundraising consulting firm in the city, CFO Compliance.

Smiley still owns the firm, but took a leave of absence to join Elorza’s staff. Michael Raia, a spokesman for Raimondo, said Smiley’s leave of absence “will continue when he takes on his new role at the State House,” and noted that he receives no salary.

Smiley will join an administration that has notched some key wins in recent months — notably luring GE Digital to Providence and getting a budget proposal through the General Assembly largely intact — but also taken some big hits, particularly the Cooler & Warmer tourism debacle. While little reliable polling about Raimondo has been released, few doubt her approval numbers are middling.

Stephen Neuman, Smiley’s predecessor, won generally high marks for his intellect and energy but was knocked for having no experience in Rhode Island. Smiley, by contrast, has been in the state for a decade and is familiar with the state’s political and business elite, even more so after his high-profile stint on Elorza’s staff.

Smiley’s departure from City Hall means Elorza at once loses his top budget advisor, liaison to the business community and the best connection the mayor has to the city’s East Side, a vote-rich neighborhood that propelled him to victory in the 2014 mayor’s race. It was Smiley’s exit from that race and subsequent endorsement of Elorza that turned the little-known Democrat into a favorite in that election.

“While Brett will be missed at City Hall, we are excited for him in his new role, and we know he will continue to be an asset to Providence,” Elorza said in a statement. “We wish him well and will be working closely with him to ensure a seamless transition of his duties and responsibilities in the city.”

Smiley is widely credited with developing a strong relationship with the City Council, which at times has been a thorn in Elorza’s side. He helped the administration navigate two city budgets, negotiated a standardized tax-break policy on the I-195 land and was considered a driving force in arranging a deal with state leaders around the proposed $20-mllion bond to fund ProvPort’s expansion. He has also played a leading role in labor negotiations.

At the same time, many of Elorza’s accomplishments – including improved city services and more recreational options for youth – have been overshadowed by a bitter dispute between the city and its firefighters’ union as well as the mayor’s strained relationship with State House leaders, two matters Smiley was unable to assist with.

Continue the discussion on FacebookDan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowanTed Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes The Saturday Morning Post and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram

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