The Role of Gays in Government: An Interview with Brett Smiley

Brett Smiley working at his desk

By Kyle McKendall, Photos by Josh McKenny

     For many, the first few weeks of work in a job is stressful. When your office is in the Rhode Island State House, you report directly to Governor Gina Raimondo, and almost every decision you make will be scrutinized by journalists and the public, your performance within the first few weeks carries a heightened sense of importance. Nonetheless, Brett Smiley, the newly appointed chief of staff for Governor Raimondo, was gracious to open his home on a Sunday afternoon to talk with Options about his new role after just 10 days on the job. Being the first openly-gay chief of staff in the State House to recent knowledge is nothing to pass over, though it’s worth noting that the Governor’s staff is quite inclusive of members of the gay community. An overwhelming majority of her senior staff is gay, including three deputy chiefs of staff and a senior advisor. Brett chuckled while saying “there has got to be some award, we have to have the gayest senior staff [in the country].”

No stranger to the local political scene or the LGBTQ community, Brett has spent the past 10 years as a resident of Providence. After an unsuccessful bid for mayor in 2014, Brett worked for Mayor Elorza’s administration as the city’s chief operating officer. His move to the Governor’s team is a role reversal, shifting from a focus on the day-to-day running of city government to a more holistic,big-picture view of the state and the Governor’s politics. “I was running the city government but not doing the mayor’s politics, and now that’s flipped. Eric Beane, the state’s chief operation officer, does the day to day operations, while I keep an eye on the bigger picture with a couple of key priorities, politics in general, and the functioning of the team.” Managing the staff, signature initiatives, and politics of the Governor’s administration all while making sure she is on track to get reelected consumes the majority of days while on Smith Street. Though only two weeks into the position, Brett didn’t leave the building much with most of his time spent in various staff meetings. When information is presented, he makes sure the right person within the administration gets the news.

     As the Governor’s Chief of Staff, Brett hopes to be the calm hand that keeps people focused on the bigger picture. Amidst the fast-paced environment and stresses of running the state and an almost 9 billion-dollar budget, he aims to “take the highs down, and the lows up.” “I’m a pretty even- keeled, reasonably mellow guy, so in the midst all of the intensity, and all of the stress, and all of the pressure, I hope to provide a steady guidance and perspective.”

Brett has spent his career fighting for progressive causes, previously sitting on the board of Marriage Equality Rhode Island which lead the successful campaign to provide gay Rhode Islanders with the right to marry. His first political campaign was in 2002 where he worked to elect what would have been the first openly-gay city alderman of Chicago. Over the past few years, Brett has had to give up many positions with various groups and boards of directors to focus on causes that are near and dear to his heart amidst his busy schedule. Currently, he serves on the board of directors for Planned Parenthood of Southern New England and The Victory Fund, working to elect LGBT leaders to “change America’s politics.”

Brett Smilet smiling        When asked if it was still important to elect openly-gay politicians despite our state’s legal protections for LGBTQ community members, Brett emphatically answered yes, though commented that it’s changing. “In Rhode Island we still have some policy work to do to ensure we have protections, largely centered around the most vulnerable in our community.” Though, he warned that this is the climate here in the northeast while the rest of the country has much work left to do. “Many states are 15 years behind us [with ensuring protections for the community]. There, it’s still straightforward: just elect gay people.”

     The Victory Fund is grappling with these questions as well, as they increasingly encounter races where there are multiple gay candidates running against each other. The group also continues to discuss the somewhat taboo topic of gay Republicans. The organization’s criteria for endorsement and support are straightforward. A person must be openly-gay, pro-choice, and a viable candidate. Brett commented that “there are openly gay, pro-choice, viable Republicans, while not a lot, there are a few, and we get into spirited debates asking if the gay community is better off with that person than the super progressive Democrat.There isn’t a clear-cut, black and white answer. It depends, I think, and it’s a legitimate question to be asked.”

 

     Given Rhode Island’s progressive history with LGBTQ legislation, some wonder if the fact that Congressman David Cicilline is gay should be weighted heavily when voters decided their support. In Brett’s eyes, for Cicilline, it’s a clear yes. “There are some gay members of congress who don’t want to be defined by it and don’t want to be a one issue guy. David isn’t a one issue guy, but he isn’t afraid to stand up and lead with that, and demand civil rights legislation nationwide.” In July of 2015, Congressman Cicilline introduced the Equality Act to extend anti- discrimination protections in public accommodations, house, employment, federal funding, education, credit, and jury service. The act would expand the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other existing laws to extend anti-discrimination protections for both sexual orientation and gender identity. Currently, there are 7 openly LGBT members of congress, all being Democrats.

For Brett, the sentiment doesn’t apply only to Congressman Cicilline and LGBT specific legislation. “It helps to have an LGBT person in a senior place when you’re having a conversation about whether it be charter schools or environmental protections. Because hey, we care about that too. And yes, it’s less specific, it’s not the gay perspective, although I bring that no matter what I do, but it’s the broader point of having more diverse perspectives around the table. Just like making sure we have women and people of color there, too.” “At the end of the day we can trust that we won’t be sold out by a member of community, more readily and more often, then we might by someone else who may even be super progressive and wants to be supportive.”

     As a vocal supporter of Hillary Clinton, Brett was encouraging Rhode Islanders to lend their time or money to support her bid for the presidency, along with other progressive Democrats who have contested races this election. “I think the gay community has a lot at stake.This is a man [Trump] who will say anything.You don’t have to look hard at history to see, in our community or others, where the vocal majority can shout down the rights of the minority. The only thing Trump seems to care about is applause and approval. And the reality is, we’re still a minority and that should be deeply troubling, because it’s clear that if it becomes popular to pick on the little guy, and ask any gay kid how that goes over, our community will be troubled.”

An Illinois native, Brett’s intent was not to relocate to Rhode Island. He came to the state in 2006 to work on Charles Fogarty’s campaign for Governor against Don Carcieri, and it was here where he met his husband, Jim Derentis, a Rhode Island native After just a few short months of knowing one another, their relationship took off and despite Brett’s lack of intentions to stay initially, as he puts it, he “fell in love with a Rhode Islander, and when that happens, you don’t leave.” New plans had to be made, and in the following year he put plans together to start his own business doing campaign finance reporting and accounting. While he’s currently removed from the business given his role within the state government, the company is working for more than 30 campaigns across the country.

 

While another campaign isn’t off the table for Brett and he does expect to run for public office again, it will be a few years before you see his name on a ballot. “My first priority is to get the Governor reelected and I’ll continue to scratch my public service itch this way.” While another bid for Mayor of Providence seems like a likely choice, Brett commented that “if there is another way to serve the city, as it is my love, I’d consider it. Though, I’m working hard in my current job to remember there are 38 other cities and town in the state.”

Brett alone can’t shepherd the LGBT community forward, though he can certainly add perspective to the conversation and represent it while in the State House. As conversations continue about the direction the community is heading in, and as the Rhode Islanders and Americans alike cast their ballots on November 8, the country’s smallest state is proudly waving its pride flag as Brett serves the Governor in his new role. When asked about the future of the community, his response is one that resonates with many. “The reality is, for the gay bars, or the gay magazines, those things hold a ver y important place in our community. It’s where you feel safe, and where you call home. While I don’t go to bars anymore, since I don’t drink and am married, there was a part of my life where thank god they were there. And I don’t that’s changed for the new, 20-year- old.”