PROVIDENCE — When Gov. Lincoln Chafee called Steven Hartford to explore whether he was interested in joining his Executive Council, the former Westerly town manager did not deliberate for long.
“It really seemed like I was being called to serve and I didn’t even hesitate to say ‘yes,’” Hartford said during an interview Thursday.
On Jan. 24, Chafee announced that he was appointing Hartford to serve as special adviser for policy and legislative affairs. In his new role Hartford, who will earn $110,000 per year, said he would be one of the governor’s staff attorneys, helping “to pull the levers that will implement the strategies of the governor.”
Hartford resigned his post as town manager on Aug. 1 after a majority of the Westerly Town Council signaled a lack of support for him. He had held the position since early 2009.
Counting his three separate tenures as town solicitor, one term as an elected member of the council and his tenure as manager, Hartford has about 15 years of experience in government work.
“I’m really lucky to be here. This is a great opportunity for me and hopefully I can make Westerly proud. I enjoy the public sector. I’ve been involved for nearly 15 years. It’s an area of work that I really enjoy and feel that I excel at,” Hartford said.
From his new office in the Rhode Island Statehouse, Hartford said he will work to bring some of Chafee’s visions and goals to fruition. Among the primary plans is the governor’s focus on the state’s distressed municipalities, including Central Falls, West Warwick, Woonsocket, and East Providence. “These are towns that are really struggling from the recession but also burdened with a lot of heavy obligations,” including pensions, Hartford said.
“I think the governor wants to rely on my experience coming from Westerly, a fiscally solvent community with a solvent pension, and try to bring that experience to bear,” he said.
Chafee, a former mayor of Warwick who was elected as an independent — and later changed his affiliation to the Democrats — has chosen not to seek re-election, leaving what remains of this year to help transform his vision into something tangible. “There is a new urgency for the governor to achieve some of his long-stated goals, before he finishes his term,” Hartford said.
One of Chafee’s newest initiatives could both benefit and draw momentum from Westerly, Hartford noted. During his state of the state address, Chafee called for a statewide November ballot question asking voters to approve $35 million for grants to performing arts centers, museums and other artistic and historic facilities.
Some of those funds could be used for renovations to The George Kent Performance Hall, home to The Westerly Chorus. Hartford said he hopes to help lay the groundwork for the funding initiative by pointing to Westerly’s success in creating and promoting the arts in the town’s commercial center. “Locally we know the important role arts and culture has in the economy in town, particularly in the downtown area. Westerly’s downtown is thriving and is really a showcase for the state,” Hartford said.
When he’s not working on some of Chafee’s platform issues, Hartford said he anticipates helping with the unforeseen day-to-day matters that require the governor’s attention. “It’s a lean staff, so everyone is a generalist,” he said.
Regarding the reality of the calendar, Hartford said he was focused on what is front of him.
“I hope that if it goes well and I am able to distinguish myself in some way this will lead to other opportunities. Like I said when I resigned in August, when one door closes another door opens,” Hartford said.
Working in the state’s Capitol is invigorating, Hartford said. “I feel like I’m in the center of the action. It’s exciting, especially for a kid from Westerly,” he said.