Cate Pettit first met Gavin Buckley at a campaign event in Annapolis in 2017.
Pettit, an Australian who had moved to the city with her husband for work the year before, knew nothing about the ongoing mayoral race between Buckley and his opponent, Mike Pantelides. When she arrived, she was introduced to the jovial Australian restaurateur and recalled thinking, “Another Aussie, great. Now, where is the guy who’s running for mayor?”
She quickly realized her countryman was the Democratic underdog without any prior political experience trying to unseat an incumbent Republican. She was struck by Buckley’s hopeful vision of “One Annapolis,” a message of uniting a city that over its long history has excluded large swathes of its people, particularly communities of color.
“In communications, when you are trying to convey your message to people, almost everything comes down to one of two things. It’s either hope or it’s fear,” said the 57-year-old with a broad background in communications, education and government. “We are living in a difficult time and Gavin’s message is focused on hope and that really spoke to me.”
Five years later, Pettit has agreed to become Buckley’s new chief of staff, taking over for Susy Smith, who is retiring after serving in the role for four years. Pettit’s first day is Monday. She wants to earn $106,000 a year.
Buckley sees Pettit as the ideal choice to help achieve the goals he’s laid out for his second term, including completing the Hillman Garage rebuild, redeveloping City Dock, and other capital projects, while continuing community outreach initiatives undertaken by his liaisons to the Hispanic and Black communities.
“She will be a great asset,” Buckley said. “She’s an amazing communications person and she’s been the core of my communications strategy through the first campaign and through [the second] one.”
After their initial meeting, the pair gradually built a trusting relationship in which each relies on the other for advice and guidance.
In 2019, Pettit and her husband, Michael Smith, who works for the Australian government, returned to their home country and remained there throughout the pandemic. Despite being thousands of miles and many time zones away, Pettit ran Buckley’s communications strategy for his 2021 reelection.
Before coming to the states, Pettit worked as a primary school teacher and in educational product development, teacher training and sales. A graduate of the University of Canberra with a degree in communications, she has worked with disability advocacy groups and with the aboriginal community in Victoria, Australia. For a time she worked for the Australian government and before coming to Annapolis in 2016, she worked for the Australian Electoral Commission, the federal body that runs the country’s elections.
Pettit and her husband have become enamored with Annapolis during their time in the tightknit waterfront town. As she begins her new role in the administration, Pettit will focus on building relationships with city department heads and other employees. Making and maintaining those connections as well as forging inroads with the community will be key to helping Buckley be successful during his second and final term, which ends in 2025.
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“I’ve been following Annapolis over the last couple of years through COVID and so on, and I’ve just been so impressed by this community’s generosity, their commitment and connection,” Pettit said. “I’ve done a lot of moving around and lived in different places, but it’s rare that you find it so easy to get to know people when you’re a new person in town. We loved that.”
Susy Smith was named chief of staff in April 2018, taking over for Jane Hruska. Smith was convinced to come out of retirement after decades of serving at various levels of local, county and federal government, including chief of staff for multiple congressmen and senators, and in several presidential administrations.
Last year, Smith, 78, informed Buckley she planned to leave after the election. Pettit soon emerged as a candidate to take her place, but the succession plan was delayed slightly by the pandemic. Pettit has attained an E3 visa, which applies to nationals of Australia and their spouses and children. She arrived in Annapolis last week.
In the last week, as Pettit and Buckley have met with city staff to discuss the transition, Smith said she has noticed why Buckley chose Pettit.
“She’s a good choice — and I’ve watched her in a few meetings this last week — because she makes people believe she is listening to them,” Smith said. “And she can capture what people are trying to say. She’s attentive to what Gavin’s viewpoints are and is able to bring the rest of the staff into implementing it.”
Pettit has also developed a relationship with Smith, whom she described as “enormously generous and supportive” during the transition.
“I know I’m going to be relying on her quite a bit,” Pettit said. “I’m just so grateful to her for the support that she’s given to me and I’ve got big shoes to fill in that respect.”