Photo by Jack Hernandez
Matthew D. Chase officially becomes NACo's new executive director on Sept. 17.
It should surprise almost no one that Matt Chase would find himself ensconced in political Washington. His master’s degree in political management from George Washington University gave him the credential for it.
But his childhood experiences in upstate New York also laid the foundation. His stepfather, Gordon Hemmett Jr. held two elective offices in Washington County, N.Y. — district attorney and later as a judge. His grandparents were also active in civic affairs.
“I spent a lot of days knocking on doors and going to chicken dinners and the county fair — engaged in politics — in junior high and high school,” Chase said recently. On Sept. 17, he will succeed Larry Naake as executive director of NACo.
Chase comes to NACo from the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO), which represents the nation’s local government-based regional planning and development organizations. During his tenure, he served nine years as executive director, and as legislative affairs director and deputy executive director before that. He began his career in Washington with the Professional Managers Association (PMA) including stints as chief operating officer and membership services director.
He has been a regular speaker nationally on federal budget and policy issues related to regional community and economic development, including rural development, transportation and workforce development.
Chase serves on advisory committees for the Ford Foundation’s Wealth Creation in Rural America initiative, the Rural Policy Research Institute and the University of Vermont’s Transportation Research Center.
Asked how that background prepared him for his new post, Chase said, “NADO is structured almost like a Triple-A baseball team for NACo. We work on a lot of the same issues, especially community and economic development, transportation, emergency management and workforce preparedness. On many of these issues — NACo has taken the lead, and we’ve been a partner.” NADO’s members, CEOs of Councils of Governments and Regional Development Commissions, work for county commissioners, and city and town councils.
His three-and-a-half years at PMA taught this New York Yankees fan “about the inside baseball part of Washington.” It was during the Clinton administration’s Reinventing Government era, when more than 300,000 career federal manager positions were eliminated. PMA was at ground-zero during this intense process.
“I worked with the top-level career executives and managers across the federal government,” he said, “so I had a front-row seat at a really young age of probably the most significant restructuring of the federal government since the 1960s.”
He believes that experience will serve him well in the current era of change and fiscal uncertainty in Washington. “I think NACo is just essential to the nation’s domestic policy agenda, and there’s going to be so much happening at the federal level with budgets, programs — reorienting the federal government, and NACo and its members are going to be impacted.”
Chase said he will sharply focus on problem-solving and how NACo adds value to its member counties’ day-to-day operations. This will encompass building strong partnerships with the state associations, affiliates, funders, corporate partners and members.
“I want to build on the foundation that Larry Naake has built,” he said, “in that he’s done a phenomenal job in that NACo has the foundation; it has the tools, the talent and membership engagement.
“What I want to do is really align some of the divisions and programming at NACo into a more targeted agenda and really look at where counties need to be in the future,” Chase added. “I think a lot of it’s going to be looking at cost efficiencies, looking at how counties can collaborate, looking at noteworthy practices and beefing up the research agenda to help with advocacy, but also with county operations.”
A native of Glen Falls, N.Y. in Warren County, Chase also spent parts of his childhood in Lake George, and in Hudson Falls in neighboring Washington County, where his stepfather worked. Growing up in the foothills of the Adirondack Park, the largest state park in the Lower 48, helped to nurture his love of hiking and other outdoor activities.
This summer, he and his wife of 12 years, Shana, spent two weeks hiking across the Canadian Rockies, around Jasper, Banff and Lake Louise. They met more than 20 years ago at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y. and have been together ever since. Shana Chase was formerly government relations director for the National Endowment for the Arts but is now raising their young sons: Nicholas, who says he’s “three-and-half,” and 5-month-old William.
“When you see me, I’ll have bags under my eyes,” Chase joked. Maybe it will make him look older. He said most people are surprised to learn that he is 41 years old. Because of his youthful appearance, “They think I’m about 12,” he said with a laugh. “But I have plenty of gray hairs.”
If leading NACo were an uphill climb, Chase would be up to the challenge. He has no fear of heights. Prominent on his personal bucket list is climbing Mt. Everest. If he doesn’t make it to the top, he said, “at least I’ll get to base camp.” No small feat, that. Everest’s two staging camps are at about 18,000 and 17,000 feet, respectively.
Mountains aside, he’s excited about the opportunities at NACo that lie ahead. “I sincerely want to thank the executive committee and the board for their confidence in me and for this opportunity,” he said.
“I’m very interested in making sure that counties’ voices are heard, because counties really are the closest level of government to the people.”