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Mayor Brandon Johnson

Mayor Brandon Johnson answers questions from the press at City Hall after a city council meeting, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024, while flanked by leaders in his administration. A WBEZ analysis of his administration one year in shows he has relied heavily on those with previous government experience to run city departments, while those closest to him have largely not worked in government.

Anthony Vazquez

Who’s in Brandon Johnson’s cabinet? Many are holdovers from the administrations he often criticizes.

While the Chicago mayor has placed experienced city workers in charge of agencies, senior leaders in his inner circle lack government experience.

The vast majority of people leading city departments in Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration have extensive experience in Chicago city government.

But people who have never worked in city government are the ones closest to the mayor, in senior leadership positions within his office.

Overall, Johnson’s administration is notably diverse, with Black Chicagoans filling the most roles, though Asian representation lags significantly.

Those are some of the findings from a WBEZ analysis that looked at who has helped lead Johnson through his first rocky, momentous year in office. Former employees and those who’ve attempted to join the administration describe inexperience and disorganization within Johnson’s inner circle, while his administration touts stability, diversity, and transformation amid numerous crises this past year.

The tension is the product of an administration that is trying to shift how government has historically been run, Johnson’s Chief of Staff Cristina Pacione-Zayas said in a recent interview.

“We’re not trying to do government as business as usual,” Pacione-Zayas said. “In many ways, municipal government has been designed to do exactly what it has been doing in the past. And we are here to transform it so that we are re-centering it on everyday Chicagoans who have been harmed by past decisions and policies.”

How different is Johnson’s cabinet from his predecessors?

While Johnson has never held executive office before, his cabinet relies heavily on those who have already spent years in city government with 84% of them having worked under numerous mayors, a WBEZ analysis shows. Nearly half of them got their start as a government employee under Richard M. Daley, who was mayor from 1989 to 2011.

Even if some haven’t worked in Chicago city government specifically, nearly every one of Johnson’s department leaders has some sort of experience at a different level of government, according to a review of LinkedIn profiles, resumes or biographies.

Johnson made waves early on when he unceremoniously fired former Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s public health commissioner Allison Arwady. In doing so, Johnson followed through on a campaign pledge to nix the commissioner who repeatedly butted heads with his allies at the Chicago Teachers Union over COVID protocols during the pandemic.

And the termination of Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events Commissioner Erin Harkey left some arts advocates — and alderpersons — upset. He also put his own people in place at the city’s Housing, Planning and Development, and Police departments, which received praise and will be critical to achieving his priorities as mayor.

But of all 56 positions analyzed — senior positions in Johnson’s office, department leaders, sister agencies and various other leaders of offices or boards Johnson appoints — roughly half are holdovers from the Lightfoot administration — meaning they served in the same or equivalent position under Lightfoot.

It is not uncommon for a mayoral administration to keep steady hands in place.

“We’ve got to also do our due diligence,” Pacione-Zayas said. “We didn’t want to assume that there was mal-alignment, we wanted to have a period to understand: what are people’s skill sets?”

But Johnson has perplexed many by his inaction to make changes in leadership within agencies or departments that would play key roles in reforms touted on the campaign trail. Johnson has left in place every leader at all five of the city’s main sister agencies — the Chicago Park District, the Chicago Housing Authority, Chicago Public Schools, City Colleges of Chicago and the Chicago Transit Authority.

As a candidate, Johnson was passionate about reforming the city’s bus and train system. But as mayor, Johnson has stood by embattled CTA President Dorval Carter, despite more than half of the City Council supporting a non-binding resolution calling for Carter’s ouster.

Carter’s time in city government dates back furthest among all other department heads and senior staff. He has worked under every Chicago mayor dating back to Harold Washington, though he left for a short time to work under the Obama White House.

Despite pitching transformation, Johnson has similarly backed other controversial figures, such as Marlene Hopkins as buildings commissioner. Hopkins was found negligent in her role overseeing the 2020 Little Village coal plant implosion. Johnson also backed interim Chicago Police Superintendent Fred Waller, who was accused of domestic violence in 1994, before appointing Larry Snelling to the role.

Governing experience starts to diminish the closer you get to Johnson’s inner circle.

Of 18 senior positions in the mayor’s office — excluding roles that are currently vacant — more than half have never worked for city government or government at all, including the mayor’s senior advisor, communications director, several deputy mayors and some chief officers.

Johnson charted his course to the mayor’s office from a background in union organizing and a political movement that has long fought for executive power in Chicago. And he has surrounded himself by trusted allies whose paths to government don’t look much different than his. That lack of experience has at times shown — in communications and policy hiccups from Johnson’s first year.

But the majority of people closest to the mayor have some sort of advocacy or community organizing experience.

Jason Lee, for instance, worked as a union organizer and then on Johnson’s Cook County Commissioner campaign before becoming Johnson’s senior advisor. Ronnie Reese was a deputy press secretary at the Chicago Teachers Union for more than a decade before running communications for Johnson’s mayoral bid.

Jen Johnson, Deputy Mayor for Education, Youth and Human Services, worked as an educator and organizer. She was Chief of Staff for the CTU, and was a history teacher for 10 years.

Changes to the mayor’s office structure

For months following Johnson’s inauguration, the response to WBEZ’s repeated open records requests for an organizational chart of the mayor’s office was short:

“No records exist.”

At one point, a FOIA officer referred WBEZ to the most recent version of the chart, saying that was all that existed. That chart still named Lori E. Lightfoot as mayor.

As Johnson hit the one-year mark in office, his administration just this month provided a basic one-page chart that did not list names, titles or reporting structures.

As the freshman mayor has built out his team, Pacione-Zayas said fluidity is expected.

Cristina Pacione-Zayas on the Magnificent Mile, Feb. 13, 2023. Pacione-Zayas, Johnson’s Chief of Staff, says his administration is trying to shift how government has historically been run. She’s shown here endorsing Johnson as a mayoral candidate in February 2023.

Cristina Pacione-Zayas on the Magnificent Mile, Feb. 13, 2023. Pacione-Zayas, Johnson’s Chief of Staff, says his administration is trying to shift how government has historically been run. She’s shown here endorsing Johnson as a mayoral candidate in February 2023.

Ashlee Rezin

“You’re going to see org charts evolve, because humans evolve. Chicagoans’ challenges evolve. And it’s not an indication that we’re willy nilly. It’s actually an astuteness to understand that you have to address issues that are present. You have to have some consistency, but there’s going to be some shifts. That’s to be expected in any administration.”

To compare, Lightfoot’s organizational chart one month in was more detailed — including reporting structures and specific positions — than Johnson’s one year in.

Johnson has continued previous administrations’ trends of relying heavily on deputy mayors and chief officers with specialties on issues like homelessness prevention, labor relations, community engagement and more. Appointments to those positions do not need city council approval. He has created or tweaked 10 positions in his office, including creating a Chief of Faith Engagement, a Deputy Mayor for Labor Relations, a Chief Homelessness Officer, a Deputy Mayor for Immigrant, Migrant and Refugee Rights. A newly-created Deputy Mayor for Corporate Development remains unfilled.

The administration prioritized staffing up to confront one of the most immediate challenges that has defined Johnson’s first year: the arrival of tens of thousands of asylum-seekers that were bused and even flown to the city by Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

Pacione-Zayas points to the infrastructure the city has built in the past year — and the creation of new positions devoted to the city’s response — as evidence of its nimbleness.

“Given what we’ve been able to accomplish, albeit some bumps, it’s pretty amazing that we’ve kept government running,” Pacione-Zayas said. “And we’ve also addressed this situation in ways that nobody ever gave you instructions on how to do — without any federal support or intervention.”

Ald. Andre Vasquez, 40th Ward, Johnson’s hand-picked chair of the City Council’s Committee on Immigrant and Refugee Rights, has been an outspoken critic of the administration’s plans, from the proposed use of base camps to a 60-day eviction policy. Vasquez said at times leaders in the administration “isolate the mayor in a way where he’s not able to hear everyone’s full critique in a way that could be helpful for him when it comes to decision making”

But, he had praise for Pacione-Zayas, who he said listens to concerns.

“Cristina — and you know, we have disagreed on a number of matters — I think still is very open, listens to all those things and tries to find a way forward,” Vasquez said.

Johnson’s former chief of staff and a City Hall mainstay, Rich Guidice, left less than a year in. Johnson recently brought in Joe Calvello, who worked on the campaign for U.S. Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) to help steer communication and policy strategy.

And it took 10 months to permanently fill the Director of Communications, an important position as the mayor made his first impressions as a leader. Reese, Johnson’s longtime confidant and former Chicago Teachers Union spokesperson, formally filled the role last month.

Former staffers, candidates describe disorganization in the press office

Reese was the de facto communications leader for the past year even as the administration interviewed others for the top job.

A candidate who says he interviewed for the communications director role as the position sat unfilled — and asked their name not be used because of fear of retaliation — said they were strung along for 8 months. Despite interviewing for the role and receiving a verbal offer for a different position within the press office, the candidate’s start date was repeatedly delayed. The candidate said they were ultimately told they had too much “baggage” because of formerly working for Democratic Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker. Ultimately, the candidate described the process as “frustrating, unprofessional and kind of chaotic.”

Pacione-Zayas declined to comment on the hiring process and whether candidates weren’t considered because of affiliations with Pritzker.

“It’s more about alignment than who you worked for, who you didn’t work for,” Pacione-Zayas said.

Some former staffers of the mayor’s office describe an unorganized operation that lacked a clear direction in Johnson’s first months on the job.

“There was a lot of confusion throughout the three months that we were there. We weren’t aware of who was leading what, who we had to report to. There wasn’t clear guidance given there,” said Josué Ortiz, the former director of digital strategy under Lightfoot and Johnson.

The rocky transition went beyond a lack of clarity. Some former staffers recount being yelled at by senior leadership, having job responsibilities diminish and experiencing conflict for previously working under Lightfoot — despite re-interviewing to stay on under the Johnson administration.

“We’re city employees. We work for the city. No matter who’s the mayor, we’re here to work for them. And they just never got past that we were from the prior administration,” said Dora Meza, the former deputy director of digital strategy under Lightfoot and Johnson. “They always were kind of just like, I feel, very suspicious of us.”

In one case, two months into Johnson’s term staffers pitched a 60-second video to recap the week’s events, citing the success the strategy had under Lightfoot, records obtained by WBEZ show. Reese said the idea was a no-go.

“As a general rule, anything following ‘under MLL…’ isn’t going to be a good idea for this administration,” Reese wrote in response, according to a copy of the message obtained by WBEZ.

Meza said the ongoing dismissiveness contributed to “a very sexist attitude,” and that when she and other employees tried to rectify this with Johnson’s chief of staff, they instead were told they were being let go.

At the time, Meza and Ortiz said they had been assured their exits were due to a change in administration and that it would not affect any future employment with the city.

But city records obtained through an open records request indicate Meza and Ortiz had been placed on the city’s do-not-hire list effective the day they were terminated. They didn’t find out until after letters were sent to them later that month. A memo listing the reasons why staffers were placed on the list was dated Sept. 12 — more than a month after they had been terminated.

The memo from Reese listed about 10 reasons for the designation. The memo, obtained by WBEZ, alleges logins and passwords from social media accounts weren’t shared and that staffers didn’t show up for scheduled weekend events – which Meza disputes. It also dings staff for leaving work during the day to get coffee and lunch and then leaving at 5 p.m. or shortly after.

“We were told one thing in person, and then about a month later, delivered different news,” Ortiz said. “I understand change of administration, that things get moved around. But don’t mess with people’s livelihoods.”

A spokesperson for the mayor’s office declined to comment on specific personnel matters, and said they “wholeheartedly reject all claims of hostility.”

“Our administration has always led with grace and professionalism, and we are proud of the dedicated and hard-working staffers in our administration who follow suit,” the statement said.

Ortiz successfully petitioned his removal from the list after repeated requests over seven months, as first reported by the Chicago Tribune. Meza’s appeal has gone unanswered, she said, and earlier this year she filed a complaint with the Illinois Department of Human Rights alleging harassment and retaliation. An IDHR spokesperson said Meza’s charge is currently pending.

“It was frustrating and bizarre and not at all what I expected from an administration that claims to be very different from the rest,” Meza said, “and claims to have a very open door and transparent policy.”

A law department spokeswoman said the city could not comment on claims of retaliation or the timing of the staffers’ placement on the do-not-hire list, because of “ongoing legal proceedings.”

Pacione-Zayas declined to comment on the office’s justification for placing individuals on the do-not-hire list.

“Every administration reserves the right to separate from individuals how they see fit,” Pacione-Zayas said. “But we really don’t discuss the ins and outs on those kinds of technicalities.”

Diversity

Johnson’s administration has succeeded in expanding Black and Latino representation compared to previous mayors, while Asian representation has atrophied, according to figures from Johnson’s office that line up with a WBEZ analysis.

Roughly 43% of the mayor’s top deputies and cabinet leaders are Black — the largest racial group represented in top leadership. Nearly 25% identify as Hispanic. But it still trails the 29% of Latinos that make up the city’s population, with the City Council’s Latino Caucus last year demanding more representation. Nearly 2% identify as two or more races.

Pacione-Zayas, the city’s first Latina chief of staff, points to this expansion in diversity as proof that Johnson is making good on his promise to change how the mayor’s office works.

“The Johnson administration is increasingly more diverse,” Pacione-Zayas said. “There’s increased access for people who never really saw themselves in government or never really had been a part of the government.”

Meanwhile, the share of deputies and cabinet heads that identify as white has declined compared to previous mayors’ administrations to a little over 30% — no longer representing a majority among top leadership. None of Johnson’s top staffers identify as Asian.

Mariah Woelfel and Tessa Weinberg cover city government and politics for WBEZ.

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