Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson chooses former state lawmaker Cristina Pacione-Zayas as chief of staff

Cristina Pacione-Zayas, then an Illinois state senator, is shown in February 2023 announcing her endorsement of Brandon Johnson for mayor of Chicago. She joined Johnson’s staff after he was elected and, on Tuesday, was named chief of staff, replacing Rich Guidice.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Mayor Brandon Johnson on Tuesday chose former State Sen. Cristina Pacione-Zayas to be his second chief of staff — and first Latina to hold the pressure-cooker job.  

Pacione-Zayas was the natural choice to replace now-former Chief of Staff Rich Guidice, having spent the last 11 months learning the ropes of city government as Guidice’s top deputy.

But the mayor’s decision to replace a City Hall lifer with a progressive politician could be threatening to some in the business community.

Pacione-Zayas did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. A press release announcing the appointment quoted her as saying she relishes the “unique opportunity to advance our collective vision for a city determined to deliver equity and opportunity.” She said she is “committed to leveraging every resource and partnership to make this vision a reality.”

When Johnson chose Guidice to serve as his first chief of staff, it sent a reassuring message to those worried about the most progressive mayor in Chicago history. In Guidice, they had a savvy and seasoned veteran who knows city government like the back of his hand, steering the ship through the troubled transition waters.

The fact that police officers and firefighters — among the most leery of Johnson — knew and trusted Guidice from his tenure as executive director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications was an added plus. They assumed Guidice, who has seen Chicago through countless special events, would guide the new mayor and Chicago through the Democratic National Convention in August and the protests that come with it. 

Had Johnson wanted to send a similar message this time, he could have picked Chief Operating Officer John Roberson as his second chief of staff, at least through August, when Chicago plays host to the Democratic National Convention.

Instead, he chose Pacione Zayas, who has spearheaded the city’s much-criticized response to the migrant crisis.

‘Full-speed-ahead’ for progressive agenda?

Pacione-Zayas also was a driving force behind the now-failed binding referendum to increase the real estate transfer tax on high-end property transactions to generate $100 million in annual revenue to combat homelessness.

She takes over at a time when City Council members are pushing back against Johnson’s decision to cancel the ShotSpotter contract and demanding an end to evictions from migrant shelters and more information and transparency on the city’s handling of asylum-seekers.

Johnson is “full-speed-ahead with his progressive agenda” and now has a progressive captain in charge of it, said Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), former chair of the City Council’s Hispanic Caucus.

“Success is gonna depend on whether they can figure out how to moderate some things in order to bring along people that want to see a balance in business as well as social programs and figuring out how to pay for these things.”

Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th), a progressive firebrand, said Pacione-Zayas will be a “welcoming change.”

“It’s good to have someone who understands the role, not only as a city staffer but also as a former elected official, understands the dynamics of the legislative body,” Sigcho-Lopez said.

“I’m looking forward to working with her. … The city needs to be creative, needs to be innovative and think outside the box. … She has the experience to be someone who can listen to multiple perspectives.”

Pacione-Zayas was asked recently about the shortage of Latinos and Asian-Americans Johnson’s City Hall and about the challenge of recruiting from those groups.

“In any position of an administration for a city this large and complex, I think you need, obviously, top talent. … They’re subject-matter experts. They’re competent administrators. They have relationships that are critical to carrying forward the work,” she said.

“Working within city government, you’re working in a pressure-cooker. There’s a certain level of discipline and stamina that is required. … That transcends any racial or ethnic group.”

Two migrant families from Venezuela sheltering at the Central District police station in Chicago last year.

Natalie Garcia/For The Sun-Times

Migrant crisis challenges

Johnson’s handling of the migrant crisis has been an ongoing source of controversy.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker pulled the plug on Johnson’s plan to create a winterized base camp at a contaminated industrial site in Brighton Park. Alderpersons have pushed back against contracts with GardaWorld to build winterized camps, and with Favorite Healthcare Staffing to manage migrant shelters.

Pritzker also committed $150 million, and County Board President Toni Preckwinkle another $75 million, to the migrant crisis, as Johnson walked away from his $75 million commitment.

Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th), chair of the City Council’s Committee on Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said he doesn’t hold Pacione-Zayas personally responsible for those controversies.

“It’s hard to expect anyone to get it perfect. But if you look at New York or even cities like Denver, I’d say we’ve done better than most as far as handling it, given the fact that it is so unprecedented and really overwhelming,” Vasquez said.

“I do think there’s opportunities to be more transparent and forthcoming with some of the information. I do look forward to partnering to get better outcomes. … But, it’s good to at least know we’re talking to one person who is the chief of staff moving forward.”

Determined to tackle homelessness

On election night, Pacione-Zayas said despite the defeat of Bring Chicago Home, “the issue is not going away.”

The next day, Johnson warned anyone who might assume that one defeat would make him put the brakes on his progressive agenda to “buckle up” for a rocky ride. 

Earlier this week, he pushed back against those who have called his response to the referendum defeat “defiant.” 

“If you’ve never been vulnerable to homelessness, maybe you won’t understand why we are as … defiant as we are to end homelessness,” Johnson said. “If my advocacy is defiant, what does that say about the systems who wish to keep people without dignity and unhoused? I call it ‘wicked.'”

Several tents stand under a viaduct as part of the homeless encampment near Union Station and the Ogilvie Transportation Center in Chicago.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

 

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