Three times in the last year, the Coca Cola Co. has agreed to bankroll health, wellness and recycling programs in Chicago at the behest of Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Now, the partnership between City Hall and the soft-drink giant is growing even stronger. A key member of Emanuel’s communications staff is joining Coke as the company’s Chicago-based director of public affairs.
Kathleen Strand, who has served as Emanuel’s spokesperson on budget, pension and parking meter issues, said she’s leaving City Hall for an offer she can’t refuse from Coke.
Strand said she was recommended by a friend and the mayor played no role in getting her the job. Coca-Cola is headquartered in Atlanta. Strand, who is engaged to be married, will be based in Chicago.
“It’s been a complete honor to work with [Emanuel] during these first two critical years and to see him transform the way the government works on behalf of taxpayers and some of the innovative ideas and cost-savings at a really critical juncture for the city. I learned a tremendous amount,” Strand, 34, said Monday.
“I grew up in Chicago. I love Chicago. This was a good opportunity to help expand my experience and skills set while continuing to be in Chicago, work in Chicago and help communities across the city through a lot of the initiatives that Coke is involved in—from wellness to troops for fitness to Calories Count—all of those good things. I’m really looking forward to diving into that and helping to build a coalition around that.”
Prior to joining the Emanuel administration, Strand served as communications director for former State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias and as a senior communication adviser to former presidential candidate Hillary Rodham-Clinton. She also worked for the Illinois Federation of Teachers.
At City Hall, Strand has juggled some of the hottest political potatoes: two city budgets; the pension crisis; Emanuel’s plan to phase out the city’s 55 percent subsidy to retiree health care; the mayor’s Infrastructure Trust and the recent triple-drop in Chicago’s bond rating.
She also helped sell Emanuel’s controversial plan to trade free Sunday parking in Chicago neighborhoods for a longer parking day as part of a broader agreement that calls for the city pay Chicago Parking Meters LLC $63.8 million to settle disputed claims for parking spaces taken out of service.
In a press release, Emanuel called Strand a “tough and dedicated spokesperson” and a “critical part” of his finely-tuned communications team.
“As a Chicago native, Kathleen cares deeply about serving the city she loves—something she showed every day, never shying away from the difficult questions or some of Chicago’s more tenacious reporters,” the mayor was quoted as saying.
“Her passion will be missed and will no doubt serve her well in her next endeavor.”
Earlier this year, Emanuel announced plans to purchase 50,000 blue carts over the next five years to support his decision to expand household recycling citywide, thanks to a $2.6 million grant from Coca Cola.
In exchange for the Earth Day grant, images of Coke products will appear on the 50,000 blue carts to show Chicago homeowners what items need to be recycled.
The grant marked the third time in recent months that the soft-drink giant had cozied up to City Hall by bankrolling Chicago health, wellness and recycling programs.
Last fall, Coca-Cola and other beverage giants offered Chicago a $5 million carrot for wellness competition between city employees and San Antonio – along with calorie counts on vending machines – to avoid the stick: a tax on sugary beverages proposed by an influential alderman or a New York-style ban on oversized beverages.
One month later, Coca-Cola agreed to bankroll a Chicago Park District program to offer nutrition education and exercise classes run by U.S. veterans to combat obesity and diabetes.
Strand is the third key member of Emanuel’s communications team to leave during the mayor’s first two years in office.
Last week, City Comptroller Amer Ahmad announced his decision to return to the private sector.
By law, the city’s preliminary budget must be unveiled by Wednesday.