Brandon Johnson not ready to clean house at City Hall, adviser says

Don’t expect “wholesale, universal changes” in city departments, said Jason Lee, a senior adviser to Johnson’s mayoral campaign and transition team, citing a need for “at least some initial continuity so that we can make sure that government maintains its core functions.”

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Brandon Johnson waves to a supporter after speaking at his election night party at the Marriott Marquis Chicago after defeating Paul Vallas in the mayoral runoff election on Tuesday, April 4, 2023.

Brandon Johnson waves to a supporter at his election night party at the Marriott Marquis Chicago after defeating Paul Vallas in the mayoral runoff election on April 4.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Whenever a new mayor takes over, the outgoing mayor’s department heads and agency chiefs all tender letters of resignation.

In 1989, that traditional courtesy allowed newly elected Mayor Richard M. Daley to announce a new cabinet before his inauguration. A few were holdovers. Most were not. Some had served in the mayoral administration of Daley’s father, Richard J. Daley.

Don’t expect the same from Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson. The runoff election gave him less than six weeks to put together a government, so Johnson is not ready to clean house.

“We definitely don’t expect to make wholesale, universal changes within the city departments,” said Jason Lee, a senior adviser to Johnson’s mayoral campaign and transition team.

“Given the timing of the transition, there should be at least some initial continuity so that we can make sure that government maintains its core functions. And we want to have an opportunity to really engage the team that’s currently in office, understand them, what they’ve working on and what they see as their future collaboration with our administration.”

Health Commissioner Allison Arwady, who led Chicago through the pandemic, is openly campaigning to keep her job.

Aviation Commissioner Jamie Rhee, appointed by Rahm Emanuel then retained by Lori Lightfoot, is quarterbacking a massive expansion and modernization project at O’Hare Airport. Housing Commissioner Marisa Novara has been widely acclaimed by housing advocates. So has Transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi.

Lee was asked whether those four women — or any Lightfoot appointees — have an opportunity to stay on long term. “Several of the names you mentioned” have received “strong reviews from segments of the constituencies” they serve, Lee said, adding that all that feedback would be “taken into consideration.”

“Part of why we hired someone like Rich Guidice” as chief of staff is, he’s “worked for years with everyone in the current administration” and is in a position to make those assessments, Lee said.

The triumvirate of women managing city finances — Chief Financial Officer Jennie Huang Bennett, Budget Director Susie Park and Comptroller Reshma Soni — are also likely candidates to stay on.

They are responsible for the progress Lightfoot made in ramping up to actuarially based funding of city employee pension funds, reducing the city’s structural deficit and engineering the $242 million pension prepayment. The result: an impressive string of bond rating upgrades that will reduce city borrowing costs.

Bennett, Park and Soni were also prime movers behind Lightfoot’s surprise decision to release a “midyear” budget forecast claiming she’s leaving Johnson a budget shortfall of just $85 million.

The rosy forecast could have undermined Johnson because it was released the same day the mayor-elect traveled to Springfield to make his case for more revenue.

But the announcement did not have “that kind of numbing effect on discussions about revenue for Chicago,” Lee said.

“The Senate president, the speaker of the House, the governor — they were all still very much committed to the idea that Chicago, Chicago Public Schools could benefit from additional revenue and resources ... particularly around violence prevention and youth jobs, one of the key priorities going into this summer,” Lee said.

As for the accuracy of Lightfoot’s rosy forecast, Lee said those numbers “can be volatile in a dynamic economy.” Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) who chairs the City Council’s Budget Committee, has “advised caution on that, given the timing and some of the variables that could change,” Lee noted.

“We’re going in eyes open to evaluate what was put out, but also make sure we have our own understanding of where we think the budget is,” Lee said.

“Having a small budget deficit is a good thing if, indeed, it is the case. But Chicago still requires significant investment to address some of the severe challenges that the city faces that we were elected to resolve. We’ve got a homelessness problem. We’ve got a migrant challenge. ... Public safety remains front and foremost on everyone’s mind and that is going to require significant investment.”

The cornerstone of Johnson’s anti-violence strategy is $1 billion in new spending on social programs — an unprecedented investment largely paid for by $800 million in new or increased taxes. Business leaders determined to stop those taxes backed and bankrolled the candidate Johnson defeated, Paul Vallas.

But since the election, Lee said, there has been a “ton of outreach” to the business community to communicate that Johnson is open to alternatives to the revenues they find most abhorrent: a reinstated head tax, an increased hotel tax and a financial transaction tax that could force the exchanges to leave Chicago.

The only thing not negotiable is Johnson’s plan to hold the line on property taxes.

“He lives in a neighborhood in Austin where you’ve got fixed-income seniors trying to pass on their homes to their kids and their grandkids so they can have stability. And this rise in property taxes makes it very difficult for these individuals to stay in their home. This is not an abstract concept to the mayor-elect. This is real. He sees the faces of the people who are struggling,” Lee said.

As for the Council’s 28-committee reorganization, that’s is the subject of ongoing discussions that will continue until the first Council meeting of Johnson’s tenure.

The talks go beyond putting Johnson loyalists in charge of key committees to make certain the new mayor’s agenda moves expeditiously instead of being sabotaged, he said.

“It’s not necessarily about stacking committees with our allies because we think a lot of folks can become our allies,” Lee said.

“It’s more so about a Council structure that is functional and can work. ... The number of committees — you have to look at that because the mayor’s Intergovernmental Affairs Office will have to work with those committees. And you only have so many people in the department. ... There are logistical challenges.”

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