Brandon Johnson building consensus behind the scenes before delivering progressive agenda, top aide says

The mayor risks disappointing progressive voters who put him in office, but deputy chief of staff Cristina Pacione-Zayas isn’t concerned. In fact, the former state senator expects her fellow progressives to keep the heat on.

SHARE Brandon Johnson building consensus behind the scenes before delivering progressive agenda, top aide says
Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson smiles and waves as his first City Council meeting wraps up at City Hall on Wednesday, May 24, 2023.

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson is reaching out to many groups in order to deliver his agenda for the city.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Like a football team with a scripted series of plays for its opening drive, newly elected Chicago mayors routinely come into office with a plan to deliver on at least some of their key campaign promises within the first 100 days.

Mayor Brandon Johnson’s game plan is different. He’s not interested in dictating outcomes. He believes in building consensus behind the scenes to make it easier to cross the goal line.

Deputy chief of staff Cristina Pacione-Zayas described the new mayor’s style when asked why 12 weeks of unpaid parental leave for teachers and other Chicago Public Schools employees is the only item on the progressive agenda that Johnson has delivered.

Big-ticket items are still being negotiated behind the scenes. They include raising the real estate transfer tax to create a dedicated funding source to combat homelessness; reopening shuttered mental health clinics; expanding the nonpolice response plan to mental health emergencies; and eliminating the subminimum wage for tipped workers.

“We have been working really closely with our legislative body. We have been deep in our communities refining plans, making sure that we are bringing people into the process. …That is going to be the winning strategy to be able to get initiatives like ‘Bring Chicago Home’ over the finish line,” Pacione-Zayas told the Sun-Times.

“We know that we can’t do that alone. And we know that he is not a dictator and not gonna impose without actually having a very spirited and engaged process with Chicago, because this is all of our responsibility to be able to carry this forward. And it’s not just a top-down approach. It is, in fact, a bottom-up. And that’s what’s gonna be radically different about this administration.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Democratic legislative leaders oppose raising the real estate transfer tax on high-end home sales.

With that road closed, the only avenue left for Johnson to deliver on a campaign promise his predecessor made and broke is to convince the City Council to put a binding referendum on the Chicago ballot.

“The people will decide,” Pacione-Zayas said.

Before that happens, negotiations with the real estate industry could soften the blow of an increase that, as currently proposed, would more than triple the transfer tax on Chicago homes sold for more than $1 million. The tax would go from 0.75% to 2.65%.

“Those conversations are already underway,” she said.

The same consensus-building process will be used to forge a compromise aimed at eliminating the subminimum wage that pays tipped workers less than other employees.

As of July 1, minimum wage for tipped workers is $9.48 an hour, compared to $15.80 for all other employees.

Some cities have given restaurants five years to adjust. Others have a three-year phase-in. How long should Chicago’s adjustment period be?

“Those are ongoing conversations. You do have to look at it from all four corners. But our objective is to make sure that we can have a stabilized workforce that is able to live with dignity, keep their homes, put food on the table, care for their families,” Pacione-Zayas said.

Yet another big-ticket item is the city’s response to the mental health crisis.

“We’re currently mapping out our strategy” on reopening mental health centers, she said. “With having a roving, 24-hour service. Perhaps even expanding our living room model. Those are all under discussion. You can definitely expect a subject matter hearing soon on that ... so that we can continue to educate the public about what the opportunity is.”

With such a deliberative approach, Johnson runs the risk of disappointing progressive voters who may not be quite so realistic about the power of the politically possible.

Pacione-Zayas is not concerned. In fact, the former state senator expects her fellow progressives to keep turning up the heat.

“It would definitely be a concern if the movement that we come from stopped pushing and organizing to make sure that we deliver on the promise of our movement. … It’s inherent. …Organizing is partially antagonizing to push forward and make progress. Without struggle, there is no progress. It’s absolutely necessary,” she said.

“When I was in office, I often used as a negotiating tactic, ‘You want to deal with me or you want to deal with the thousand people that I’m keeping outside the Capitol right now?’ You have to help people understand that there is an enormous amount of pressure. It’s not arbitrary. It is the pain that people have felt from not being able to live up to their fullest potential or provide for their family and community. We have to deliver on that.”

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