Of all the jobs Lori Lightfoot must fill, one has the greatest potential to make or break her day-to-day performance as Chicago’s 56th mayor.
It’s chief of staff, a $195,000-a-year, pressure-cooker of a job that chewed up and spit out a dozen occupants during former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s 22-year reign and five during Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s eight-year tenure.
With those high-stakes in mind, Lightfoot has chosen Maurice Classen, the former director of strategy for the Chicago Police Department who served with Lightfoot on the Task Force for Police Accountability after the police shooting of Laquan McDonald.
“I’d be overselling my experience if I said that you’re ready to run a $9 billion organization, having not run a $9 billion organization on Day One. But I can tell you that my experience across a series of other places in high-pressure organizations has prepared me as well as I can for this position,” Classen, 41, said Thursday.
“Running strategy for the Chicago Police Department. Developing multi-million dollar, anti-violence and policing strategies for philanthropies in Chicago and across the country. Handling 65 cases before a jury while I was in Seattle. Running a small business. I have a diversity of experience that prepares me well to be able execute on the mayor-elect’s vision.”
Classen’s selection signals two things about Lightfoot’s priorities.
She is determined to implement a risk-management system needed to rein in runaway settlements and judgments, most tied to police wrongdoing.
And she is equally focused on reining in violent crime, rebuilding shattered trust between citizens and police, and establishing a Mayor’s Office of Violence Prevention to treat violent crime as a public health crisis.
“Two things we’ll do from Day One. Establishing a citywide risk management team. Looking at what causes these cases, trends and how it can lead to better accountability for those costs. And the second more fundamental issue is to press forward with the consent decree and do everything possible from the mayor’s office to ensure that compliance with the consent decree is a high priority for the police department,” Classen said.
“This is not just a public safety plan that’s based on police first and only. It’s actually one that includes all departments that touch on public safety.”
Classen is no stranger to politics.
In 2010, he was campaign manager for an unsuccessful ballot measure to boost sales taxes to pay for criminal-justice services in Seattle.
The following year, Classen ran for the Seattle City Council himself — and lost to a popular member who turned 80 that year.
Classen hopes that election experience will prepare him for the difficult job of cobbling together a 26-vote majority for Lightfoot’s controversial ethics reforms and a budget certain to include painful budget cuts and tax increases.
“We believe that if we’re transparent and hold people accountable and work collaboratively to develop and implement policy, we’ll be able to work hand in glove with aldermen who represent their neighborhoods,” Classen said.
Lightfoot already faces pushback from some of the City Council’s most senior aldermen, but she’s not backing off from the signature promise of her mayoral campaign. She plans to issue an executive order on May 20 — inauguration day — ending the unwritten rule that has allowed aldermen to exercise iron-fisted control over zoning and permitting in their wards.
“We understand that policies that you present sometimes take time for folks to hear them, think through them, debate over what legislation looks like. But that creates good policy for the people of Chicago. And I think that’s good government,” he said.
The incoming chief of staff is also no stranger to controversy.
In 2005, Classen was working as a King County prosecutor in Seattle when his father, James Classen, was arrested in downstate Clark County in Washington after his estranged wife was fatally stabbed, dozens of times, with her sewing scissors.
Maurice Classen called for Clark County prosecutors to accept a guilty plea from his father on a charge of second-degree murder — instead of trying him for first-degree murder. He told a newspaper that Clark County’s chief prosecutor was “playing politics with my mom’s memory and my father’s life.”
That prosecutor fired back that Maurice Classen’s comment was “professionally insulting.”
Maurice Classen later testified on behalf of his dad during his murder trial. His father was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 23 years in prison.
In 2013, Classen was a program manager for the MacArthur Foundation when he co-authored a fiery opinion piece in The Seattle Times blasting the outgoing mayor for failing to embrace a 2011 Justice Department report confirming that Seattle police had engaged in a “pattern and practice” of excessive force, particularly against minorities.
The opinion piece called on Seattle’s new mayor to pick a police chief who would oversee “systemic and deep reform.”