The two top staff members of Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson’s administration are a pragmatic City Hall veteran and a progressive-minded state legislator, a dynamic they say will be a strength in executing their boss’s bold agenda.
In an interview with the Tribune on Friday, incoming chief of staff Richard Guidice and deputy chief of staff Cristina Pacione-Zayas acknowledged they make an unlikely leadership team, given Guidice’s history with former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration and his more recent job as head of the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications, and Pacione-Zayas’ background as a relatively new state senator with a heavy focus on policy.
Guidice said their differences make for “a good balance” that sets the stage for how they will build their working relationship, though how their exact roles have yet to be fully defined. Pacione-Zayas concurred, saying, “We’ll definitely be leaning on each other to complement the skills that we bring to work.”
The two agreed that public safety is the administration’s top priority, though differences in their approach became clear when discussing how to tackle an issue that dominated much of the mayoral race between Johnson and Paul Vallas.
“Public safety is something that we have to continue to work to increase people’s confidence in not only coming downtown, but throughout all of our neighborhoods, throughout the city, so public safety is circled for attention, certainly,” Guidice said.
While listing safety as “one of our most urgent, pressing concerns,” Pacione-Zayas stressed the holistic approach on fighting crime that Johnson touted on the campaign trail.
“We’re going to have to do the deep work on the root causes and, of course, the mayor-elect has always spoken about investing in people, particularly in the area around employment,” Pacione-Zayas said. “So we’re going to have to build out that kind of work to have a robust and systemic approach to how we address some of the root causes.”
Johnson’s victory was seen as proof that his message of moving away from traditional policing methods resonated with many Chicago voters. But his approach also was a cause of concern for leaders in the political establishment and business community, who feared a progressive shake-up in City Hall was the wrong direction after a trying pandemic and an increase in violent crime.
News of Guidice’s appointment reassured many that Johnson’s City Hall will make use of the institutional knowledge of previous administrations.
One potential difference between Guidice and Johnson on the subject of policing has already emerged — over restoring public access to live police scanner transmissions. Under Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Guidice at OEMC, the city moved to encrypt all scanners to keep the public from listening in real time, instead releasing communications on a time delay.
Members of the public and media have said the move has the potential to jeopardize public safety while also reducing transparency around critical incidents. During the campaign, Johnson joined other mayoral challengers in vowing to restore real-time access to the scanners for media.
“I was in favor and am in favor of encrypted radios,” Guidice said. “I think it’s an officer safety issue.”
Guidice added that he has not yet discussed the issue with the mayor-elect, who will have the final say.
“I will engage with conversation with the mayor on it and hear his perspective on it,” Guidice said. “And certainly, he is our chief policymaker. So I look forward to those conversations with him, and I also look forward to letting him know my personal perspective on it as well.”
Pacione-Zayas said the mayor’s team must learn to navigate its way toward achieving consensus.
“We may not be able to agree on everything, but we do have to come to some kind of common ground, build some consensus,” she said. “Because at the core, one of the things that is incredibly important that drives us is we love Chicago, and we want Chicago to succeed.”
At the same time, Pacione-Zayas earlier in the week commended Johnson for standing firm on his convictions since winning the race, despite pressure from critics to move to the center.
Following the mayor-elect’s Wednesday visit to the Illinois Capitol, where he floated a host of progressive priorities in Springfield, Pacione-Zayas told the Tribune: “One thing I think we’ll learn about the mayor-elect is that it’s ‘you see what you get,’ right? And it’s not anything hidden. It’s nothing different than what he’s been saying all along.”
Guidice has worked under three mayors: Daley, Rahm Emanuel and Lightfoot. He said all of them, including his new boss, Johnson, brought “good ideas” to the table. But not all of their initiatives could be tackled on day one, if at all.
“Each one of those mayors and administrations have come in with good ideas. A lot of good ideas, a lot of good programs,” Guidice said. “We’re going to take a look at all of them and see which ones we think should be continued, and which ones should be pivoted and put into a different direction.”
As for his most valuable assets, Guidice singled out his experience presiding over large, sometimes-hectic events and emergencies as executive director of OEMC. He said he brings with him lessons learned on building relationships both inside and outside City Hall to ensure that annual traditions such as Lollapalooza, as well as one-time events like the 2024 Democratic National Convention, are successes.
“Those are all big events, and certainly the city is looking forward to those,” Guidice said. “We’re looking forward to shining the spotlight once again on the city of Chicago and in a positive manner. So we’re certainly up for those opportunities.”
Pacione-Zayas, whose work in the state Senate centered on education and early childhood development, said her path to politics will inform her upcoming work.
“I come from a lineage of social workers, and obviously my background is education,” she said. “It’s a team sport. This is a game of addition and multiplication.”
What was their motivation for signing onto what figure to be a challenging four years under a new mayor? Guidice looked back at his long-standing ties in city government, while Pacione-Zayas spoke about re-imagining Chicago’s future.
Guidice had announced his retirement from OEMC shortly after the April 4 election, but he said now that he just can’t picture relaxing at this juncture.
“I’ve worked for the city for 33 and a half years, and along the way I’ve met so many great, wonderful people … who really have inspired me along the way to do a good job and to continue to work hard, and walking away from that was very difficult,” he said.
Pacione-Zayas took her seat in the state Senate in December 2020 as a special appointee following then-Sen. Iris Martinez’s successful bid to become the Cook County Circuit Court clerk. She was elected to a full term last November, but was persuaded to leave because she wanted to work under a mayor who, as a former teacher and Chicago Teachers Union organizer, was on the “front lines” of the city’s most important issues, she said.
“This is one of those once-in-a-generational opportunities to work with a mayor who has this kind of unique skill set,” she said. “We have a really unique opportunity to change the trajectory of the city.”
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April 21, 2023 at 06:30PM