Over the last six weeks, The TRiiBE has been examining whether Johnson’s cabinet is the Blackest in Chicago’s history.

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Brandon Johnson is the third Black person elected to be Chicago mayor, following the revered late Harold Washington in the 1980s and most recently the city’s first openly lesbian woman Lori Lightfoot. Arguably, Johnson’s administration is the Blackest in Chicago’s history. 

Johnson has faced criticism for moving too slowly to appoint people to vacant positions within city government and for pushing out holdovers from Lightfoot’s administration. 

“I don’t discuss personnel decisions. What I can say is that competent, collaborative and compassionate people have a place in my administration. There are some individuals that have made a conscious decision that they want to go do other things in life, and they’re well within their rights to do that,” Johnson said during a one-on-one interview on June 17. 

He stands by his decision to move with intentionality to have a more representative city government that reflects Chicago’s diversity. 

“People are going to criticize the fact that we have [the most] Black and brown folks in the history of Chicago. Yes, we are the Blackest administration and I’m not going to downplay the fact that we have more Hispanics in my administration than any other administration,” he added. 

The people who are complaining, Johnson said, are doing so because they enjoyed a time when the mayor’s office was predominantly white and male. He specifically mentioned Richard M. Daley, who took office 13 years after the end of his father’s then-record six terms. 

Let’s not act like we don’t know how previous administrations got down,” he continued. “We have been as intentional and strategic as we have been because we have turned the page on the type of patronage and overly deferential system that has been used by some mediocre bureaucrat who just happens to be the nephew, son, or cousin of someone.” 

In Mayor Richard M. Daley’s first round of appointees, he tapped 24 people to his cabinet, of that number 12 were minorities. In his first two years in office, there were seven Black people in his cabinet. 

In Emanuel’s first year, 64% of his staff was white. And in Lightfoot’s first year, 50% of her staff was white and 28% was Black. 

Johnson’s administration is composed of at least 63 people, but his cabinet specifically has 58 staffers. As of June 17, Johnson had appointed 37 people to his cabinet. Of those appointments, 20 are Black, bringing the total number of Black people in his cabinet to 26. That makes his cabinet 44% Black.

Johnson highlighted John Roberson, a government veteran who has served as deputy chief of staff to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and several senior executive roles under former Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley. Among Johnson’s first appointments was Roberson to be his chief operating officer, overseeing the day-to-day operations and budgets of dozens of city departments. “That is actually one of the most powerful positions in city government,” Johnson said. 

“This is not something that I went into with, ‘oh, hire a bunch of Black people.’ It’s far more sophisticated than that. Where are we putting people in strategic positions,” Johnson added. 

HAROLD WASHINGTON OPENED THE DOOR FOR BLACK LEADERSHIP

To date, there are more Black people in Johnson’s cabinet than in the first year of Richard M. Daley, Rahm Emanuel, and Lori Lightfoot administrations. Prior to Chicago’s first Black mayor Harold Washington in the 1980s, no other administration had been intentional about adding considerable numbers of Black people to visible cabinet and board positions or any other city government positions, according to a 1993 article in the Chicago Reader

Over the last six weeks, The TRiiBE has been examining whether Johnson’s cabinet is the Blackest in Chicago’s history. The process of answering that question is challenging because many of the members of Washington’s cabinet are deceased. Also, cabinet and administration records are not readily available online. In an effort to answer that question, The TRiiBE interviewed surviving members of Washington’s cabinet and combed through mayoral records from Washington’s archival collection at the Harold Washington Public Library.

Additionally, the Johnson administration’s definition of “cabinet” differs from previous administrations. Newer positions have also been added to the cabinet. 

Johnson said his administration includes the people who work for him on the 5th floor of City Hall, including his cabinet, department heads and commissioners, and heads of sister agencies such as the Chicago Transit Authority and Chicago Housing Authority.

“Our definition of leadership is the Mayor’s Office senior staff, plus all the department heads and heads of sister agencies. So, it’s a broader definition of leadership compared to past administrations. That’s our cabinet,” Johnson’s chief of staff Cristina Pacione-Zayas said.

The Johnson administration is taking cues from history as he shapes his administration. At a Black Press availability on June 13, he pointed to his intentionality in making Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd Ward) the first Black woman to be the chair of finance, and elevating the importance of having Ald. Walter Burnett, Jr. (27th Ward) as his vice mayor.

“I’ve made vice mayor important because of what happened last time,” Johnson said at the June 13 press availability with the Black press, hinting at the political battle for leadership that took place after Washington’s sudden death in 1987. “So we elevate the office of vice mayor. It’s not perfunctory. He’s in charge when I’m not. Period.”

In his first year in office, Washington had about 24 Black people in his cabinet. For Eugene Sawyer, who was selected as acting mayor to complete Washington’s second term, there were about 25 Black people in his cabinet, some of which were holdovers from Washington’s cabinet. 

Peggy Montes served as executive director of the Washington administration’s Commission on Women and is the founder of Bronzeville Children’s Museum, the first and only African American children’s museum in the U.S. Although she couldn’t speak definitively about whether Johnson’s cabinet has more Black people, she spoke to the legacy of Washington tapping Black leaders to cabinet positions.

Mayor Harold Washington is standing in a group photo with the women he appointed to be on his staff. During his term, 175 women were appointed to boards and commissions by Mayor Washington.
Mayor Harold Washington (middle) standing with women he's appointed to various positions within city government. During his term, 175 women were appointed to boards and commissions by Mayor Washington. Photo provided by Peggy A. Montes.

“The largest representation of African Americans in any of the mayoral administrations, especially Black mayoral administrations, occurred only with Harold Washington’s administration, which was the first time a Black mayor was in charge of city government and the city of Chicago,” Peggy Montes told The TRiiBE.

Before Washington’s election, the city’s top administrators were white men. About 70% were white, 27% were Black, 3% were Latino, and only 18% were women, according to a printed 1985 mid-term report produced by the Washington administration. Among Washington’s appointees in his first two years in office, 54% were Black, 26% white and 20% Latino, and 37% were women. 

However, the “Vrdolyak 29,” an all-white Chicago City Council majority bloc led by then-Ald. Edward “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak, made it challenging for Washington to enact legislation and get cabinet appointments confirmed by the council. 

Currently, progressives don’t have a majority in the City Council, but Johnson has support from most Black alders and the council’s Progressive Caucus, which includes Black, white, Latinx, and Asian City Council members. 

“He did not have enough votes on the City Council. So, all of his appointments were technically temporary. In many instances, you have to have City Council approval,” Johnson said about Washington’s administration. “He did not have the full support of City Council. When I put somebody in a vacancy, they’re there, but they have to go before a committee and get approval.”

Loisteen Walker worked on Washington’s 1983 campaign and was appointed by him to be a staff assistant for the Department of Revenue in 1987. She worked for the city for 28 years. Today, she leads the Harold Washington Legacy Committee, an organization founded by the late Josie Childs, who also worked on his campaigns and was a staffer in his administration.  

“Mayor Washington opened up things to the public. If you were African American, you couldn’t get a [city government] job unless you went and talked to an alderman. We didn’t have that kind of leeway to go into a city government,”  Walker told The TRiiBE

There’s also a throughline of Black women hirings from Washington to Johnson. Montes said Washington, through the formation of the Chicago Commission on Women, was intentional about integrating women, especially Black and brown women, within city leadership, cabinet and city department roles. In 1984, he appointed Jacky Grimshaw, a Black woman to his office of intergovernmental affairs, Brenda Gaines, as his deputy chief of staff in 1985, Sharon Gist Gilliam as budget director, just to name a few. 

Under the direction of Montes, Washington created a firefighter pilot program for women in 1986 to incorporate more women into the department. At the time, women were able to pass the written test to join the department but couldn’t pass the physical test because it skewed towards men’s physical abilities, Montes recalled. Annette Nance-Holt, who now heads the Chicago Fire Department, was a part of that pilot program.   

In total, women make up 63% of the Johnson administration; about 1% shy of the number of women in Lightfoot’s administration the first year. There are now 18 Black women serving in Johnson’s administration. 

In some cases, Black women were tapped to lead roles under the Johnson administration for the first time in Chicago’s history. For example, in June 2023, Johnson appointed Mary Richardson-Lowry as corporation counsel, making her the first Black woman to serve in the role and the first Black person in the role since the appointment of James D. Montgomery during Washington’s administration in 1983. 

Last November, Johnson selected Dr. Olusimbo Ige to be commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH), making her the first Black woman to lead the department.

“Anytime you can create history like that, in such an important role, we think that it’s a good thing, particularly when you have the background and experience to be effective at the job,” Greg Kelley said. He’s the union president of SEIU Healthcare Illinois Indiana Missouri & Kansas.

Kelley said he would like Ige and the Johnson administration to address other longstanding health disparities, such as access to healthcare and mental health services and improve Black maternal health outcomes.

“We’re trying to figure out what kinds of relationships we can build with Ige as a union of healthcare workers. In this moment, our city still continues to deal with massive healthcare inequality,” he continued. “Where you live is a strong determinant of how well you’ll do in terms of healthcare. So we think that she has a great opportunity to lift up these disparities and actually put some attention on them.”

WHO DOES A PROGRESSIVE AGENDA SERVE?

Johnson’s election was propelled by a multicultural coalition of union organizations and community organizers, some who have a longstanding tradition in organizing for Black political power and in solidarity with all marginalized groups. 

“The goal is a progressive agenda, and that agenda has to be anti-racist, has to address the needs of Black and brown folks in the city, poor folks in the city. That’s the ultimate goal,” historian, writer and activist Barbara Ransby said. She’s also a professor in the departments of Black Studies, Gender and Women’s Studies, and History at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Mayor Brandon Johnson sitting behind his desk during the first year of his term. Photo by Alexander Gouletas for The TRiiBE.
Photo by Alexander Gouletas for The TRiiBE.

For community organizers like Merawi Gerima of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR), the Johnson administration is an ideal one to organize under.

“The whole fight to support the Brandon Johnson administration was essentially that choice of what administration would you rather be organizing under and I think many people saw it that way,” Gerima said, referring to the 2023 mayoral runoff between Johnson and his opponent Paul Vallas.  

Gerima added that previous administrations have attacked the movement. A Vallas mayoral win in 2023, he said, would have been a less-than-ideal situation for movement work.

“The movement has been able to grow and make incredible gains. He’s had a great first year, and the movement has had a great year because of the environment that we’re able to organize under,” he continued.  

But not everyone who voted for Johnson is on board with a progressive agenda, which supports investment in nourishing institutions rather than punitive ones. A progressive agenda also incorporates policies that heal all marginalized communities, leading to transformation. 

Some feel that Black people, who have fought for position and power in city government, should be first in line to reap direct benefits to right the wrongs of slavery, Jim Crow and other systemic harms.

Although the Johnson administration has prioritized some policies that benefit working-class Chicagoans, the migrant housing crisis has exacerbated preexisting tensions between Black and brown residents. Black Chicago residents have protested the Johnson administration’s funding of emergency care for Latin American migrants.

“We don’t feel heard. If we were heard, you wouldn’t see such an outrage in the Black community,”  said Pastor Rich Redmond, a former publicist and aide to Washington in the 1980s, referring to tensions between Black and brown residents. 

Johnson selected two Latinx people —  Beatriz Ponce de León and Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th Ward) —  to lead the city’s efforts to care for and house migrants. Ponce de Leon is the deputy mayor of immigrant, migrant and refugee rights; and Vasquez is the chairperson of the Chicago City Council’s committee on immigrant and refugee rights. 

“His policies, just the bottom line, have not been geared to help the Black community, but all others [non-Black] are making all kinds of headway. And guess what? The whites aren’t feeling [these policies] either.”

Redmond has been vocal about his opposition to the hiring of a Latinx chief of staff and said that Black people should have been appointed to positions relating to immigration. 

“He did not immediately look towards the community that elected him. He just pushed us to the side and he went with a community that gave him fewer votes than even Lightfoot got,” Redmond said, referring to Johnson’s Latinx cabinet appointments. 

During his first year in office, Johnson created new roles within his cabinet, including the deputy mayor of community safety; deputy mayor for immigrant, migrant and refugee rights; deputy mayor for labor relations and the city’s first chief homelessness officer.  

“When we talk about political agendas and political campaigns, it’s not just getting any Black person in there. It has to be someone who’s going to be accountable,” Ransby said. She was also a member of Johnson’s transition committee leading up to his inauguration in 2023. 

While that has been true for Johnson’s appointment of Jen Johnson to deputy mayor of education some appointments haven’t come without controversy. Johnson faced criticism when he nominated Marlene Hopkins to head the city’s department of buildings. 

Following the 2020 botched demolition in Little Village, which harmed a predominantly-Latinx community, the city’s inspector general recommended that disciplinary action be taken against Hopkins, Jorge Herrera who also worked in the buildings department and Dave Graham, an assistant commissioner in the city Department of Public Health. At the time Hopkins was the managing deputy commissioner for the department of buildings, Johnson tapped Hopkins for his cabinet role in April.

On June 17, following the release of this story, Hopkins reached out to The TRiiBE and shared her side of the story. The responsibility of dust mitigation following the implosion fell under the role of the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH), she said, adding that CDPH is required by law under the Environmental Protection Agency Act to develop dust mitigation strategies when demolitions occur. 

“Our role was to ensure that the implosion occurred, that the debris landed in the landing zone and did not leave the construction site and that is exactly what happened,” Hopkins said. “If the building department had any involvement or any role to play with dust mitigation, things would have been done from a different perspective.”  

In April, a federal judge approved a $12.25 million settlement in a class action suit against Hilco brought by Little Village residents. 

“I do think there’s a way in which communities need to do some healing. For example, the Black and brown community in Chicago, there needs to be some healing so that we can act in shared interests much more often than we do,” Ransby said. 

“It’s still a very segregated city, a very unequal city. There has been report after report in terms of that. So access to resources, jobs, community benefits agreements, equity in schools and housing for everybody, these are the material interests that will serve and empower our people and point us in the direction of a liberatory future,” she added. 

Johnson said what has been accomplished while in office so far has passed because of the collaboration between Black and brown leadership in City Council. 

“We have to prioritize the neighborhoods that have been harmed the most, which are Black neighborhoods. All of those measures passed because we had Black and brown folks working together,” he said. Some of the policies he referenced include his new department of Reentry, the $1.25 billion Housing and Economic Development Bond deal, abolishing the sub-minimum wage and approving paid time off. Black and brown workers are overwhelmingly impacted by the latter two, he added. 

For Johnson, healing among Black and brown communities looks like everyone having what they need. 

“I wish that people approached government through the lens of love and justice. That’s how I approach it,” he explained. “Healing to me is justice. Healing to me is when people have everything that they need. And what I’ve put forth is a vision where people get what they deserve and need, and constantly reminding the people that there’s more than enough for all of us.”

is a multimedia reporter for The TRiiBE.