Cristina Pacione-Zayas appointed as Mayor Brandon Johnson’s new chief of staff

Mayor Brandon Johnson on Tuesday officially tapped key progressive adviser Cristina Pacione-Zayas to be his chief of staff following Richard Guidice’s recent resignation.

Pacione-Zayas, a former state senator who has been serving as deputy chief of staff since the start of Johnson’s term, will be the city’s first Latina to hold the post, the mayor’s office wrote in its announcement.

Guidice, who was a high-ranking moderate in the left-leaning mayor’s administration, stepped down on Monday after a City Hall career that stretched back to former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration. Guidice led the Office of Emergency Management and Communications before he joined Johnson’s cabinet last spring.

“Cristina’s unparalleled dedication to our city, her depth of knowledge on critical issues affecting our neighborhoods like housing, community safety and education, and her proven track record of leadership make her the ideal person to serve as my next chief of staff,” Johnson said in a statement. “I am confident that together, we will continue to make strides toward a better, stronger, safer Chicago.”

As the second deputy until now, Pacione-Zayas has been most involved with handling the city’s response to the 38,000-plus asylum-seekers who have arrived in Chicago since 2022, often being on the forefront of defending the mayor’s most controversial decisions to aldermen and reporters. She rose up in the Northwest Side progressive movement before joining the Johnson administration.

“I am deeply honored to serve as Chief of Staff for Mayor Brandon Johnson and the City of Chicago,” Pacione-Zayas said in a statement. “This role presents a unique opportunity to advance our collective vision for a city determined to deliver equity and opportunity for all, and I am committed to leveraging every resource and partnership to make this vision a reality.”

A year ago, Johnson picking Guidice as his chief of staff signaled a semblance of Chicago politics’ old guard remaining in government as the mayor’s grassroots labor coalition took power for the first time in decades. Pacione-Zayas’ presence meanwhile showed the progressive movement would also have a strong champion on staff. Together with senior adviser Jason Lee and Chief Operating Officer John Roberson, the group is labeled in the mayor’s schedules as the “Core 4” in their meetings.

Last month’s announced departure of Guidice as the most centrist figure in that group was heralded by some of Johnson’s progressive allies, but there was also tension within his inner circle over some wanting John Roberson for the job next instead of Pacione-Zayas.

Guidice often took a more behind-the-scenes role compared with Pacione-Zayas and other top aides such as Lee, both of whom have often spoken with the press and interacted with aldermen directly. Roberson previously worked under Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle, a Johnson ally and leader of the county Democratic Party.

In the Illinois Senate, where Pacione-Zayas had represented a Northwest Side district vacated by Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Iris Martinez in 2020, she focused on early childhood development and education. Before that, Pacione-Zayas worked as a vice president of policy at the Erikson Institute.

Her ascendance to become Johnson’s top deputy comes as the migrant crisis reaches a new inflection point, with shelter evictions commencing last month — as well as the threat of more buses from Texas this summer ahead of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. When rolling out the evictions announcement mid-March, Pacione-Zayas nodded to the constant drumbeat of controversy over decisions relating to the asylum-seekers who made their way to Chicago but said that shows, “This has never been done before. You’re literally building the plane while flying.”

Guidice stepping down has been the mayor’s biggest personnel shakeup yet and came before the arrival of the sure-to-be-rowdy Democratic convention, a major event that the former OEMC chief has said he looked forward to administering. His retirement from city government was his second within a year. He announced his departure from OEMC shortly after the April 4 election but opted to come back to join the Johnson administration.