Evers Appoints Kirsten Johnson Head of Wisconsin Health Department
Outgoing Milwaukee health commissioner quickly finds new job.
Milwaukee’s outgoing health commissioner is now Wisconsin’s public health director.
The announcement comes less than a month after Johnson submitted her resignation to Mayor Cavalier Johnson. Her resignation was to be effective March 3, but her first day with the state is now Feb. 27.
“Kirsten has a storied, 20-plus year career in public health and public service, including her time serving Washington and Ozaukee Counties and the city of Milwaukee during some of our state’s toughest days,” said Evers in a statement. “I have no doubt that her wealth of experience in public health, as well as her commitment to reducing disparities in health so every Wisconsinite can live their best and fullest life, will serve the Department and our state well.”
“Over the past 20 years of my career in public health, I have worked to address the challenges and health disparities facing Wisconsin’s rural, urban, and suburban communities alike—disparities that were laid bare by the pandemic,” said Kirsten Johnson in a statement. “I am excited and honored to join Gov. Evers’ administration to lead DHS, where I look forward to using my expertise and knowledge to continue this important work.”
Timberlake and her predecessor, Andrea Palm, were never confirmed by the Republican-controlled Wisconsin State Senate. Palm left in January 2021 for a key Washington D.C. role as deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Health Services. Johnson could also face a tough confirmation process.
A replacement for Johnson in Milwaukee has yet to be named.
The mayor’s office previously confirmed that the commissioner was not asked to resign and that the mayor was happy she has chosen to stay until March. The job, appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council, is regarded as one of the most difficult in city government.
“Commissioner Johnson has served my administration with distinction. She started in the top role at the Milwaukee Health Department in a pandemic-challenged time. She has restructured and energized the department, handled contentious issues, and managed day-to-day operations,” said Mayor Johnson, no relation to the commissioner, in a January statement. “She will depart city government with my gratitude and best wishes on her next professional engagement.”
Johnson’s most visible role at the health department was managing the city’s COVID-19 response during a period when vaccines became available and the merits of maintaining a mask mandate were heavily debated. (Johnson did not favor a city-only mandate.) But she also brought in a new team of deputy commissioners and led the overhaul or reconfiguration of many programs.
“The culture of the City of Milwaukee Health Department has been reset. When I walked in my first day it was clear there was a culture of retaliation, fear and exhaustion. We may still be exhausted but staff feel empowered to speak up, think outside the box and do what is best for our city,” wrote Johnson in her resignation letter.
She was the latest commissioner to take the difficult job following the January 2018 ouster of Bevan K. Baker over issues with the city’s childhood lead poisoning prevention program.
Johnson replaced interim commissioner Marlaina Jackson, who served in the role from September 2020 to early 2021. Jeanette Kowalik served as commissioner for just under two years before resigning to take a health policy job in Washington D.C. She is now a health policy consultant. Patricia McManus served as a Common Council-appointed interim commissioner following Baker’s ouster.
Kowalik was the only one of the three to be given the job on a permanent basis, but resigned in late 2020 alongside hundreds of other public health leaders as the COVID-19 pandemic radically transformed the nature of the public health leadership. Based on Johnson’s planned resignation date, her tenure will end up being approximately two weeks shorter than Kowalik’s.
Johnson earned a master of public health degree from Tulane University in 2003. She earned her bachelor’s degree at the UW-Madison in 1997. Prior to becoming Milwaukee’s health commissioner she served as the director of the joint Washington Ozaukee County Health Department.