Jeramey Jannene

Mayor Dumps Elections Director Claire Woodall

Johnson nominates deputy to replace her six months before presidential election.

By - May 6th, 2024 09:32 am
Mayor Cavalier Johnson speaks at a November 2022 press conference while Claire Woodall looks on. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Mayor Cavalier Johnson speaks at a November 2022 press conference while Claire Woodall looks on. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Mayor Cavalier Johnson is appointing Milwaukee Election Commission deputy director Paulina Esperanza Gutierrez to replace Claire Woodall.

Woodall has led the city’s election commission since 2020 and has worked for the office since 2013. She was appointed director under then-mayor Tom Barrett. During her tenure, she has been outspoken about the challenges of the job.

Guiterrez has been with the commission through the April 2023 and April 2024 spring elections, but has never worked in a key role during a high-turnout midterm or presidential election. She was appointed deputy in February 2023.

“Change, especially when it is unexpected, can often be unsettling,” wrote Gutierrez in a Sunday evening email to election commission staff. “The experience of changing leadership is demanding and uncertain as we navigate uncharted waters and relearn to collaborate and communicate as an organization.”

The mayor praised Gutierrez in a press release announcing a series of appointments “Paulina’s integrity and capabilities are ideally suited to this position. She will lead the office at an important juncture when public scrutiny of the work of the department will be extremely high,” he noted. “I have confidence in her, and I will make certain the department has the resources it needs to fulfill its duties.”

Woodall, according to an internal city email from June 2023, was working to create a different city job involving voter engagement. She was told last week she needed to decide whether to accept the other position, but did not respond, said the mayor’s office. The position would have been a grant-funded “voting and civic engagement” post. The city recently won a grant to fund such work through the Milwaukee Public Library.

The mayor’s office said Woodall was aware Gutierrez was being given the role and had previously suggested her when discussing the other position. Woodall was not being reappointed for “multiple reasons” according to a mayoral spokesperson who declined to discuss personnel specifics.

Gutierrez holds a bachelor’s degree from Alverno College and a master of arts degree from Marquette University.

Following the spring election, the mayor needs to renominate all cabinet-level appointees for Common Council confirmation. The change also follows the sentencing last week for Woodall’s former deputy Kimberly Zapata, who was convicted of an election fraud felony for illegally requesting military ballots and sending them to the home of State Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls). During the trial, Zapata’s legal team argued she was acting as a whistleblower to expose a flaw in the system.

When Woodall was up for council confirmation in 2020, she almost didn’t make it through. After the council held all of the mayor’s nominees for a racial equity analysis, public records indicated Woodall accepted a job as city clerk for the City of West Allis and pulled out of the Milwaukee nomination process. But she ultimately returned to the city and was confirmed. At the time, Johnson, then council president, praised Woodall for returning and cast the deciding vote to confirm her appointment.

It is not immediately clear how Woodall’s reappointment would have fared before the council. A majority of the members were not on the council during the 2020 debate.

Woodall succeeded Neil Albrecht, whom she previously described as a mentor and who continued to help administer elections following his departure from the post. Prior to being appointed director, Woodall spent eight months as the City of Cedarburg’s clerk.

She did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday, but did tell reporter Patrick Marley that she was unsure of her employment status and was locked out of her city email account.

Woodall was the subject of several personal attacks during her time as commission director, largely owing to the city’s high-profile role in state elections. Despite repeated attempts to explain the nature of the central count process to sort and tabulate absentee ballots, the late-night reporting of absentee ballots has invited repeated conspiracy theories about election fraud.

Gutierrez previously worked in several public safety-related roles, including with the city and state. Her appointment is subject to Common Council confirmation.

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Categories: City Hall, Politics

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