Milwaukee’s election leader has been ousted by the mayor in a surprise move that comes just six months before Wisconsin’s largest city will be in the spotlight in the presidential swing state.

Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson announced on May 6 that he would be replacing Milwaukee Election Commission Executive Director Claire Woodall with her deputy, Paulina Gutierrez.

Milwaukee has been at the center of attention in Wisconsin, a state known for close elections and where four of the past six presidential contests have been decided by less than a percentage point.

In 2020, former President Donald Trump and others were quick to cry fraud after late-arriving results from Democratic-dominated Milwaukee helped Joe Biden narrowly carry the state by just under 21,000 votes. Recounts demanded by Trump confirmed Biden’s victory.

The change has nothing to do with how Woodall ran elections, but instead had to do with “other issues internal to the election commission office and to city government that raised concern,” said the mayor’s spokesperson Jeff Fleming. He declined to say what those issues were.

“People see one side on this side of the camera, but there are other things on the other side of the camera that I also have to deal with and that’s exactly what I did with my decision,” Mayor Johnson told WISN-TV. He declined to elaborate.

Woodall did not return messages seeking comment. Her replacement, Gutierrez, also did not return messages. Woodall has been straightforward about the challenges she and other election officials have felt in recent years.

She has described being harassed and threatened after the 2020 election via email, phone calls and letters to her home — threats serious enough that she has an assigned FBI agent to forward them to.

The change came after Woodall’s former deputy, Kimberly Zapata, was sentenced to probation and fined $3,000 after being convicted of misconduct in office and fraud for obtaining fake absentee ballots. Zapata argued that she was acting as a whistleblower, exposing vulnerabilities in the state’s election system.

Mayor Johnson and others who work in elections stressed that the change would not affect how elections are run in Milwaukee.

“Paulina’s integrity and capabilities are ideally suited to this position,” Mayor Johnson said in a statement announcing the change. “She will lead the office at an important juncture when public scrutiny of the work of the department will be extremely high. I have confidence in her, and I will make certain the department has the resources it needs to fulfill its duties.”

Gutierrez has only been a staff member at the city election commission for a little over a year. Neil Albrecht, who led the office for 15 years before retiring in May 2020, has offered his assistance as a volunteer, Fleming said. Woodall took over for Albrecht in 2020 and had been leading the office until now.

Following his reelection in April, Mayor Johnson had to renominate all of his Cabinet-level positions for city council approval. That is why he decided to make the change at this time, Fleming said.

None of the city’s three election commissioners returned messages seeking comment. But Ann Jacobs, a Democratic member of the Wisconsin Elections Commission from Milwaukee, said she was surprised by the move.

“Changes like this are always challenging, but given how many elections Wisconsin has there’s no ‘good time’ for these sort of changes to happen,” Jacobs said. “I expect the office to be professional and to continue their work and that the election will be run smoothly and properly.”

Jacobs stressed that elections are run by teams of people.

“The administration of elections isn’t something that is dependent on one person,” she said. “It is dependent on the workflow, the task flows and the operations of an entire office.”

Scott Bauer

Associated Press

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Lee Matz