Deputy Mayor for Social Services Now Has a Boss Who Shares Her Agenda
Judging from the pictures around her old office last month, there is no question which New York City mayor Lilliam Barrios-Paoli has been most fond of. There was Edward I. Koch sitting pensively at his desk. There he was sitting on a sofa holding hands with her.
“I adored Ed Koch,” she said.
He was hardly the only mayor Ms. Barrios-Paoli worked for, and he was not especially engaged on the issues of poverty and social justice that have steered her career. But he stayed out of her way, she said. “Social services were not central to Koch’s vision,” she said, “but he understood the need and he allowed things to happen.”
That, it seems, was the best that Ms. Barrios-Paoli could hope for under the three mayors (Mr. Koch, Rudolph W. Giuliani and Michael R. Bloomberg) she served in a number of top personnel and human services jobs. Until now. As Mayor Bill de Blasio’s choice for deputy mayor for health and human services, Ms. Barrios-Paoli, 67, is expected to play a key role in addressing the issues of inequality and social welfare that drive his agenda and, she said, her own.
“For the first time in my life,” she said, “I’m going to be working for somebody who really, truly embraces the things that I do.”
A former nun, Ms. Barrios-Paoli, in her highest-ranking city job yet, oversees the agencies that deliver services to vulnerable populations like children in need of protection and the homeless. Deputy mayors are supposed to make sure their agencies carry out the mayor’s policies and vision, but Ms. Barrios-Paoli also brings an insider’s view. She has served variously as the commissioner of employment, personnel, housing, welfare and aging.
In her first month as deputy mayor, she has worked closely with Gladys Carrión, the newly appointed chief of the Administration for Children’s Services, on the inquiry into the death of a 4-year-old boy whose caregiver has been charged with abusing him. Ms. Barrios-Paoli — whose previous posts also include deputy commissioner of special services for children — helped draft recommendations arising from the inquiry, which found that case workers did not know that the child’s father had been incarcerated and was no longer caring for him.
“How do we build safeguards to make sure it doesn’t happen again?” she said.
Ms. Barrios-Paoli grew up in a wealthy family in Mexico City, where she was born to Cuban parents and where she said the divide between rich and poor was “very stark.” Her father was an advertising executive, and she remembers her stay-at-home mother collecting clothes among her friends and going to poor neighborhoods to hold giveaways from the trunk of her car.
The older of two daughters, Ms. Barrios-Paoli spent her novice years at the Kenwood Convent of the Sacred Heart in Albany and later joined the Madams of the Sacred Heart convent in Mexico City, where she did manual labor and taught boarding school girls. She quit after five years, feeling, she said, that she could do more elsewhere than as a nun; she entered college in Mexico City and soon married a classmate.
When Ms. Barrios-Paoli came to New York City in 1971 to get a master’s degree in anthropology at the New School, she joined the antiwar movement and other protests of the time, marching “my little feet off for everything,” she said. She had earned a doctorate, was divorced and was teaching at Rutgers University when the Koch administration hired her as director of management services for the Human Resources Administration, the city’s welfare agency.
Under Mr. Koch, she served as deputy commissioner of special services for children, as head of personnel and labor relations for the Human Resources Administration and then for the Health and Hospitals Corporation, and then as commissioner of employment.
Ms. Barrios-Paoli went to work in the nonprofit sector during the administration of Mayor David N. Dinkins — he never came calling, she said — but returned to government when Mayor Giuliani made her his director of personnel. She would subsequently run the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and later the Human Resources Administration.
But Ms. Barrios-Paoli was troubled by Mr. Giuliani’s welfare reform efforts, particularly new rules she found “punitive” such as fingerprinting.
“Instead of saying people are poor because of many circumstances, so let’s figure out where they are and let’s see how we can help them, what you’re doing is punishing them because you think they are doing this intentionally,” she said of the approach of making it harder to receive services.
Ms. Barrios-Paoli said she stuck it out because she felt responsibility for her work and because the administration did not want her to leave. She was eventually made executive director of the Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center in the Bronx, a move perceived by some as a demotion. But she and several former aides to Mr. Giuliani said the assignment to the hospital was not retaliatory. Randy M. Mastro, the former deputy mayor who recruited her, said that every position Ms. Barrios-Paoli had was “a measure of respect” for her abilities.
“She’s one of the best public servants the city has ever had, and Mayor de Blasio has chosen very wisely,” Mr. Mastro said.
Fran Reiter, another former deputy mayor, called her “a team player” despite the philosophical differences with some of Mr. Giuliani’s policies. Randy L. Levine, Mr. Giuliani’s former commissioner of labor relations, recalled that in difficult situations, Ms. Barrios-Paoli had a knack for saying “something that would lighten the room at the right time.”
She also has a reputation as a straight shooter and as someone who keeps communications open and listens. Jose Calderón, president of the Hispanic Federation and a member of Mr. de Blasio’s transition team, said that organizations in his coalition did not like it when Ms. Barrios-Paoli turned down requests for money when she worked as an executive at United Way, but that she was fair and had credibility.
“She’s always up front about what she can do,” he said.
Ms. Barrios-Paoli said she first crossed paths with Mr. de Blasio when he was a member of the City Council and the two bonded over their interest in Latin America and their shared interest in liberation theology, which espouses a Christian obligation to alleviate the plight of the poor. In his 20s, Mr. de Blasio helped distribute food and medicine in war-torn Nicaragua. At 18, Ms. Barrios-Paoli entered a convent looking, she said, for “a profession that would change people’s lives.”
But her candor raised eyebrows when, during the news conference at which Mr. de Blasio announced her new position, she criticized the Bloomberg administration for canceling a rental subsidy program and for “many things” she would have done differently. Some former Bloomberg administration officials found it a break of form, especially since she was still Mr. Bloomberg’s commissioner of aging.
“I don’t think they were particularly happy with me,” she conceded.
Jerilyn Perine, a friend who worked for Ms. Barrios-Paoli as an assistant and later as deputy commissioner at the housing preservation department, said Ms. Barrios-Paoli was just being herself. “That’s nothing she hasn’t told them to their faces,” she said.
Mr. de Blasio, she added, had better be prepared.
“This is Lilliam, and guess what? She’ll be the same with de Blasio,” Ms. Perine said. “She’s not a rubber-stamp kind of person. I think they know that.”