The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Departure of D.C. mayor’s right-hand man leaves ‘gap that has to be filled’

John Falcicchio, right, sits next to D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser at a cabinet meeting in July 2021, when he was deputy mayor. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)
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As she celebrated her third inauguration in early January, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser posed for a photograph with dozens of city hall staffers, a crowd that included a close adviser who stood next to her, as he has since she took office, basking in their success.

John Falcicchio has been an unceasing pillar of Bowser’s political life for more than 15 years, a reign that ended March 17 when he suddenly resigned as her chief of staff and deputy mayor for planning and economic development. A few days later, lawyers representing a woman who works for the D.C. government accused Falcicchio of sexual harassment.

Falcicchio’s resignation has rattled the city’s political establishment and unleashed a torrent of speculation about what drove his abrupt departure. It also cost Bowser her closest and longest serving adviser, a confidant in whom she vested more power than anyone in her government.

Other high-ranking Bowser advisers have left the administration over the years, including Neil O. Albert, chair of the D.C. Housing Authority Board of Commissioners, who departed in 2021 amid a contracting scandal. But Falcicchio has remained by her side — fierce, reliable, and loyal.

Until now.

“She is losing a lot of experience,” said Mark H. Tuohey, Bowser’s former general counsel, describing Falcicchio as the mayor’s “right arm and left arm.”

“He was very devoted to her and her agenda,” he said. “It’s a gap that has to be filled.”

Falcicchio, 43, did not respond to multiple texts seeking comment. No one answered the door at his Northwest apartment Thursday. Nor has he said whether he has retained an attorney. His Twitter account, which he has used on a near daily basis to promote the city and the administration, has been inactive since March 10, a day after the Mayor’s Office of Legal Counsel said it notified him of the allegations.

In his resignation letter to Bowser, which was released Saturday by the legal counsel office, Falcicchio wrote that “my decision is driven by some personal matters I must attend to and my interest in exploring other opportunities.”

“I believe that, after two immensely successful terms, you and the District may be better served by fresh ideas,” he wrote. “As you embark on what will, no doubt, be a successful third term as our Mayor, this is also the appropriate time for my departure.”

Three days after his resignation, Bowser announced that she had asked her legal counsel office to open an investigation related to Falcicchio but did not specify the reason for the probe because of “privacy concerns.”

Several hours later, the alleged victim’s attorneys, Debra S. Katz and Kayla Morin, asserted in a statement that the allegations made by their client, who has not been publicly identified, “involve unwelcome advances and sexual contact.”

How the mayor is weathering the loss of Falcicchio is unclear. Her partnership with him stretches back to 2007, when he managed her campaign for the D.C. Council. “That’s not what we’re talking about today or what’s important to the people of the District of Columbia,” Bowser said at a news conference.

Asked at a subsequent news conference if she knew of any previous allegations against Falcicchio, Bowser allowed Vanessa Natale, the deputy director of the legal counsel office, to answer for her. “Mayor Bowser cannot comment on that right now,” Natale said.

A prized confidant

Even as they are the public faces of their administrations, elected leaders often have a prized confidant who lingers in the background, an alter ego who understands them and the often distinct and complex challenges of politics and leading a government. Karl Rove was President George W. Bush’s guy. President Barack Obama had David Axelrod. In D.C., Marion Barry Jr. had Ivanhoe Donaldson, an ally from the civil rights movement who helped him become mayor before serving in his cabinet.

Falcicchio has filled that role for two D.C. mayors, the first being Adrian Fenty (D), with whom he built a political organization that came to be known as “the Green Team,” a robust network of campaign donors, civic leaders and grass-roots supporters.

When Fenty anointed Bowser to take his council seat, she benefited from the Green Team’s support, as she did when she won the mayoralty in 2014.

“John was the essential glue,” said Tom Lindenfeld, who was a campaign consultant for both Fenty and Bowser. “His calling card has always been his knowledge of who has been politically and financially supportive. He knew all the people who were supportive of Fenty and he did the same for Muriel. That network has been the continuum.”

Falcicchio, who grew up in Jersey City and graduated from Catholic University in 2001, got his start in Democratic politics the following year as a field organizer in Maine, according to a résumé he submitted to the council in 2020. He did the same work on Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. By his own account, it was on Dean’s campaign where Falcicchio first referred to himself as “Johnny Business” — a nickname that stuck — after he declined colleagues’ invitation to go drinking on a Saturday night because he was working.

He joined Fenty’s mayoral campaign in 2006 as an all-purpose utility man who developed a talent for fundraising.

“He would stay all hours of the day and night and do whatever needed to get done,” Lindenfeld said. “We would do sign waving in the morning, canvassing in the evening and then meet and greets. John was at everything. He was where Fenty was.”

Fenty, who did not respond to a text message seeking comment, hired him as a senior adviser upon becoming mayor, assigning him duties that included recruiting people to serve on boards and commissions and serving as a liaison with the Obama White House.

During their unsuccessful 2010 reelection race, Lindenfeld said Falcicchio was always loyal to Fenty’s wishes. “I’d say, ‘This won’t work, he won’t win,’ and John would say, ‘This is what the boss wants and I’m doing what the boss wants,’” Lindenfeld recalled.

Bill Lightfoot, who served as campaign chair for both Fenty and Bowser, said Falcicchio’s focus “was to carry out orders.” “He has a way of learning what his boss wants and then carrying it out without expressing his own views or biases,” Lightfoot said. “He’s always willing to make himself available.”

Falcicchio, in a 2020 interview with Washington City Paper, said the key to his success with two mayors is that “I like to throw myself into the work, so I work hard, and I work long.”

“Always make yourself indispensable,” he said. “Do whatever is needed in order to get the job done.”

After Vincent C. Gray succeeded Fenty as mayor, Falcicchio worked for the Democratic National Committee as a regional political director for two years. He joined DKC Public Relations, a New York firm, in 2013, where he “advised nonprofits, celebrities and corporations” on “strategies for both proactive and crisis communications,” according to his résumé.

Falcicchio did not have a paid role in Bowser’s 2014 mayoral campaign, but he introduced her to Bo Shuff, who became her campaign manager, and helped with fundraising and strategy. After Bowser won the race, Falcicchio was director of her transition team before she appointed him as chief of staff. As of October, city records show, he earned a salary of $230,626.

“If I needed leaves picked up on Q Street I’d call John, if I needed repaving, I’d call John — he’s the fix-it guy, he gets it done,” said former council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2). “Everyone knows John. John is the guy we go to. And now he’s out of there, so who do we go to? That’s the big question.”

An unmatched portfolio

When Brian Kenner, Bowser’s deputy mayor for planning and economic development, departed in 2019, she appointed Falcicchio as the interim replacement. The assignment gave him a portfolio that was unmatched in her government and, perhaps, any previous administration.

The following year, Bowser nominated Falcicchio to take the job permanently. The council approved Falcicchio’s appointment, though two members opposed, with Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) and then-council member David Grosso (I-At Large) saying they were concerned about his lack of development experience. Others questioned whether he was spread too thin to perform either of his roles effectively.

“Imagine if the president’s chief of staff also served as the secretary of defense,” said Bill Slover, who often disagreed with Falcicchio when both were on the D.C. Housing Authority Board of Commissioners. “Being chief of staff is a full-time job in itself. How is it possible for the guy to be doing all that effectively while running the portfolio of economic development?”

As Bowser entered her third term, Falcicchio was by her side when she released her “Comeback Plan” to revive downtown. He sought any opportunity to amplify her push to persuade property owners to turn vacant office buildings into apartments. He also continued to promote her goal of creating 36,000 units of new housing by 2025.

As February turned into March, Falcicchio’s duties included leading a five-city bus trip to promote D.C.’s Cherry Blossom Festival. The tour featured him bantering with morning TV show hosts and urging viewers to visit Washington.

“You’re are a great ambassador for D.C.!” a Fox TV anchor gushed as he appeared on a split screen from Boston in a pink ski hat, with the tour’s pink bus behind him.

Nineteen days later, the mayor disclosed Falcicchio’s resignation in one sentence that appeared at the bottom of a news release announcing who would fill the two roles he held.

“We also thank Deputy Mayor John Falcicchio for his years of service to the District as he transitions to the private sector,” the release said. Members of the mayor’s inner circle, as well as the broader political community beyond, were stunned.

It was not until three days later, on March 20, that the reason for Falcicchio’s departure became clear.

“Our client is cooperating fully,” the attorneys for Falcicchio’s alleged victim wrote. “She came forward to ensure accountability and protect other women.”

Now, when the mayor appears in public, her right-hand man is nowhere in sight.

Emily Davies and Michael Brice-Saddler contributed to this report.