She has a reputation as an influential arm-twister who serves as the mayor’s muscle. But she’s so obscure that her name has hardly ever appeared in the newspaper.
How does a woman end up so powerful and unknown at the same time? Our City Hall reporter Liam Dillon decided to find out, encountering more than a few obstacles as he sought to understand the mayor’s chief of staff.
I talked to Dillon about the challenges of writing this week’s special report, a profile of Kris Michell.
What were some of your obstacles in researching and writing this story?
This is the first in-depth profile I’ve written about someone who decided not to speak with me. It’s a challenge to profile someone without hearing her own voice.
While she shows up from time to time at public events, she’s never in the spotlight, never quoted, never someone who speaks. There’s no public record or videos of her. She was as much of a blank slate for me as she was for most people, and that meant anybody could define her however they wanted to.
I had a hard time trying to evaluate the veracity of my sources. Everyone had an interest or stake in defining who she was.
What were their motives?
People might want to ingratiate themselves with the Mayor’s Office or with her. Or people who really dislike her may want to settle a score.
Your story says she declined to be interviewed because you were asking personal questions about her. Were you?
Yes, I was. The reason is that I don’t know what I’m going to write until I know everything about someone. To say I’m not even able to ask questions is going too far.
But your story didn’t delve into personal things like her marriage and family.
I didn’t see the relevance. And I don’t think she has anything to hide. I thought it was more relevant to talk about her real estate holdings because that fit in with the theme of her being interested in buildings, real estate and large construction.
What’s the reaction been to the story?
I’ve heard from a lot of people from the general public who said they had not known anything about her and were pleased to find that this person existed. And I’ve heard through a third party that she thought the story was fair.
The most criticism I’ve heard is from folks who aren’t fond of her who thought the story was soft. I don’t think there was anything that I would want to include that I didn’t, but there were details that people weren’t willing to give me on the record.
I don’t think anyone should be given the cloak of anonymity to talk frankly about this person in this position. And the people who wouldn’t give me things on the record were the ones complaining that it was too soft.
What were you unable to fully understand about her?
It’s tough to understand what motivates somebody. I asked that question a lot, and I got answers that I thought were kind of trite.
It’s not an easy life. It’s 70-80 hours a week, it’s high pressure and high stress, and you’re always fighting with someone and upsetting someone. There’s no getting around that. I want to know why someone is interested in that kind of life.
What did your story accomplish?
It removes a curtain from someone who’s been successful at hiding behind it. It makes her part of the public discussion, as she should be.
And just because I wrote a big story doesn’t mean it’s over. If anybody has anything to say about her, I’m here to listen.