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Ginger Evans an expert on airports and engineering — but not politics and people

Chief Procurement Officer Jamie Rhee (right) talks to her spokesperson Cathy Kwiatkowski (left) before testifying last year at City Council budget hearings. | Fran Spielman for the Sun-Times

Jamie Rhee has a bubbly personality and extraordinary people skills. A simple “Hello” can trigger a 10-minute conversation.

Ginger Evans is a no-nonsense, get-it-built engineer almost out of central casting. She’s an airport and construction expert who lacks people skills.

Aldermen interviewed Wednesday say those differences go a long way toward explaining why Chicago’s $300,000-a-year aviation commissioner — plus a $100,000-a-year bonus — is on her way out and why Rhee is on her way in.

Put Evans on the pile of outsiders ground up and spit out by Chicago’s unique brand of parochial politics. Evans joins the likes of Robert Penn, Robert Paaswell, Robert Belcaster, Ruth Love, Jody Weis and even current mayoral challenger Garry McCarthy.

Chicago Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans | Rich Hein/Sun-Times
Chicago Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

“She was not a people person — and most engineers are not. It’s a lesson that you can be an expert in certain things and not an expert in other things,” said Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), chairman of the City Council’s Hispanic Caucus.

“Ginger’s expertise was dealing with the airports, the airlines and infrastructure improvements. … She fell short as it relates to dealing with public bodies. She would have been successful had she realized that and brought somebody on who could deal with elected officials.”

Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) is a former Southwest Airlines skycap who clashed with Evans over the commissioner’s controversial decision to strip Aviation security officers of their titles and policing powers in the disastrous aftermath of the April 2017, passenger dragging fiasco aboard United Airlines Flight 3411.

Analysis

“Ginger’s mentality in dealing both with the Council and our constituents wasn’t a good fit for this city. … She underestimated her interactions with the Council as well as her responsibilities to deal with the people,” Lopez said.

Lopez pointed to Evans’ “very aloof” response to thousands of Southwest Side homeowners concerned about smelly sound insulation windows installed around Midway Airport.

“That kind of disconnect was part of her downfall,” he said.

“Our politics is very much local, and when our residents are trying to talk to their department leaders to say, `Are my windows killing me?’ they want to make sure that you care and that you’re not off jet-setting to Aspen complaining about the food at your five-star restaurant.”

Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st) clashed with Evans over O’Hare jet noise and the commissioner’s refusal to keep north-south runways open.

“Her mission was to keep pushing it along and to find any way to over-step what I wanted to do,” Napolitano said. “They always say, `You moved next to an airport.’ That’s nonsense. … In 2013 when they changed the runways, our neighborhood is a completely different neighborhood. We did not move next to that. They changed the airport.”

Department of Procurement Services Commissioner Jamie Rhee spoke to the City Club of Chicago on June 14, 2017.
Department of Procurement Services Commissioner Jamie Rhee spoke to the City Club of Chicago on June 14, 2017. | Rich Hein/ Sun-Times
Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

Napolitano expects a much more empathetic response from Rhee, who will be paid $275,000-a-year, $25,000 less than Evans and $125,000 less when you count the outgoing commissioner’s annual bonus.

“Jamie’s awesome. She’s gonna bring a breath of fresh air. You can say `Hi’ to Jamie and you’re gonna have a conversation,” Napolitano said.

“She’s a people person. If she can’t do what you want her to do, she’ll do it with a smile. But she’ll find a way to work with you. … I want her to acknowledge that this has changed our way of life … and the noise abatement program has to be expanded.”

Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), a former Chicago Police officer, said he plans to ask Rhee to consider restoring policing powers to aviation security officers whose plight he has championed.

“It increases safety at the airports — rather than decreasing safety, which Commissioner Evans has done,” Taliaferro said. “It’s time for new leadership at the airport. … I just didn’t work well with her.”

Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), Emanuel’s City Council floor leader, credited Evans with accomplishing “some really important things for us” at O’Hare and Midway.

They include: opening new runways; expanding international service; negotiating new airline use and lease agreements needed to bankroll the $8.7 billion O’Hare expansion project, and remedying the parking, security and concession problems that have shackled Midway Airport.

But even he admitted that Chicago and Evans were an uncomfortable fit.

“Not understanding Chicago government and not understanding that she was working for a municipality and not like a board of people like in other places where she had worked, the dynamic was very different,” O’Connor said. “The involvement of the Council and the administration is much more direct than it is when you’re doing it with regional authorities.”

Still, O’Connor argued that no amount of political animosity can change the formidable record of accomplishments.

“She really was there to perform certain tasks, and she did. The fact that she wasn’t able to do it and have everybody smiling when they left the room, that’s unfortunate. But she got it done,” the alderman said.