After negotiating new airline leases needed to bankroll an $8.7 billion O’Hare Airport expansion project, Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans announced her resignation Tuesday to make way for popular Procurement Services Commissioner Jamie Rhee.
With a salary of $300,000 a year with an annual, $100,000 bonus, Evans is the city’s highest paid public official. She has been under fire from Chicago aldermen — and is particularly unpopular with Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th) — in part because she has not been deferential to aldermen.
Aldermen have been on the warpath against Evans for falling short on minority hiring and contracting at O’Hare and Midway and for the long-running saga over smelly sound insulation windows installed in homes around Midway.
Evans further angered aldermen by stripping 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.
Two aviation security officers were fired — and a suspended officer resigned — for their roles in dragging a bloodied and flailing Dr. David Dao down the aisle for refusing to give up his seat for a United crew member who needed to get to Louisville.
But, for all of those controversies, Evans delivered the four big things she was hired by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to do.
She completed and opened runways. She negotiated new airline use and lease agreement more favorable to the city now being used to bankroll Emanuel’s massive O’Hare expansion project. She has expanded international service to Chicago.
In fact, Chicago will soon become the nation’s only major city with service to all six continents.
And a massive overhaul aimed at remedying Midway Airport’s passenger annoyances — parking, security and concessions — is well underway.
With those accomplishments under her belt and her contract due to expire, Emanuel apparently decided that it’s time for a changing of the guard.
In Rhee, the mayor has installed a popular city official who held several top jobs at O’Hare and who has a good working relationship with aldermen who can ensure that African Americans and Hispanics get their fair share of the gravy train of jobs and contracts tied to the O’Hare expansion.
“Since my first days in office, Jamie been a trusted advisor and has impressed me with her remarkable intellect, incredible work ethic and dedication to ensuring that Chicagoans from all walks of life have the opportunity to earn contracts with the City of Chicago,” Emanuel was quoted as saying in a press release.
“As a procurement expert, lawyer and former employee of the Department of Aviation, Jamie will be able to oversee upcoming construction projects while also managing airport operations, and there is no doubt in my mind that Jamie is the right person to lead the Aviation Department to ensure Chicago’s economic vitality and cement our status as a global hub.”
Rhee has long been rumored as a possible replacement for the unpopular Evans.
As procurement chief, she has pioneered more than 20 programs and incentives tailor-made to bolster participation by minorities and women in the $2 billion in goods and service the city purchases every year.
A 24-year veteran city official, Rhee served as deputy chief of staff under former Mayor Richard M. Daley and served Daley in three city departments: Aviation, Law and Planning and Development. Rhee could not be reached for comment.
The press release quoted her as saying, “I am honored to continue my work with the City to serve its residents in any way that I can, and I am humbled by the Mayor’s faith in me,” said Rhee. “This is a tremendous opportunity to continue the work that we have done to highlight Chicago’s innovation, integrity, inclusion and transparency to the world.”
Although Evans was unpopular with aldermen, the mayor went out of his way to praise her.
“When I appointed Ginger three years ago, I tasked her with specific goals to modernize our airports and strengthen our status as a global transportation hub so that Chicago’s distinguished airports would not only be the busiest, but the best,” the mayor was quoted as saying.
“In a herculean feat accomplished in a small amount of time, Ginger has negotiated an historic $8.7 billion agreement to modernize O’Hare; opened two new runways and the first new gates in 25 years; undertaken the largest investment plan for Midway in nearly two decades; and attracted new airlines and services to make O’Hare not only the best connected airport in the nation, but the only American city to offer direct flights to all six major continents.”
Delivering new airline use and lease agreements was no small feat.
Four months ago, American Airlines was accusing Emanuel of favoring its archrival by awarding hometown United Airlines five additional gates.
American Airlines was alone among airlines in objecting to a new lease agreement — threatening legal action that could have grounded Emanuel’s massive O’Hare Airport expansion project — only to sign on after the city made a hazy promise to speed construction of three common-use gates that favor American.
Last month, Emanuel, Evans and American CEO Doug Parker joked about that political turbulence as they officially opened the first new gates at O’Hare in 25 years.
In what would turn out to be one of her final public appearances as commissioner, Evans declared on that day that O’Hare desperately needs “modern infrastructure and more gates. Many more gates.”
“These five gates will go a long way in improving service across the board for O’Hare with better on-time performance and more choices,” she said then.
Noting that fifteen “new international flights” have been added at O’Hare since Jan. 1, the commissioner said, “We are stressing the facilities. We’re doing it on purpose. We have to build the revenue that we need to generate [to bankroll] that new generation of growth for O’Hare.”
The O’Hare expansion plan that will now become an indelible part of Evans’ legacy calls for demolishing Terminal 2 and replacing it with a new “global terminal” shared by United and American Airlines that would accept both domestic and international flights.
The massive, multi-year makeover also calls for dozens of new gates and additional concourses.
O’Hare is poised to become the first so-called “global alliance hub” in the nation; it will allow domestic airlines and the international carriers with which those domestic airlines partner to all be located in the same terminal.
No longer would passengers connecting to international flights endure the delay and inconvenience of having to ride the O’Hare people mover to the international terminal.
The mayor views the project as so important to Chicago’s future — and his own — he rushed out to O’Hare to immediately sign new airline use and lease agreements after the City Council approved the project.
Baked into those leases are higher terminals rents and landing fees that will bankroll the $4 billion in general airport revenue and passenger facility charge bonds that aldermen authorized to get the project started.
The City Council’s Black and Hispanic Caucuses had threatened to hold up the $4 billion borrowing that will raise the mountain of O’Hare debt to $13 billion to press their demand for a fair share of jobs and contracts generated by the project.
But, they were appeased by the promise to create a task force that will meet quarterly and ride herd over O’Hare expansion contracting and hold Emanuel’s feet to the fire.