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New York Port Authority chief to fill top O’Hare Airport job

Travelers at O'Hare International Airport

Ald. Ed Burke's office would call to make sure United Maintenance's contract to provide custodial services at O'Hare International Airport was paid right away, former Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans told the Sun-Times. | AP file photo

Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans has chosen an African-American woman who runs New York’s Port Authority to be her chief operating officer at O’Hare Airport, City Hall sources said Thursday.

Stephanie Dawson will replace Jonathan Leach, a holdover from the team assembled by former Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino.

Dawson could not be reached for comment.

Leach resigned earlier this week, exacerbating a leadership vacuum under Evans that the commissioner has blamed on salaries too low to compete for top talent.

Stefanie Dawson

Earlier this week, Evans told the Chicago Sun-Times that she had identified an “absolutely dynamic” replacement for Leach, whom she refused to identify. She also said she had convinced top mayoral aides to pay that replacement accordingly.

Evans is the city’s highest paid public official, with an annual salary of $300,000 and a contract that allows her to earn a performance bonus of $100,000 a year.

“There is now a clear understanding that we need a handful of highly qualified people. We need to retain them. We need to pay something like market value. People are not gonna take a huge pay cut to come here,” Evans said.

“Los Angeles pays its chief development officer $350,000,” she said. “We’ll never be in that league. But we can’t pay what historically these salaries have been if we hope to capitalize on this incredible opportunity” to rebuild O’Hare and Midway.

As chief operating officer of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Dawson rides herd over 3,500 employees and 22 facilities that together generate $4.1 billion in revenue.

That includes airports, tunnels, bridges and terminals; port commerce; PATH Rail, operations and an Office of Storm Mitigation and Resilience.

Last spring, Dawson was one of three finalists vying to become executive director of the Port of Portland.

Dawson is a graduate of Cornell University who holds a master’s degree in public administration from Marist College and a master of science in strategic studies from the U.S. Army War College.

She is a retired colonel in the U.S. Army who won the Bronze Star and the National Defense Service Medal for her service in Iraq. She also commanded a military unit at Ground Zero after the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001, that destroyed the World Trade Center towers.

In 2008, Dawson became the first female brigade commander in New York National Guard history when she was appointed to lead the Harlem Hellfighters. The unit gained fame for its World War I heroics while fighting German troops in the trenches in France.

Last year, Dawson reflected on her service at Ground Zero after being chosen as one of three grand marshals of New York’s Veteran’s Day Parade. The honor was particularly poignant because it marked the 15th anniversary of 9/11.

In an interview with the New York Daily News, Dawson talked about standing outside the World Trade Center’s North Tower, then returning to the disaster scene hours later as executive officer of the Harlem Hellfighters.

“One day I’m sitting in civilian clothes, doing my thing in the technology services department. And the next day, I have on my uniform, and I’m seeing my colleagues going about their work. . . . It was heartbreaking to be down there,” the Daily News quoted her as saying.

During that same interview, Dawson tied her Army career to her civilian success.

“What you need to learn is to lead without knowing all the answers,” she said then. “That’s one of the strengths of the military — leadership is key. . . . I believe leadership is like a muscle — the more you use it, the better you get at it.”

Last year, the City Council’s Black Caucus demanded that Emanuel tie Evans’ $100,000-a-year bonus to her “abysmal” performance on minority contracting and hiring at O’Hare and Midway airports.

The question now is whether an African-American woman who was raised in Brooklyn will appease them.