BY DANIEL P. SMITH
Jamie Rhee has built a career out of making government agencies work for the people they serve. Now she oversees the Chicago area’s two airports, helping millions of travelers move safely on their way each year.
Jamie Rhee can’t tell you the last time she had a vacation. But to be fair, Rhee, the commissioner of the Chicago Department of Aviation (CDA), isn’t that interested in escaping in a world packed with so much action, so much energy, so much movement.
A native of Geneseo, Illinois, a one-stoplight town about 150 miles west of Chicago, Rhee now guides one of the world’s foremost air transportation hubs, a municipal enterprise that includes O’Hare International Airport—one of the globe’s busiest airports—and its
urban sister, Midway International Airport. Together, the two facilities cater to 105 million passengers
each year, including 83 million at O’Hare alone.
“Every day, we move the equivalent of Cincinnati’s population through O’Hare,” Rhee beamed.
A 25-year veteran of Chicago government, Rhee credits MSU sociology professor Carl Taylor with introducing her to a potential career in government—through a project investigating Detroit’s street gangs—and late MSU criminal justice professor Zolton Ferency for helping her see a path to meaningful public sector work.
“I wanted to have an impact and government seemed a great place to do that,” Rhee said.
At Ferency’s suggestion, Rhee pursued a law degree at night while spending her days in a customer service role at O’Hare, where she leveraged her proficiency in French, Spanish and Japanese to assist travelers and support immigration and customs officials.
After earning her law degree from DePaul University in 2000, Rhee wove her way through Chicago’s civic labyrinth. She worked in the CDA press office and the city’s Department of Planning and Development, then returned to O’Hare to serve as general counsel for the $15 billion O’Hare Modernization Program before becoming deputy chief of staff in the mayor’s office. The work invigorated her.
“Working for the government has given me direct access to people and the ability to make changes that can improve lives,” said Rhee, who certified thousands of minority-owned, women-owned and disadvantaged-business enterprises as the city’s chief procurement officer. “That gave people across Chicago the tools and resources to earn work with the city.”
In July 2018, Rhee’s public sector career again circled back to its starting place when then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed her CDA commissioner. Today, she navigates complex issues in aviation and government in a city known for its municipal complexities.
Whether it’s holding town hall meetings with O’Hare staff, visiting third-shift motor truck drivers at Midway, or connecting with elected officials, airline partners or agencies at the federal or local level, Rhee is committed to keeping travelers safe, elevating CDA’s performance and maintaining the city’s airports with an employee army some 1,600 strong.
“Right down to cleaning the bathrooms, we do it all,” Rhee said.
She is currently shepherding the $8.5 billion O’Hare 21 expansion project headlined by a new international terminal; directing a $400 million modernization effort at Midway; and ensuring that the CDA Code of Conduct she implemented spurs intended improvements in diversity, accountability and transparency. “I take pride in getting things done,” Rhee said, “and we’re making things happen here.”
The good news for Rhee: When she does decide to take that vacation, she’ll know her way around the airport.