He was once part of the “cabal of evil men” whom ousted Consumer Services Commissioner Jane Byrne accused of “greasing” a taxicab fare hike and testified about before a federal grand jury.
He went on to become one of her closest City Council allies — so much so that he agreed to become her candidate for state’s attorney in the 1980 Democratic primary in a failed attempt to stop Richard M. Daley.
On Friday, Ald. Edward Burke (14th) reminisced about his roller-coaster ride with Byrne as he remembered the first and only woman to become Chicago’s mayor.
“In politics, there are no permanent enemies, no permanent friends, only permanent interests,” Burke said, quoting Edmund Burke.
“Reviewing the past and my relationship with Jane, I’d have to say it had all the elements of drama and humor and determination.”
Burke was as candid as he has ever been about his 1980 suicide mission against Daley.
The alderman recalled that Byrne was hell-bent on stopping Daley, her political nemesis, and along with then-Ald. Edward Vrdolyak (10th), her hand-picked Cook County Democratic Party chairman, tried to persuade a host of other candidates to take on Daley, all of whom declined.
“I guess I was the last one standing for the task,” Burke recalled Friday.
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And why did he agree to do it when he knew he would lose?
“It was a combination of things that also involved probably 60 or 70 loyal, faithful 14th Ward political supporters [who] were on lay-offs and had mortgages and tuition payments to pay. It was a way of helping them,” Burke said.
Which speaks to Byrne’s toughness and her willingness to take on “the boys” in Chicago politics.
“Having gone through adversity — she was widowed at an early age. She was trying to raise her daughter as a single mom. She needed to go to work and get a job. All of those are elements that, I’m sure, went into her make-up and toughened her. She had a tough road to hoe and she did it with style, determination and strength,” the alderman recalled.
Byrne would need that toughness when she took office. In short order, she was forced to endure a firefighters strike, a CTA strike, a teachers strike and the financial collapse of the Chicago Board of Education.
“She went through a lot and, probably if it wasn’t for the firefighters strike, she could have been a candidate for vice president. . . . It was never the same after the firefighters strike,” the alderman said.
Ultimately, Byrne’s hardball politics got in the way. The mass firings she ordered laid the groundwork for a federal court order banning political hiring and firing that would take Chicago 42 years to get out from under, the alderman said.
“It probably set the stage for the ultimate Shakman decision, which changed the landscape of Chicago politics and Illinois politics forever,” Burke said.
“Because of the heavy-handed way that personnel issues were addressed, it probably made it more likely that a court was gonna step in.”
But none of that can erase the fond memories and lasting legacies left behind by Jane Byrne.
They include the museum campus, the international terminal at O’Hare Airport and the concept plan that ultimately set the stage for re-developing Navy Pier.
There was also Taste of Chicago, the neighborhood festivals, The Blues Brothers and other movie-making that put Chicago into what Burke called an “international frame of mind.”
“Being a woman, No. 1, helped her to understand a lot more about the population.… She had an attitude that was not restricted to what traditional Chicago politicians thought they should do. She had a broader sense of what a modern, American world-class city should incorporate,” Burke said.
Quite an accomplishment for the young widow who parlayed her close relationship with former Mayor Richard J. Daley — and the role the elder Daley gave her as co-chairwoman of the Democratic Party — and went on to become Chicago’s first and only female mayor.
“She beat insurmountable odds. In the election annals, it had been 1927 when the last candidate for mayor had defeated the machine. And she did it,” Burke said.