Editor’s note: In 1999, former Mayor Jane Byrne wrote of beating the machine and serving as mayor for a Sun-Times series called “20th Century Chicago.” Her essay was later reprinted in the book, “100 Years, 100 Voices.”
Here is her offering:
Snow brings an avalanche of change
By Jane M. Byrne
It began in the snow.
At a minute to midnight, I welcomed in the New Year of 1979 by kneeling at the open window of my Near North Side apartment for a moment of prayer and then expected to hear the shouts of merrymakers.
But there were no sounds from the streets below. Chicago had been hit by a big storm.
Earlier that night, I had planned a birthday party for my daughter Kathy. But because of the near-record snowfall, none of the guests could make it. The same thing was happening all over the city.
Yet as I looked out my window, the snow-covered city looked quite beautiful. More than two feet of snow fell before it was over.
As an underdog candidate for mayor, I had sensed for months that there was discontent in the neighborhoods. Even before the blizzard, it was clear to me that senior citizens, minorities and women were in the mood for change.
When it was clear that the city had failed in its snow-removal efforts, there were some indications that the blizzard might be a factor in the election. Then it became a mess.
As the temperature dropped way below freezing, the two feet of snow were turned into solid ice. Several weeks later, two more feet of snow fell and our city was buried. The garbage couldn’t be picked
up. Trains came to a halt. The airport closed. The blizzard exposed the myth that Chicago was “the city that works.”
By the middle of February, polls indicated that I was coming on strong though still trailing Mayor Michael A. Bilandic. But on election night, Feb. 27, I did what the pundits and politicians said couldn’t be done. My Democratic primary victory – and election as mayor a few months later – disproved the myth that “You can’t fight City Hall.” All across Chicago, people voted for change.
It was the first time in Chicago’s history that a woman had been elected mayor and the first time since 1927 that the Regular Democratic organization’s slated candidate had lost. If the blizzard of ’79 helped to achieve this result, my election was regarded as a second blizzard by the political establishment.
When I took office, I faced some tough decisions. I was told by bureau chiefs that the city’s finances were in trouble, that mass transit workers were on the verge of a strike and that the school system was in chaos. All of these reports turned out to be true.
The CTA workers went on strike in the middle of the Christmas shopping season. The union had to give up its cost-of-living escalator. When the public and news media supported the city’s position, the strike was short-lived.
In November, it was announced that the schools were deeply in debt. A bailout was eventually structured with the state’s aid.
There was also great drama that year. Just before Memorial Day, Chicago witnessed one of the worst air disasters in history as an American Airlines DC-10 lost an engine after takeoff from O’Hare and plunged to earth. All 271 aboard and two on the ground perished.
Then there was the memorable 2 1/2-day visit of His Holiness Pope John Paul II in October. His goal was to get as close to “the little guy” as possible. More than a half-million people turned out for his mass at Grant Park. It was very cold during the mass as the wind blew off the lake. But the warmth of the crowd filled the air.