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Classic Royko: Who won it for Jane Byrne?

Jane Byrne and Michael A. Bilandic at Byrne's inauguration as mayor in 1979. | Sun-Times file photo

Editor’s note: Mike Royko wrote this column for the Chicago Daily News on the day after Mayor Jane Byrne’s victory in the 1979 Democratic Party primary.

It was the most stunning upset in the long, wild history of Chicago politics. And this column is about the single most important person involved in that incredible upset — the remarkable individual who made it happen.

And who would that be?

No, I’m not talking about some brilliant campaign manager, or media manipulator, or generous back-room financier, or any of the other political operatives who usually get top billing in the day-after election stories.

OPINION

And, no, it isn’t about Jane Byrne, although little Ms. Sourpuss finally has something to really smile about.

This column is about you. That’s right, YOU there, on the L train or bus, or in your kitchen reading this over morning coffee. You, at your punch press, or in your firehouse, or hospital cafeteria. You behind the counter in the department store, or jockeying the cab or unloading that truck.

You did it, you wild and crazy Chicagoans.

Oh, you finally did it. I’m still having trouble believing it. But you slammed your hand down on the table or bar or to your forehead and said: “Enough is enough!”

I don’t know when and why each of you made that decision, because there are too many hundreds of thousands of you who each made a contribution when you flipped the little lever and yanked the big one.

Maybe you were on the L platform, and your feet were like hunks of ice, and finally the overdue train was coming, but it just whipped by and was gone and you were still there. Maybe that was when you said to yourself: “All right, you bastards, this time I’m going to get even.”

Or maybe it was two weeks or three or even four weeks after the blizzard, and you walked out on your street and it still hadn’t seen a plow. And your garbage was becoming a monument. And that night you turned on your TV set, and somebody from City Hall was smugly and confidently saying that they had done a terrific job. And at that moment, you growled at your TV: “If I have anything to do with it, you phony, you are going to be looking for another line of work.”

If you live in Sandburg Village and other North Side buildings, your moment of decision might have been on the day the condo hustlebucks dropped the word on you that you could buy your apartment for a cutthroat price or get out.

It might have been the day you heard about Kenny Sain and his $90,000 snow job. That was rubbing salt into the wound, instead of spreading it on the expressways. You might have been one of the people who sat there figuring out how long it takes you to earn $90,000. Five years? Six? Nine?

Whatever you thought, and whenever you thought it — you did it. And they’re talking about you in New York, Los Angeles, Honolulu, Dallas, Seattle and in the White House. They’re reading about you in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, the London Times and the Washington Post. Walter Cronkite’s jaw has dropped from surprise.

They’re saying: “Did you see what happened in Chicago? The machine lost. It’s unbelievable.”

Yes, it is. And I hope those of you who did it really appreciate what you overcame to do the unbelievable. I hope you appreciate just who you stepped into the ring with and floored.

You were up against the machine, with its 25,000 or more vote-chasing patronage workers, its control of the election office, its skill at stealing votes and booby-trapping an opponent’s efforts and its huge bankroll.

You were up against the money men of LaSalle Street, the biggest bankers and utility heads, the bond houses and the top lawyers and corporate executives — men whose influence stretches across the entire country. They were solid for Mike Bilandic and they put their money and support and influence behind him.

You were up against the leaders of Chicago’s organized labor, all of whom pledged their support and that of their rank and file to Bilandic.

Finally, you were up against the deeply ingrained Chicago psychology that says nobody can beat the machine; that it is all-powerful; that it has been in control for almost 50 years, so if you’re smart and if you know what’s good for you, forget it.

But damned if you didn’t do it. You beat them. Each and every one of you who had something sticking in your craw marched up to that voting machine and contributed to doing the impossible.

Despite all the power and resources I described above, you gave the Democratic nomination to a woman who had virtually no organization, very little money and not one big shot in the city behind her.

But she had you. She had blacks who finally served notice that they are no longer any politician’s deliverable darkies. My, how the black wards stuck it to City Hall. She had neighborhood Poles who sent City Hall the message that they are not to be taken for granted any longer; if you can’t even clean a Pole’s streets, what good are you? She had high-rise people and bungalow people, on the West Side, North Side, South Side and the Lakefront.

You were all she had going for her, and when it was over, you were the magic 51 percent. Actually, if you add the votes she lost through the machine’s mischief, you might even be 54 or 55 percent. As one ward boss said when asked by a flunky if City Hall would demand a recount: “Are you kidding? With all the votes we stole?”

I hope you feel good about what you did, because you should feel great. And not just because Jane Byrne has the nomination and will probably be the next mayor. She and her political success are not what made Tuesday’s vote so important.

What made it one of the great days in Chicago history was that at long last you stood up and said to all the power blocs: “Hey, we decide. Not you. Us. Me. Just like they teach it in the civics books.”

Thanks to you, and you, and you, and you, and all youse youse, today I feel prouder to be a Chicagoan than I ever have in my life.

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