Architect of Jane Byrne’s 1979 upset decries “sexism” she endured

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The political consultant who guided Jane Byrne’s improbable 1979 victory over the Democratic machine on Friday decried the “sexism” that tainted her legacy and prevented Byrne from being honored until the waning days of her life.

“She was hideously maligned for almost everything she did and I believe it was sexism. Sometimes the critics were right, but she did a lot of decent things and got slapped for all of them,” said Don Rose.

“When she moved into Cabrini Green, everybody tried to write it off as a publicity stunt. But she drew major attention to policing there and, eventually, a police station was put into the area. She stopped the police habit of raiding gay bars and shaking down patrons. She introduced Jazz Fest and neighborhood festivals that made this city a happier place. But, all everybody remembers is her mistakes.”

Rose said Byrne’s biggest mistake was in “listening to the wrong people.” Chief among them was her own husband, Jay McMullen.

“Charlie Swibel, Ed Vrdolyak and my good friend Jay McMullen led her down the wrong path, the most important of which was racist,” Rose recalled.

“They convinced her that Richie Daley was gonna come after her and the only way she was gonna defeat Richie Daley was to ‘out-seg’ him. That’s a term they use in the South. She put racist [white] members on the school board and CHA board in place of African-Americans. She was trying to play to what she deemed Richie’s Northwest and Southwest Side constituents and lost the black and liberal community. If she hadn’t done that, she might have been mayor until the day she died.”

Rose said the decision to turn the City Council over to Vrdolyak and Ald. Edward Burke (14th) — both of whom Byrne once condemned as part of a “cabal of evil men” — was not only a huge mistake. It was totally unnecessary.

“She had a choice between going with these guys or developing her own coalition. I know she could have had one because I had many of them lined up already. It was most of the black aldermen, all of the progressive white aldermen and some of the Northwest Side machine guys who didn’t feel they needed to be with the Southwest Side,” Rose recalled.

“She chose to go with Vrdolyak. My personal feeling is Jay [McMullen] had something to do with it. Jay used to say City Hall was lined with the bones of reformers. He, among others, persuaded her that it would be a much easier path to go along with the Old Guard.”

And why was Byrne so desperate to become “one of the boys” that she ended up turning her administration over to them?

“There were all of these contradictions built in. She was basically a politician of the old school — the school of Richard J. Daley — and entering the new world and becoming a reformer of sorts was kind of a struggle for her — except during the campaign. During the campaign, she was one of the best candidates I ever worked with. She took advice, internalized it and won an election,” Rose said.

Rose said the biggest mis-nomer about Byrne was that she was an accidental mayor whose improbable victory was clinched by a singular event: the Blizzard of `79 that buried then-Mayor Michael Bilandic.

In fact, Rose argued that it was a whole lot bigger than the blizzard.

“People used to ask me afterward, what would you have done if it hadn’t snowed. I said, we would have found plenty of other issues because people were fed up,” Rose said.

“Jane Byrne was the first insider who broke with the Machine. She wasn’t Leon Despres, Marty Oberman or Dick Simpson standing on the outside looking in. She was was an insider saying what’s wrong. Bilandic was eminently defeatable. He was not a particularly good candidate. He couldn’t give a speech without putting people to sleep.”

In many ways, Rose said Byrne’s tenure included several events all-but-certain to turn anyone into a one-term mayor.

The tumultuous first half of her only term included: a teachers strike; the financial collapse of the Board of Education; the resignation of a longtime schools superintendent; a CTA strike; a penny sales tax increase to bail out the CTA and a 23-day strike by Chicago firefighters.

“She was unfortunately left with the legacy of the previous mayor. We found out that school finances had been rigged for years. We discovered that what was then First National Bank and Richard J. Daley had been cooking the school board’s books for ages,” Rose recalled.

Byrne was to blame only for the firefighters strike. She had campaigned on a promise to give contracts to police officers and firefighters, ending the elder Daley’s longstanding tradition of having only handshake agreements with those unions.

But, after taking office, Byrne dragged her feet in honoring the pivotal promise, Rose recalled.

“I was the firefighters political consultant during that time. Why she waited so long, I don’t know,” Rose said.

Chicago firefighters never forgave Byrne. When she endorsed then-U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) in the 1980 race for President — just days after making a lip-service endorsement of incumbent President Jimmy Carter — firefighters lined the street and pelted Byrne and Kennedy with eggs and other objects as they marched together in the St. Patrick’s Day parade.

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