Jane Byrne was not mighty, like her mentor, Richard J. Daley.
She was not beloved, like her successor, Harold Washington.
Nor was she long-serving, like her bitter rival, Richard M. Daley.
But she was mayor, Chicago’s first and only female mayor — making Chicago the largest city in the United States to elect a female chief executive — serving a single, tempestuous term, ushering the city into the 1980s, leaving her own colorful legacy during a time of political change, social upheaval and financial crisis.
Byrne, 81, died Friday in hospice care. She had been in poor health in recent years, suffering a stroke in January 2013.
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The average Chicagoan recalling the Jane Byrne era remembers her for the popular city traditions she initiated — she loved parties and lavish entertainments. She created the festival that became Taste of Chicago and initiated the return of farmers markets to downtown.
She also was famous for moving into one of the Cabrini-Green high-rises and living there, briefly, in an effort to draw attention to gang violence in public housing. She also pushed to ban handguns in Chicago.
Crime was just one of many serious urban problems Byrne faced. During her first three months in office, unions representing the city’s transit workers, public school teachers and firefighters each went on strike, one after the other.
Labor strife was among the blows that hard reality struck after the thrill of her election, a stunning victory — the defeat of a sitting mayor, Michael Bilandic, by a 5-foot-3 woman who, 16 months earlier, had been Chicago’s first commissioner of consumer sales, weights and measures, not exactly the kind of job that traditionally serves as a launching pad for political glory.
“I beat the whole godd—ed Machine single-handed!” Byrne exalted when she won the Democratic nomination in February 1979, upsetting Bilandic, who had famously left the streets unplowed following a major snowstorm that dumped 2 feet of snow on the city, snarling roads, stopping trains and closing the airports. Making Byrne’s victory all the more sweet was the fact it had been Bilandic who fired her from her city job after she accused his administration of shady dealings with taxicab companies.
The Democratic primary was the true race, as usual in Chicago, with the general election a mere formality. That spring, Byrne crushed Republican Wallace Johnson with a staggering 82 percent of the vote, the biggest majority in modern Chicago mayoral history. It was the first time since 1927 that the candidate slated by the Democratic machine didn’t win the mayor’s office.
Byrne prevailed despite the considerable sexism of the time. She was openly and unapologetically mocked by her enemies in such terms as “that crazy broad” and “that skinny bitch” and worse, slurs that wounded her.
She felt that her difficult term in office was made even more so because of her gender.
“There is always a testing of the new kid on the block in politics,” she wrote in her 1992 autobiography, “My Chicago.” “I was certain the testing was a bit tougher because of my sex.”
Winning as a maverick who had bucked the system, Byrne initially pushed for reform. But after being thwarted in her attempts to advance her agenda, she was drawn to the power structure she had fought against.
“She was somewhat overwhelmed by her victory and to an extent frightened by it,” remembered Don Rose, a key adviser. “She found the easy way was to be led by the Vrdolyaks and Swibels into the swamp of the old politics.”
The Tribune once referred to her administration as “a Bonnie and three Clydes,” the third Clyde being John D’Arco, a former alderman of the mob-ridden 1st Ward.
“An erratic and stormy person, she kept the city quaking during her first administration,” wrote Nobel laureate Saul Bellow. “Appointees hired and fired without rhyme or reason whirled in and out of the revolving doors.”
“As mayor, she proved a great disappointment,” Leon Despres, the progressive 5th Ward alderman, wrote, noting that she “entered office on a wave of popular support” having triumphed over the machine, which she called “an evil cabal.”
But she abruptly cut a deal with the aldermen who ran the Council.
“From then on, she was more their captive than their executive,” Despres wrote.
Time, though, softened the trials of the Byrne years, and when she turned 81 she was remembered fondly by the city she led, with the Circle Interchange and the park next to the Water Tower named in her honor.
The future mayor was born Margaret Jane Burke on May 24, 1933. She graduated from St. Scholastica High School in 1951 (“Janie Burke: Neat and nice” her yearbook dubbed her) and enrolled in St. Mary of the Woods in Terre Haute, Indiana, but the next year transferred to Barat College in Lake Forest because she missed her family. She studied science: biology and chemistry.
On New Year’s Eve 1956, she married a Marine pilot, Bill Byrne, and moved to Pensacola, Florida, while her husband took flight training. The couple later moved to Kingsville, Texas.
Three years later, in May 1959, Byrne was with their daughter, Katherine, visiting her mother in Chicago when Bill Byrne was killed after his plane crashed into a cemetery while trying to land at the Glenview Naval Air Station.
Her sister Carol had opened the Chicago office for John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, and Byrne began working there, eager to put a fellow Catholic in the White House. After Kennedy’s assassination, she was taken under the wing of Richard J. Daley, though their first meeting did not go well.
“Why did you go to them?” Daley asked her, indignant she had not instead applied her efforts to her local Democratic organization. “The Kennedys. Why did you go to them?” The meeting almost ended with Byrne angrily storming out of the mayor’s office, but Daley called her back and a bond was formed, once she promised to ring doorbells and put up signs in her ward.
In 1964, he put her on the Chicago Commission on Urban Opportunity, the city’s reaction to Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty.
Daley helped advance her career while she helped him by showing, during an era of growing feminism, that the Daley administration had women in positions of authority. He’d ask her “What do you hear out there?” and she would tell him.
In 1968, she became chairman of the Department of Consumer Sales, Weights and Measures. She also rose in the Democratic Party, becoming a national committeewoman.
She remarried, on St. Patrick’s Day 1978, to Jay McMullen, a colorful Sun-Times reporter who had publicly praised her “great legs” and whose relationship with the future mayor was not without practical journalistic value.
“There was a day when I could roll over in bed and scoop the Tribune,” he told Esquire magazine at the time of their marriage.
After her election, with the city awash in red ink, Byrne tried to save money on labor by paring city employees’ cost-of-living increases. The result was widespread labor unrest: In December 1979, the transit union struck; in January 1980, Chicago Public School teachers went on strike; in February, it was the firefighters’ turn.
Her battles with such key constituencies wounded her politically.
“To her discredit, Byrne handled all three strikes — transit, teachers, and firemen — in what to the public seemed to be a vacillating, then vindictive, and sometimes mean and small-minded manner,” wrote Chicago historian Melvin Holli. “In all three affairs newsmen and the unions unflatteringly referred to her as ‘Attila the Hen’ or ‘Calamity Jane.’ ”
Byrne also drank, and certain decisions in office seemed to have been affected by that; many reporters had the experience of the inebriated mayor calling up to air a concern.
She later admitted she had difficulty taking command.
“At times I felt whipsawed and all but helpless in my effort to shake Chicago out of its inertial patterns,” she wrote in her autobiography.
The achievements of her administration included extending the L line to O’Hare, where she began a $1 billion expansion project, as well as initial planning for the renewal of Navy Pier.
There were also missteps. She promoted the ill-starred idea to put the city’s main library in an abandoned Goldblatt’s Department Store, a plan scuttled only after a Sun-Times investigation showed the department store floors could not support the weight of books. She also pushed hard for a 1992 World’s Fair in Chicago that, like a 2016 Chicago Olympics, was not to be.
In 1983, she amassed a $9 million campaign war chest but was challenged in the Democratic primary by the Cook County state’s attorney, Richard M. Daley, and Rep. Harold Washington, whose candidacy was in part provoked by Byrne herself, by her firing of two black members of the CHA board. She was seen by some as unresponsive, if not hostile, to the concerns of black Chicago.
“Some insiders felt that Byrne goaded the African-American community to put forward a black candidate that would take away from Rich Daley’s support in the primary,” Chicago historian Dominic Pacyga wrote. “If so, she made a drastic political mistake that would come back to haunt her.”
After a heated, racially charged campaign, Chicagoans turned out en masse for the February 1983 primary. Washington narrowly won, with 37 percent of the vote to Byrne’s 33 percent and Daley’s 30 percent.
After his first term, Byrne ran against Washington again in 1987 in a bitter primary campaign that saw her calling Washington a “disgrace” and Washington accusing Byrne of being “psychologically unfit” to be mayor and comparing her rhetoric to Hitler’s.
Outspent 6 to 1, Byrne lost to Washington, 47 to 53 percent, and almost immediately threw her support behind him in the near-certain general election.
She flirted with running in 1989 but did not file the necessary petitions. In 1991 she did file but had difficulty raising funds — during one period, she raised $798 to Mayor Daley’s $2.2 million.
Jay McMullen died of lung cancer in 1992. The last 20 years of Jane Byrne’s life were conducted largely out of the public eye. In 2000, she told an inquisitive reporter that she was busy spending time with her grandson Willie. She made a brief appearance onstage during Rahm Emanuel’s May 16, 2011, mayoral inauguration.
This year, “the forgotten mayor” was championed by Sun-Times columnist Mike Sneed, who spearheaded a drive to honor Byrne. In August 2014, the Circle Interchange was renamed the Jane Byrne Interchange, and the City Council voted to change the name of the park around the Water Tower to Mayor Jane M. Byrne Plaza.
“Jane Byrne didn’t just blaze a new trail for women in politics,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in July 2014 during the discussion of how to honor Byrne. “She blazed a new trail forward to a better future for the entire city of Chicago.”
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