Jane Byrne was one of the most talented and natural politicians I have ever covered—and that’s saying something.
She could walk into an arena filled with 10,000 people, pick out a face she knew in the 22nd row, wink, wave and smile that elfish smile of hers and make that one person feel as if they were the only one in the place.
That’s only part of the reason why she was wildly popular—so much so that, the day she walked into City Hall to take the reins of city government, hundreds of people lined the lobby to cheer her on.
By taking on “the boys” who ran the Democratic machine, including incumbent Mayor Michael Bilandic and Aldermen Edward Vrdolyak (10th) and Edward Burke (14th), Byrne had become Chicago’s very own Joan of Arc.
People loved her. They loved her spunk, her smile and her sense of humor. They loved the fact that she had the guts to stand outside in a cloth coat and rail against an arrogant mayor who badly bungled the Blizzard of ’79, told people to park their cars in lots still knee-deep in snow and made the head-scratching decision to bypass stops in black neighborhoods when an ill-equipped CTA couldn’t handle it all or communicate with its riders.
Even before that, they loved the fact that, as a former Consumer Services commissioner fired by Bilandic, she had the guts to charge that Bilandic, Burke and Vrdolyak were part of a “cabal of evil men” who had “greased” a taxicab fare increase. She even had the temerity to testify before a federal grand jury about it — and drag “the boys” through the same.
For a few months, Byrne stayed true to her principles.
She took on Burke and Vrdolyak and tried to run the City Council with a new coalition led by then-Aldermen Bill Lipinski (23rd), Richard Mell (33rd) and Marty Oberman (43rd).
I remember the first time she beat Burke and Vrdolyak in a vote on the City Council floor.
There had been a hostage situation involving Croatian terrorists at O’Hare Airport, and Vrdolyak’s brother Victor, a high-ranking Chicago Police official, had been dispatched to the airport to help negotiate it until Byrne learned about it and yanked him out of there.
Ed Vrdolyak and his City Council allies wanted to investigate. Byrne cobbled together the votes to prevent it.
Minutes later, a self-satisfied Byrne literally smoked a cigarette as she gloated about her victory before the cameras and microphones.
But, after bringing Vrdolyak to his knees, Byrne made her peace with the alderman. She turned the Council over to Vrdolyak, Burke and then-Ald. Fred Roti (1st).
I remember the stunned look on the faces of Mell and Lipinski as they left the mayor’s office after learning they had been double-crossed.
It wasn’t the first time Byrne’s mean streak reared its head. Even I was the victim of it as a young radio reporter for WIND-AM 560.
I remember returning from a vacation with blonde highlights in my hair and chasing Byrne down a hallway to ask her if she had any response to the big demonstration outside City Hall.
“No, but your bleach job is beautiful,” the mayor of Chicago told me, as the television cameras recorded the moment. I was mortified.
Ironically, Byrne would be forced to endure a similarly mortifying moment about her appearance, but she had the power to get the last laugh.
It happened after Chicago’s first and only woman mayor returned to the city after recovering from a face-lift.
On Byrne’s first day back, city payrollers lined a second-floor hallway to catch a glimpse of the mayor as she arrived at the City Council chambers to chair a Council meeting.
“She looks as bad as ever,” a longtime secretary made the mistake of saying aloud as Byrne passed by.
The next day, the secretary was gone — fired by a mayor who had heard the insult and gotten even.
The same thing happened after the Chicago Tribune wrote a front-page story under the headline, “Mob Ties to City Hall” by then-columnist Bob Wiedrich.
Byrne and her husband, former newspaper reporter Jay McMullen, were so livid about the suggestion of organized crime ties to their administration and to the Chicago Police Department, they made the unprecedented decision to evict the Tribune’s reporters from City Hall.
On Monday morning, my colleague Bob Davis, who covered City Hall for the Trib, arrived for work dressed in a suit for probably the first time in his working life. And it was a good thing he did. Every camera in the western world was on hand to ask Davis how he felt about the mayor of Chicago’s decision to violate the First Amendment
After a worldwide media beating, Byrne reversed the decision. But she wasn’t done getting even.
Instead, she filled the City Hall press room with desks with name plates for publications that never covered City Hall, including La Raza and the Abendpost, a local German paper. There were so many empty desks in the room, we could hardly open the door. Byrne also had one of her patented “snits” and didn’t talk to the press for weeks.
That would be turn out to be a dress rehearsal for the final two years of Byrne’s administration.
During the first two years, she was a walking headline machine. We literally had to stake her out when she arrived for work, went to lunch and left City Hall for the day.
Sometimes, a decision to fire 50 people in the morning turned to 100 by noon and 500 by the end of the day. The same story had to be filed three times because the numbers changed.
She fired so many people for political reasons, triggering so many Shakman lawsuits, that McMullen, who served as Byrne’s $1-a-year press secretary, accused U.S. District Judge Nicholas Bua of running an “Orphans-of-the-Storm refuge for political hacks.”
But as she geared up for re-election, Byrne raised $10 million and turned her political future over to media consultant David Sawyer, who advised her to keep her mouth shut.
She became programmed, much the way that Mayor Rahm Emanuel is now.
It didn’t work, and it’s not the way I choose to remember Jane Byrne.
Like I said, she was one of the most natural, glib and gifted politicians I have ever covered. If only she had stayed true to her principles and played to her strengths.