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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Remembering Jane Byrne

Chicago’s first and only female mayor, who defeated Michael Bilandic in the 1979 Democratic primary, died Friday morning at age 81.

Jane Byrne celebrates her victory.  Photo: Carl Hugare/Chicago Tribune

I was living at Belmont and Lake Shore the winter of 1979 when even the #151 bus was stuck in a blizzard of 19 inches. I’d wager that many in the pack of us huddling against snow and subzero temperatures decided on the spot to vote, the next month, for Jane Byrne in the democrat primary. We were voting against the inept Machine-installed Michael Bilandic, who made one mistake after another in the wake of snow that kept coming.

Chicagoans of all colors and classes were furious and Byrne beat Richard J. Daley’s successor 51 to 49 percent—a sliver of a margin. She still faced a general election, but in Chicago the primary win meant she could measure the curtains in her fifth floor office at City Hall, and she did.

Jane Byrne died this morning at age 81 while in hospice care close by her Streeterville apartment where she had lived for decades, including during her four years, 1979-1983, as our city’s first and only female mayor. She was a five-foot three-inch dynamo who beat the machine and seemed destined to longevity like that of her mentor and sponsor, Richard J. Daley. But it didn’t work out for her.

In the tributes to the woman who was largely forgotten until the Chicago Sun-Times gossip columnist and former Byrne press secretary Mike Sneed, along with Bryne’s only child, Kathy, took up the cause, politicians fell over each other to call her a “trailblazer,” a “role model to all women.”

What a change that is. I’ve taught and lectured occasionally at area colleges and universities. I’ve noticed that my students looked puzzled at my mention of her name. They never heard of her.

Perhaps not surprisingly. It’s fair to say that as mayor she squandered an opportunity. She came in as a reformer, denouncing the “evil cabal” of machine pols, but soon made nice with the likes of Ald. Edward Vyrdolyak, the antithesis of a reformer. She was unpredictable and erratic, loopy even; the nickname “Calamity Jane,” stuck to her. She became known for publicity stunts more than for serious policy. In March of 1981, in the wake of 10 deaths over two months at Cabrini-Green, she and her second husband, Jay McMullen, moved into a remodeled-for-them apartment in the North Side, gang-infested public housing complex. At the time she said she’d stay “as long as it takes to clean it up” She left three weeks later, declaring, “…crime is almost zilch.”

She beat the colorless Acting Mayor Bilandic after Richard J. Daley’s death in late 1976 with the boost of the African American community—the Rev. Jesse Jackson endorsed her. Blacks were furious that city snow plows and CTA trains were skipping their neighborhoods, and they blamed Bilandic.

But then Mayor Byrne, apparently looking forward to her next election and white support, replaced black members of the CPS board and the CHA board with whites. She ended up losing in 1983 in a three-way race against Harold Washington and Richard M. Daley. She and Richard J’s son split the white vote. She tried a couple of times more to win back public office but never made it and has lived, largely in obscurity, ever since.

Her one term was scarred by horrible labor unrest, featuring strikes by firefighters and public school teachers and transit workers. She was, in a sense, easy to dismiss, a kind of accidental winner who could count Mother Nature as her biggest backer. The 19-inch blizzard was followed by more of the same. When, in 2000, Chicago magazine asked Bilandic about that horrible winter, he said, “….God sent us 100 inches of snow in subzero weather, and I happened to lose an election because of it.”

And yet, one could argue that her accomplishments have been smothered, buried under that dangerous accumulation of snow: Taste of Chicago, Chicago Fest, open-air farmers’ markets, redevelopment of Navy Pier, revitalization of the Chicago Theatre, the Museum Campus , the expansion of the International Terminal at O’Hare, opening up the city to filmmakers, taking a prominent place in the Gay Pride Parade—the first mayor to do so, appointing the first black school superintendent, pushing a ban on handguns.

Her life and her tenure are worth remembering.

She was widowed in 1959 when her first husband, Marine Pilot Lt. William Patrick Byrne, the father of Kathy, died in a military plane crash while attempting to land in fog at the Glenview Naval Air Station. She married former Sun-Times reporter Jay McMullen in 1978, the year before she became mayor. (He died in 1992.) She was a daughter of the Catholic establishment—her maiden name was Burke, one of six children, grew up in the Sauganash neighborhood, went to Catholic elementary (Queen of All Saints) and high school (St. Scholastica) and college (Barat College of the Sacred Heart).

She had come to know Richard J. Daley when both worked for JFK’s election in 1960. She became a favorite of Daley I’s; she both amused and impressed him and he appointed her in 1968 to head the city’s Department of Consumer Sales, Weights and Measures [aka Commissioner of Consumer Sales]. She was the first woman in Daley’s cabinet.

Daley also named her to a position that she doesn’t mention in her Who’s Who entry—co-chairman of the Cook County Democratic Organization, a machine job if there ever was one. She was the first woman to hold that job, too.

After Daley died and Bilandic was maneuvered into the mayor’s job, Jane Byrne was finished. Bilandic canned her in 1977 after she publicly criticized his plan to hike taxi rates. Unemployed, having lost her mentor and sponsor, and with McMullen’s support, she announced her run for mayor. No one gave her a chance of winning—and then the blizzards came.

Just this last summer–just in time–she was honored by the state and the city with the Circle Interchange renamed the Jane Byrne Interchange and the plaza adjoining the city’s Water Tower, the Jane M. Byrne Plaza. Her funeral—day and time to come—is certain to be a big and important event. The city’s top citizens and politicians will be there, including the current mayor who called her “a great trailblazer” and “a Chicago icon” and yes he did invite her and she did attend his inauguration in 2011. Expect to see a Daley or two and Gov. Quinn and Gov.-elect Rauner there. (I won’t hold my breath until Richard M. Daley issues a statement marking her death. The two genuinely disliked each other; but that’s for another post.)

Under the category “interests” in her Who’s Who entry, she lists only one: “…being the first female to be elected mayor of Chicago…” And it was an achievement because she got in the ring with the city’s machine, fractured since the sudden death of its boss, Richard J. Daley, and she knocked it down, if not out.

On Byrne’s death Jesse Jackson issued a statement calling her “tough and tender.” Yes, that sounds right, and is the nicest of the day’s many tributes to a woman who was, undeservedly, all but forgotten.

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.

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