Snowpocalypse Then: How the Blizzard of 1979 Cost the Election for Michael Bilandic

A perfect storm of weather, clout, and PR doomed the incumbent mayor in his primary battle against Jane Byrne.

Then-Mayor Michael Bilandic, right, watches snow removal on Lasalle Street during the Blizzard of 1979.   Photo: Chicago Tribune

Late last year, when a major winter storm hit New York City, Gothamites and Chicagoans alike invoked the specter of Michael Bilandic, whose 1979 loss in the Democratic mayoral primary to Jane Byrne is like a ghost story elected officials and public planners tell each other—"plow the streets, or you’ll end up just like Mayor Bilandic.” New York Times chief financial correspondent Floyd Norris learned it from his wife, a longtime Chicago resident: “The inability of the city to get the streets plowed was the major reason that mayor lost his re-election campaign in 1979, or so they said.”

That’s what some people say, including Bilandic himself, who told Chicago in 2000 that the storm—and not his administration’s response—cost him the election. But it was more than just the city’s struggle with plowing that turned the winds against Bilandic. Dissonant PR, a headline-grabbing scandal, and his administration’s broad mishandling of transportation issues created a political storm in the month between the blizzard and the election that Bilandic couldn’t dig himself out of.

The problem began not with the deluge of snow that started on Saturday, January 13th, but with an earlier storm that dropped nine inches on the city and left tempers simmering; in a prescient January 7th column in the wake of the first storm, Tribune transportation editor David Young declared that “the CTA has no foul weather emergency plan worthy of the name.” Two days later, a Tribune brief reported that “a study to determine whether Chicago’s mass transportation system needs an emergency plan for severe winter weather will be conducted by the Regional Transportation Agency,” due to “complaints by thousands of Chicago-area commuters that they had been delayed, sometimes for hours, in the bitter cold weather that followed a blizzard that dumped 9 inches of snow on the city.” Temperatures also remained cold; between the 2nd and the 12th of January, the city tied a 1912 record of 10 straight days of low temperatures at zero or below, while high temperatures stayed below 20 degrees. The result was an “icy base” waiting for the new blizzard.

Over Saturday and Sunday, January 13th and 14th, 20 inches of snow fell, causing widespread public transportation delays. On the 15th, the Tribune reported that “most bus routes were being served, although with delays, but major gaps persisted in rapid transit lines.” The Skokie Swift shut down; the Congress line stopped at Racine; the Lake-Dan Ryan ceased serving Oak Park. Expressways were running, with the exception of Highway 90 from Elmhurst to Schaumburg. On the 16th, the Tribune editorial board was in relatively high spirits:

The one cheering element in all the grimness is that most people are doing the best they can, and their best is often very good indeed.

Mayor Michael Bilandic, for instance, has shown a high degree of leadership in coping with winter’s worst, and the city’s snow fighters have been living up to his example. Mr. Bilandic has been all over the city in a helicopter, observing and urging on snow removal operations. His office has produced a number of imaginative plans for easing the paralysis, such as giving priority to snow clearance from 250 school and park district lots so that private cars can be moved there while plows clear the streets.

By then the storm was over; only afterwards did everything go to an icy hell for Bilandic.

Bilandic’s “imaginative plan” to open city lots so that cars could clear off the streets turned out to be mostly imagination. On the 17th, in an Joan Zyda article titled “Bilandic gets tough on parked cars,” the mayor told the Tribune that “more than 100” lots were open. When told that people had complained some of the lots weren’t cleared, he said “we wouldn’t be advertising them if they weren’t clear.” (In a final insult three days after the election, it was reported that one of the lots was filled with 700 vandalized cars in a “snowy trap that resembles an automobile salvage yard.") This would be an ongoing theme for Bilandic—stating hopeful facts that turned out to be untrue or were immediately overtaken by events. As Dick Stone wrote in a 1994 Sun-Times series about the decline of the Daley machine, “First, the mayor would appear on television assuring everyone the airports would remain open. Then a reporter would appear live at O’Hare to contradict Bilandic’s assurances with the reality of a closed airport.”

The day after Zyda’s article ran, the Tribune followed with a picture of one of the 103 lots (considerably less than the 250 planned) contained in an official list released by Bilandic’s office; the lot at Chappell School on Leavitt St. was empty and piled with snow. The next list had only 53 lots, 12 of which were only partially cleared. In the January 18th article that surveyed the lots, the Tribune quoted Bilandic’s suggestions for the sick, elderly, and infirm who were facing parking tickets: “If there are hardship cases, they can tell that to a judge. That’s what a judge is for.”

In his 1994 series, Stone noted another mistake that’s become part of the Bilandic legend: “Bilandic assured the people of Chicago that the CTA was operating in spite of the blizzard. It wasn’t. Trains had actually bypassed stations in the city’s black neighborhoods, leaving thousands of people out in the cold.” (When Bilandic died in 2002, the Chicago Defender’s headline was “Bilandic dies at 78; legacy is snow, reforms.") In a February 24th letter to the Tribune, Barbara Flynn Currie charged the CTA with “blatant and institutional racism”; the next day, columnist Vernon Jarrett predicted that the CTA stop closures and slow clearance in black neighborhoods would have electoral consequences.

When the Tribune editorial page addressed the issue, its piece was titled “The CTA and sensitive blacks,” though it at least made the reasonable point that the deliberate closure of CTA stops in largely black neighborhoods sent a different message than the incidentally terrible service throughout the city that the closures were meant to address.

Not that all the CTA problems were Bilandic’s fault per se. In a long and fascinating analysis of the CTA’s problems published on February 4th, David Young discovered that many of the service’s problems were years in the making. As the agency added ground-level routes (like the expressway lines) to its elevated lines, snow, ice, and salt became a greater problem—in part because of mere passage but also because it exposed the engines to to the wintry mix through vents designed to cool the engines. And this design flaw led, in part, to the fateful El closures:

The CTA attempted to batter its way through drifts with regular trains. The trains would dash into the drift until they stopped, back off, and repeat the process. About the only noticeable result was to burn out overtaxed traction motors.

In the weeks that followed the storm, the CTA lost a total of 630 motors.

The effect on rapid transit service was nearly disastrous. No lines were harder hit than the Lake and Dan Ryan. The Ryan–the most heavily patronized on the CTA–normally carries more than 66,000 daily riders. The Lake handles another 32,000.

In normal weather, the CTA uses 240 rapid transit cars to provide rush hour service on these two lines. Motor problems at times reduced the number of serviceable cars to only 80, despite the fact that the CTA shifted 100 cars there from other lines and ordered trains to drag some malfunctioning cars on their normal runs.

In desperation, the agency finally ordered 14 stations on the two lines closed during rush hour to speed the operation of the few available trains. The stations chosen were the ones with the fewest riders, but protests from the dominantly black patrons living in those areas finally forced the CTA to cave in and restore service.

The Lake line was a case in point. The CTA ordered closed all but 4 of the 13 outlying stations on the Lake route. The four stations [Harlem, Ridgeland, Oak Park, and Austin] had the highest ridership, accounting for 44 per cent of the daily total, but were also located in predominantly white Oak Park. The action in effect left black Austin and Garfield Park without Lake route service, although buses and the Congress line were nearby.

In other words, there were practical reasons and difficult technological issues behind the station shutdowns, but the effect was a disastrous alienation of the black community.

Bilandic’s PR blunders weren’t limited to race and logistics. On Valentine’s Day, the beleaguered mayor chose to rally his precinct captains with Biblical, world-historical metaphors:

“We’ve withstood challenges in the past. They’ve tried to take it away from us before, but they couldn’t…. In the early history of Christianity, you see a leader starting with twelve disciples. They crucify the leader and made martyrs of the others. And what was the result? Christianity was bigger and stronger than it was before…. It’s our turn to be in the trenches, to see if we are made of the same stuff as the early Christians, the persecuted Jews, the proud Poles, the blacks and the latinos.”

Bilandic’s speech, as quoted from Bill Granger and Lori Granger’s book Fighting Jane, made the Tribune column of William Griffin and page one of the paper. “Now the mayor of Chicago, a weak imitation of the old Boss, was crying to the precinct captains and equating the rebellious citizenry with the Romans who killed Christ or the Nazis who killed Jews,” the Grangers wrote. “It was the last straw.” It wasn’t the only time Bilandic cried uncle; around the time a CBS-TV poll had Byrne up 50-33, the mayor was quoted in a February 23rd article promisingly titled “Bilandic admits snow errors":

Alluding to his mistakes, Bilandic told the press, “When you go to school, you don’t get 100 per cent in every subject.”

He said that in Chicago’s snow-removal operations, some of the city’s activities could have received a score of 99 per cent, but others could only get a 70.

“Anything between 70 and 100 per cent is passing,” he said.

Bilandic’s comments echoed statements to the press he’d given a month before, in which he said “every play is intended to score a touchdown, but if you gain 3 1/2 yards a play, the coach is satisfied and you win the Super Bowl.” Then he jokingly blamed the weathermen for not predicting the snow the previous summer, and asked Chicagoans to pray for better weather.

Meanwhile, the mayor’s allies in city council were doing him no favors. A push by council independents–Martin Oberman, Ross Lathrop, and Dick Simpson–to investigate the city’s snow-removal program became a resolution praising the mayor, which passed 35-5. A February 7th column by Jeff Lyon reported Edward Vrodlyak lampooning a plan co-authored by Oberman, to the delight of Bilandic.

And it wouldn’t be a true Chicago political disaster without clout. Perhaps the biggest scandal of the blizzard, at least if you go by Tribune editorial real estate, was the revelation that a well-connected former deputy mayor-turned-contractor named Kenneth Sain had been paid $90,000 to develop an emergency snow removal plan that was not only delivered late, but was amateurish to the point of absurdity: “three bulky sections, much of [it] filled with copies of existing city street maps and photocopies of advertisements for snow removal equipment available for purchase.” And that came only after the city, under pressure from reporters, had released a 1967 report commissioned by Mayor Daley under the guise of Sain’s plan. Further revelations followed, making headlines throughout January and February, as it was revealed that Sain’s firm had received nine contracts worth $242,000. One was a $35,000 report on bomb and arson units that Sain worked on at the same time as his snow-removal plan, working “at nights and on weekends.”

Mike Royko, who pounded on Bilandic throughout the winter, saw it coming: “I was trying to get a message across to Jane Byrne, but they didn’t get it at first,” Royko is quoted as saying in Fighting Jane. “She suddenly had her issue and she didn’t understand that. It was winter. Winter was going to beat the machine.”

But it wasn’t just the winter, or even the city’s now-legendary inability to plow the streets. The city’s mishandling of the snow was matched by Bilandic’s mishandling of the press and the people—likely exacerbated by the death of his mother, which occurred the Saturday before the election and caused Bilandic to skip a week’s worth of campaign events in the final stretch. It’s often asked whether Bilandic would have won without the storm, but it’s also worth wondering whether a better candidate would have won.

 

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