No Woman Has Led A Larger U.S. City Than Jane Byrne, Who Died Today

November 15, 2014

Jane Byrne, who stunned Chicago’s powerful political machine in becoming the first and still only woman elected mayor of the nation’s third-largest city, died today at the age of 81.

She is being remembered as a trailblazer for women in politics who cracked the glass ceiling in a city whose political oligarchy ‘don’t want nobody nobody sent.’ *

A product of the machine herself and a protege of late mayor Richard J. Daley, Byrne bucked party leaders to topple their annointed candidate, incumbent mayor Michael Bilandic, in the Democratic primary in February of 1979.

“I’ve beaten the whole damned machine single-handedly,” Byrne said on the night of her primary victory.

“The last time the Democratic organization in a mayoral primary had lost was 1911,” says political scientist Paul Green, director of the Institute for Politics at Roosevelt University in Chicago. “So she broke a long string of organization victories … a 68-year tradition of the Democratic machine winning its mayoral primary.”

Byrne tapped into growing anti-machine sentiment in Chicago after the death of Richard J. Daley in 1976, when Bilandic took over the mayor’s office. She also was aided in her campaign by Mother Nature, in the form of one of the Windy City’s famous snowstorms.

A blizzard Jan. 13-14 that winter dumped more than a foot and a half of snow on the city, and much of the city was paralyzed for weeks.

Bilandic was criticized sharply for the city’s feeble plowing efforts and the failure to keep buses and trains running. When service did resume, Bilandic ordered his mass transit system to skip stops in black neighborhoods, further alienating minority voters and adding to growing anti-machine sentiment in the Chicago.

“She wasn’t Michael Bilandic. She was the alternative,” says Green. “The snow — and the unbelievable bad reaction by the mayor and his team to the snow — just added to the fact that if you didn’t like Bilandic, you didn’t like the trains bypassing you, you didn’t like this, you didn’t like that, (there was) only one way to show your opposition. And that was to vote for Jane Byrne.”

But as anti-machine as Byrne was in her campaign, she reversed course early in her term in office, upsetting the liberals and minorities who helped elect her.

“Within six months, she flipped over, dumped reform, and for the next three and a half years ran the city pretty much the way the Machine ran the city,” former Chicago Daily Southtown reporter Ray Hanania, who covered city hall during the Byrne administration, tells member station WBEZ.

Some of Byrne’s early supporters in politics — and in the press — say they felt betrayed by her new political alliance with the very aldermen she campaign against as a “cabal of evil men.”

“She was probably not prepared to be mayor, not that you go to school for it,” said Don Rose, who managed her 1979 campaign but later became disillusioned and left the administration. Rose tells the Chicago Tribune that “although the stories were probably wilder than the actual actions, I think some of her eccentricities were due to the fact that she was just really overwhelmed.”

Turnover in her administration was high, and she battled the city’s labor unions — including city firefighters, who have gone on strike only once in the history of the city, in 1980, during Byrne term as mayor. She also had a very contentious relationship with the media.

Decades later, Byrne would chalk up that last difficulty to what she said was one of her toughest challenges in office: sexism.

“I think the City Hall reporters felt they had always covered Mayor Macho, and now they’ve got somebody in a pink suit and high heels and it’s not their cup of tea,” Byrne told WBEZ in 2004.

Not that the different outfit meant a softer approach, says Roosevelt University’s Paul Green.

“One never called Jane Byrne dainty. Jane Byrne was as tough as they come and a fighter,” he says, crediting much of that toughness to her political upbringing inside the machine as the first woman in the first Mayor Daley’s cabinet. “She got her reputation as being a Democratic party insider working for Richard J. Daley.”

In the midst of a tough economy, growing poverty, and rising violent crime, Byrne signed an ordinance effectively banning handguns from the city, and she and her husband moved into the notorious Cabrini-Green public housing complex amid an increase in shootings there.

Byrne is also credited with boosting the arts, music and tourism in the city. She started the city’s famous Jazz Fest, as well as and Chicago Fest, which morphed into Taste of Chicago. She invested in downtown and the city’s lakefront, extended the city’s elevated transit line to O’Hare airport, and modernized the airport, too.

And after years of the city being off limits to Hollywood, she is credited with welcoming film crews and helping turn Chicago into a famous backdrop for many major motion pictures, the first of which was “The Blues Brothers.” After initially balking at the crazy car chases and other antic the filmmakers planned, Byrne was won over by actors John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd themselves, both of whom got their start at the Second City in Chicago. The clincher apparently was when they described the car chase through Daley plaza and into the glass lobby of the Daley Center in downtown Chicago.

“They all hate me in the 11th Ward (the Daley family’s power base) anyway, so go ahead,” she reportedly told them.

But she lost her bid for re-election in 1983 when challenged by her political mentor’s son, Richard M. Daley and the ultimate winner, Chicago’s first and only black mayor, Harold Washington.

* This is what a cigar-chomping Chicago ward boss told a young Abner Mikva, who after serving in WWII went to his local Democratic ward office to offer to volunteer. As Mikva tells the story, the boss curtly asked him, “Who sent you?” “Nobody sent me,” Mikva responded. “We don’t want nobody nobody sent,” the boss replied, showing Mikva out the door. The liberal Mikva fought the machine much of the way as he became a congressman, a federal judge and White House counsel under President Bill Clinton.

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