Friday, November 14, 2014
RIP Jane Byrne
Chicago's first and only woman ever elected mayor, Jane Byrne, died today at the age of 81. Her meteoric, if short-lived, career in elective office sent shock waves across the country and inspired many woman to enter politics. Byrne had been a regular member of the Chicago Democratic Party when she upset Mayor Michael Bilandic in 1979, who himself had been thrust into power three years earlier when old man Richard Daley dropped dead after 21 years in office. After a week-long scuffle over who was in charge, Chicago's aldermen emerged to announce Bilandic, the alderman who represented Daley's Bridgeport neighborhood on the city council, would be the city's new mayor.
Two years later, Bilandic made his first big mistake as mayor when he fired Byrne in a highly-publicized way as the city's consumer affairs commissioner, the first woman appointed to that high of a level in city government. She stormed out of City Hall with her personal effects in hand and vowed to take on the machine by challenging Bilandic for the Democratic nomination in 1979, a move taken seriously at the time by virtually no one. She campaigned ferociously for more than a year to win the Democratic nomination, making little headway. As fate would have it, it would be a series of some of the worst snow storms in the City's history in the weeks leading up to the primary and Bilandic's perceived inability to live up to Chicago's acclaimed motto, "The City That Works," that would bury him in a pile of criticism and make possible Byrne's upset victory over the vaulted Chicago Democratic machine.
Byrne went on to win a landslide victory over her Republican opponent and quickly became one of the clear leaders of the machine she fought in 1979. Her views were more progressive than her predecessors. She was the first Chicago mayor to recognize the Windy City's gay community. She welcomed Hollywood filmmakers to use the City's streets to film great movies like the "Blues Brothers," something Old Man Daley would have never permitted. Taste of Chicago was her brainchild. She led the revitalization of Navy Pier.
Changing demographics and an antsy Dirty Little Richie Daley upset her chances of winning re-election in 1983 when he unsuccessfully sought to reclaim the office for the powerful Daley family. Anti-machine candidate U.S. Rep. Harold Washington, narrowly defeated her in the Democratic primary with Daley playing the role of spoiler by splitting up the white vote in Chicago, allowing the City to elect its first African-American mayor. Byrne ran again against Washington in 1987 but narrowly lost. In 1991, she lost a rematch against Daley.
This interview below was done when she was a first-time candidate for mayor and still unknown by most Chicago voters.