Former Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne dies | WBEZ
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Former Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne dies

Jane Byrne, Chicago's first and only female mayor, has died at the age of 81.

Byrne's daughter, Kathy, says her mother died Thursday at a hospice in Chicago.

She’s known as the woman who beat the Democratic Machine with the help of a snowstorm, but went on to serve just one tumultuous term.

But before she beat Chicago’s Democratic political establishment, Byrne was a part of it.

"The City of Chicago has lost a great trailblazer," current Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement Friday. "From signing the first ordinance to get handguns off of our streets, to bringing more transparency to the City’s budget, to creating the Taste of Chicago, Mayor Byrne leaves a large and lasting legacy."

She was born in the city she would later run as Jane Margaret Burke on May 24, 1933.

Byrne didn’t get into politics until volunteering with John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, after the death of her first husband, a Marine Corps pilot killed in a plane crash.

Over several years, Byrne would prove herself a loyal Chicago Democrat and later caught the attention of Mayor Richard J. Daley.

In a 2004 interview with WBEZ, Byrne recalled a cherished bit of political advice from the Boss who became her mentor.

“And you pretend the whole thing is a checkerboard,” she said. “And you let this guy make his move, and then make a move over here, make another move over there. And then you go, zoop zoop zoop zoop – King me.”

Chicagoans remember Jane Byrne

Daley made Byrne the first woman to fill a City Hall cabinet post.

At the time, Byrne was a widow and single mother — her first husband, Marine Corps flier William Byrne, died in a plane crash in 1959 when their daughter, Kathy, was 17 months old. Byrne remarried in 1978.

Byrne, Bilandic and blizzards

After Daley died, Byrne was fired by his successor, Mayor Michael Bilandic.

That’s when Byrne made her political move.

She launched a mayoral campaign, as a reformer, she said, against Bilandic and the Machine that backed him, against corruption and favoritism, against a core of powerful insider aldermen, whom she derided as “a cabal of evil men.”

But even her earliest supporters admit she was a long-shot - until Mother Nature stepped in.

The snowstorms of 1978 and 1979 paralyzed Chicago—and Mayor Bilandic administration got blamed for the city’s bungled response.

Bilandic went on to ostracize many black voters when his administration ordered CTA trains to skip over stops in inner-city neighborhoods, in order to get people to work in the Loop faster.

Byrne’s camp looked at all this - and saw a way to beat the Machine.

Don Rose, who was Byrne’s first campaign manager, quickly got his candidate in front of a camera, outside, to capture the drifting snowflakes gathering in her blonde cap of hair.

“ I used to walk her through the subway stations, and have her shaking hands and saying, ‘Don’t blame your neighbors, it’s Bilandic who did this to you,’” Rose said.

It worked.

Byrne’s defeat of Bilandic in the Democratic primary was an early chink in the Machine’s armor, and she easily won the general election that spring.

But once she actually moved into the Fifth Floor of City Hall, something changed.

Jane Byrne's Legacy

Ray Hanania covered her administration for the Southtown Economist newspaper.

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,” Hanania said.

Some of Byrne’s early supporters in politics - and in the press - say they felt betrayed - especially when she tried to explain her new political alliance with the very aldermen she campaign against - that “cabal of evil men.”

The mayor developed a famously contentious relationship with reporters.

At one point, Byrne tried to spite them by stuffing the cramped City Hall press room with extra desks - so that reporters didn’t even have room to sit down.

I remember her chief of staff once said that following Jane Byrne was like following a B-52. She would drop bombs all over the place,” Hanania said.

Decades later, Byrne would chalk up charges like that 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 said.

"Jane Byrne was truly a pioneer and an inspiration to all women in public service," Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said in a statement Friday. "I’m a history teacher by profession, and I know that Jane will have a significant place in this history of our great city."

Jane in her own words: 2004 WBEZ interview

But for all the criticisms and nicknames - “Calamity Jane” and “Ayatollah the Hen” - Byrne took power during a tough time for Chicago.

Chicago firefighters went on their first - and only - labor strike in city history in 1980.

Byrne’s tough talk didn’t do her any favors with unions - she also faced strikes by Chicago teachers and CTA workers.

Meanwhile, the city was grappling with well over 800 murders a year.

So in the spring of 1981, Byrne pulled her most audacious PR move yet.

She and her second husband moved into an apartment in the Cabrini-Green public housing project to draw attention to the crime and poverty there.

“We’re going to make certain that these children grow up and they don’t have to think of Cabrini-Green the way society has thought of Cabrini-Green,” Byrne said.

That Easter, Byrne threw a carnival for Cabrini’s kids, and even led the crowd in a off-key rendition of “Easter Parade”

But the First Couple stayed at Cabrini only for a few weeks - all the while maintaining their luxury Gold Coast apartment.

When the music stopped, her critics claimed the move was simply a stunt to grab national headlines.

Byrne’s tenure wasn’t all bad press and labor strikes and crime.

Byrne started Jazz Fest, brought in the Taste of Chicago and began to resuscitate Navy Pier.

"The formula was basic: The more attractions, the more people, the more life for the city," Byrne wrote in her 1994 book "My Chicago." ''I vowed to bring back the crowds, to make Chicago so lively that the people would return to the heart of the city and its abandoned parks."

It was Byrne who let John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd film "Blues Brothers" in Chicago. She even granted Belushi's request to crash a car through a window at Daley Plaza, figuring loyalists of the late Richard J. Daley didn't like her anyway.

Karen Conner was Byrne’s first Director of Special Events.

“We had street troubadours, we had people playing instruments and dancing in the Els, and on the street corners—we had festival after festival,” Conner said.

But the bread and circus wasn’t enough to win Byrne re-election in 1983.

She lost a three-way Democratic primary against the man who had been her lifelong political rival—Richard M. Daley—and the man who would become Chicago’s first black mayor, Harold Washington.

Byrne launched a few unsuccessful runs for public office in subsequent years - but largely stayed out of the public eye.

Her first campaign manager - Don Rose - says the caricature of “Calamity Jane” - isn’t fair.
“She was far from a great mayor,” Rose said. “She was not a good mayor, but I think she has been turned into - through media attacks and so on - into a very, very bad mayor. In fact, some academics once voted her the worst mayor Chicago ever had, which was absurd.”

For her part, Byrne struck a conciliatory note when asked about her one term in office - back in 2004, by WBEZ’s Steve Edwards.

“What do you want your legacy to be for this city?” Edwards asked.

“I loved it and I tried,” she said.

Byrne's second husband, Jay McMullen, a former newspaper reporter who became her press secretary, died in 1992. Byrne is survived by her daughter Kathy and a grandson.

Chicagoans remember Jane Byrne

Alex Keefe, Lauren Chooljian, Tricia Bobeda and The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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