Remembering Jane Byrne

Exploring the legacy of a Chicago politician

Though Jane Byrne can claim the title of Chicago’s first and only female mayor, she might be remembered most for defeating the well-oiled Democratic machine in the primary of 1979, something that seemed unthinkable until a blizzard offered her a hand in putting together a coalition dissatisfied with the status quo. 

Byrne, who died on November 14 at the age of eighty-one, largely fell out of the public eye after her single term as mayor. But her story is too good to be entirely forgotten. Byrne was originally a favored supporter of Mayor Richard J. Daley, and Chicago’s first commissioner of sales, weights, and measures under his administration. But after Daley’s death, she clashed with his successor, Michael Bilandic, and was fired from her position in his office. Once a loyal member of Daley’s Democratic machine, Byrne soon turned around and challenged Bilandic.

Bilandic was unconcerned by Byrne’s candidacy until, with the ground still covered from a previous blizzard, nearly twenty inches of snow landed on the city over one weekend in mid-January of 1979, leaving Chicago in disarray. The mayor soon appeared incompetent, continually promising that everything was under control, though this was far from the truth. Byrne capitalized on the outrage, placing the blame for the mishandling of the blizzard squarely on Bilandic’s shoulders.

“Jane Byrne just immediately denounced the mayor and pointed out the ludicrous nature of his statements,” said Andrew McFarland, professor of political science at University of Illinois at Chicago.

The blizzards also exposed Chicago’s racial segregation. McFarland recalls that because many cars were stuck, white people living south of 95th Street who did not usually take the CTA began piling onto the “L” trains. By the time the trains reached stops on the South Side, the cars were completely full, and trains sped past black residents waiting on the platforms in the freezing weather. Furthermore, as the Tribune reported in 1979, the CTA, due to equipment shortages, decided to shut down service to several stations on the South and West Sides during rush hour, mostly affecting black communities.

This contributed to the dissatisfaction of black voters with the administration. Byrne became an appealing option for voters sick of the old machine, and for those who were tired of their neighborhoods being ignored. By election day, the sun was shining and voters turned out to narrowly lift Byrne over Bilandic in the primary. She won the general election easily.

“She appealed to some of those folks who were desperate to find a way to go against the political machine,” says Paul Green, professor of public administration at Roosevelt University.

Yet as soon as she was elected, Byrne was quick to turn away from the campaign volunteers who had looked to her as a reformer, and all too eager to attempt reconciliation with machine politicians she had earlier denounced. Her controversial tenure was rocked by turnover in the administration as she continually fired and hired new officials. In an effort to gain white support in the next election, she appointed white members to the Chicago Public School and Chicago Housing Authority boards in the place of black members.

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