Jane Byrne (born 1934) won the most astounding political upset in Chicago’s history when she unseated incumbent Michael A. Bilandic in the 1979 Democratic primary and went on to become the first woman mayor of Chicago.
Born in Chicago on May 24, 1934, Jane Margaret (Burke) Byrne showed little interest in politics until the 1960 presidential election. Raised on the north side of Chicago by her father Edward Burke, who was vice president of Inland Steel, and her mother, Katherine Burke, Byrne attended parochial schools. Upon graduation from Saint Scholastic High School, Byrne enrolled in St. Mary-of-the-Woods in Terre Haute, Indiana. On completion of her freshman year she transferred to Barat College in Lake Forest, Illinois. She graduated in 1965 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and biology. Jane married William P. Byrne, a marine aviator, soon afterward. A little more than one year after the birth of their only child on December 31, 1957, Edward crashed his plane near a naval air station in Chicago and sustained fatal injuries.
Byrne’s involvement in politics stemmed partly from that crash. Upon hearing John F. Kennedy talk about the loss of life due to the Cold War, she joined his campaign for president and became secretary-treasurer for the presidential contender’s Chicago headquarters. Her efforts impressed the Kennedy organization so much that they offered her a job in Washington, but Byrne decided to remain in Chicago and pursue graduate studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago Circle Campus. Having taught for a while, she planned to pursue a teaching career, but her continued interest in politics and her Kennedy association led to a meeting with Mayor Richard Daley, who urged her to work for his organization. Thus began a political relationship which deeply affected Byrne’s future.
After satisfying Daley that she worked hard at the ward level, in 1964 the mayor appointed Byrne to a job in the Head Start program. A year later he promoted her to a job with the Chicago Committee on Urban Opportunity. During this period she studied Chicago politics and became a fiercely loyal Daley supporter. He rewarded her in 1968 by naming her the first woman member of his cabinet. As commissioner of sales, weights, and measures, Byrne attempted to uproot corruption and return her office to its original purpose, consumer protection.
Although never accepted by the party regulars, Byrne served as delegate to the 1972 Democratic National Convention and chaired the resolutions committee for the Democratic National Committee the following year. In 1975 Daley named Byrne co-chairperson of the powerful Cook County Democratic Central Committee, much to the distress of many Democratic leaders.
When Daley died of a heart attack in December of 1976, Byrne’s political future appeared clouded. Soon after Daley’s passing, party regulars stripped Byrne of the Central Committee chair. And the riff between Byrne and the local Democratic Party “machine” widened after Byrne accused the new mayor, Michael A. Bilandic, of not looking out for the public interest and “greasing” a nearly 12 percent cabfare increase for the city. Shortly after hearing those charges, Bilandic fired Byrne from her job as commissioner of sales.
Byrne responded by announcing her decision to run for the Democratic nomination for mayor. Campaigning with funds mostly donated by her new husband, Jay McMullen, and lacking an efficient political organization, Byrne’s chances of winning seemed nearly impossible. Even her major campaign issue, the taxicab fare increase, lost its potency when a federal grand jury found no wrongdoing. But snow, which started to fall on New Year’s Eve, 1979, gave her an issue to win the mayoralty.
The heavy January and February snow brought Chicago to a near standstill, interrupting public transportation and garbage collection. The inability of the mayor to devise and implement an adequate snow removal plan angered the city’s residents. Charging that under Bilandic Chicago was no longer “the city that works,” the underdog rode the issue to victory. A break in the bad weather permitted a record turnout to the Democratic primary and secured Byrne the upset victory. In the general election the following April, heavily Democratic Chicago gave Byrne a landslide with 82 percent of the popular vote over Republican Wallace Johnson. Her victory, which included a sweep of all 50 wards, gave her the largest margin of votes in the history of Chicago’s mayoral contests.
Byrne’s triumph did not mark the end of the powerful Democratic organization, nor did it bring a new era of tranquillity to Chicago politics. Soon after her primary victory Byrne started mending ties with the organization, and after becoming mayor in April she dismissed many reformers who had worked diligently for her election. Furthermore, her acerbity and her politicizing of the mayor’s office alienated many former supporters and a large portion of the press. Finally, the very magnitude of problems her administration faced in areas such as fire protection, education, and declining revenues made controversy almost inevitable. Always one for the spotlight, Byrne captured the imagination of many Chicagoans when she moved into the deteriorated Cabrini-Green public housing project in March of 1981. Her stay not only emphasized the horrible conditions many were forced to live with, but helped bring improved services to an area largely neglected by city workers.
Although actions like the Cabrini move increased the mayor’s popularity, they were not enough for her to win the Democratic renomination in 1983. In a three-way race, Harold Washington, a Black Congressman, defeated Byrne and the machine’s candidate Richard M. Daley, Jr. Unwilling to admit defeat, Byrne initiated a write-in campaign for the general election but called it off for lack of support. Washington won election as mayor, but his political struggles with a hostile city council encouraged Byrne to look forward to the 1987 election.
But in the 1987 Democratic primaries, Byrne lost to Washington again. She then gave the incumbent her support in his ultimately successful bid for reelection. In March 1988, she ran for clerk of the Cook County Circuit Court, but was again defeated in her party’s primary, this time by Aurelia M. Pucinski. Once again on November 12, 1990, Byrne announced her candidacy in the 1991 Chicago mayoral elections, and once again she lost in the February 26, 1991 Democratic primary. Richard Daley, Jr., son of the former mayor, won the election. In 1992, Byrne published a mayoral memoir entitled My Chicago, which received favorable reviews from both Publishers Weekly and Library Journal.