Jane Byrne

From Academic Kids

Jane Margaret Byrne (born May 24, 1934) was the first female Mayor of Chicago, Illinois. She served from April 16, 1979 to April 29, 1983 To this day no woman has been Mayor of a larger American city.

Jane Byrne first entered politics to help John F. Kennedy get elected U.S. President. It was at that time that she first met Mayor Richard J. Daley, who, in 1968, appointed her head of consumer affairs in Chicago, a post she would hold until fired by Michael Bilandic in 1977. Byrne used her firing to launch an attack on Bilandic in the 1979 mayoral primary. Although most people believed she had little chance of winning, a series of freak snowstorms in January which paralyzed the city caused Bilandic to be seen as not being able to keep the city working and gave her the edge she needed to win. As mayor, Jane Byrne briefly moved her residence, amidst much publicity, to live in the Cabrini-Green Housing Projects as part of a plan to eradicate crime in the area. She also hired her husband, a former reporter, as a consultant, for a token $1 a year.

Her term was tumultuous. A product of the Daley machine, Byrne claimed to be a reformer and in her first campaign won support from "lakefront liberals" and African-Americans in addition to many more conservative whites on the city's north side. Yet despite some progressive moves, e.g. hiring the first Black school superintendant, being the first Mayor to recognize the gay community, she was to disappoint many of these reform-oriented constituencies. At the same time she never won over many old-guard "Daley Democrats" with whom she contended for control of the fading Cook County Democratic Party organization. As a result her coalition was an unstable mix of largely incompatible elements and she was ultimately unable to consolidate her position. Her tactics veered from modern media politics, e.g. the Cabrini-Green stunt, to largely unsuccessful attempts to play boss in the manner of the elder Daley. She endorsed Senator Edward Kennedy for President, but could not stop President Jimmy Carter from winning the Illinois Democratic Primary. She was able to replace Chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, County Board President George Dunne, a Daley loyalist, with her ally Alderman Edward Vrdolyak. However, her attempt to block the election of Richard M. Daley,the son of her mentor, to the prominent position of Cook County States' Attorney (chief local prosecutor) in 1980 failed.

She was narrowly defeated in the 1983 Democratic primary for Mayor by Harold Washington. The younger Daley ran a close third, splitting the white vote and allowing Washington to win the nomination with just 36% of the vote. Washington went on to be narrowly elected in a racially-polarized contest. Byrne ran against Washington again in the 1987 primary, but was defeated. She then endorsed Washington, but seemingly did not profit from this move. She ran one more major campaign, a failed bid in the 1988 Democratic Primary for Cook County Circuit Court Clerk, losing to the late Mayor Washington's endorsee Aurelia Pucinski. She also ran against the younger Mayor Daley in 1991, but by this time Byrne was very much a marginal figure, seen as driven by a need for publicity and hatred of the new Mayor Daley. Daley's chief rival in that race was Alderman Danny Davis, a black politician from the West Side who himself did not pose an especially forceful challenge.

Byrne's book, My Chicago (ISBN 0-8101-2087-9), was published in 1992, and treats on the subject of her life prior to, and including, her political career.


Preceded by:
Michael A. Bilandic
Mayor of Chicago
1979–1983
Succeeded by:
Harold Washington

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