Former Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne Dies at 81

"Mayor Byrne was a Chicago icon who lived a remarkable life of service to our city"

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story reported Jane Byrne's age as 80, reflecting city reports that she was born in 1934. Her birth certificate, according to the Cook County Clerk's Office, states she was born in 1933.

Jane Byrne, who shocked the Chicago political establishment when she was elected mayor in 1979, died today, according to Chicago Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed, who once served as Byrne's press secretary. She was 81.

Byrne was the city’s first and only female elected mayor.

“With the passing of Mayor Jane Byrne, the City of Chicago has lost a great trailblazer," Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement.

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"Mayor Byrne was a Chicago icon who lived a remarkable life of service to our city," Emanuel said. "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. And as the first woman to serve as Mayor, she will always have a special place in our history."

Gov. Pat Quinn said Byrne "leaves a legacy of tireless service to Chicago that will never be forgotten."

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Byrne was born Jane Margaret Burke and married William Byrne, a Marine who died in plane crash in 1959. Together they had a daughter, Kathy.

Byrne’s remarkable one and only political victory, over the vaunted Cook County Democratic Machine, came thanks in large part to a frustrated electorate, which had been pummeled by snow storm after snow storm.

As the snow banks grew, so did voters' frustration with Mayor Michael Bilandic, the former Bridgeport alderman who became mayor upon the death of Richard J. Daley. 

Byrne’s love affair with politics blossomed in 1960 when she worked on the presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy. That’s where she met Daley.

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Kennedy charmed her. But Daley hired her and promoted her, first in 1964 to run the city’s Head Start program. One appointment followed another and Byrne’s city hall profile increased.

So did her power.

But it all came crashing down in December 1976, with the death of the legendary mayor.

11th Ward Alderman Michael Bilandic became mayor of Chicago and George Dunne took over as head of the Cook County Democratic Party.

Suddenly Byrne was out at City Hall.

With virtually no money and little political backing, Jane Byrne, in her first run for public office, announced her candidacy for mayor in 1979 taking on the party bosses.

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The “evil cabal” she called them, the entrenched, the influential, including young and increasingly powerful pols like the two Eddie’s, Vrdolyak and Burke.

Byrne cast herself as a reformer, ready to roust the rascals from The Hall.

The big boys just scoffed. But not those in the neighborhoods, who saw in Byrne a scrappy outsider.

And who believed they witnessed in Bilandic a tepid response to the Blizzard of ’79. Voters were outraged.

And on Election Day: Incredibly, unbelievably, astonishingly Jane Byrne won the Democratic Primary.

As the perfunctory general election proceeded old enemies became allies.

Political hatchets, if only tentatively, were buried.

Asked how, as mayor-elect, she felt after dispatching Republican Wallace Johnson, Byrne replied, “I feel like it was worth the battle. I’m glad that we did it and like I said before I really think we are in a renaissance period in Chicago.”

But Byrne’s four years in office would be chaotic and controversial.

Mass transit workers struck. So did firemen.  At city hall there was a revolving door of police superintendents and department heads.

Former newspaperman Jay McMullen, who became her second husband, also became her chief political confidant.

She battled with the press.

And angry citizens at city hall.

When security became an issue at the Cabrini Green public housing complex, Byrne moved in.  CHA residents had seen 11 murders there in just three months.

“People are afraid of Cabrini Green? I’m not,” Byrne said at the time.

Almost as quickly as she moved in, she moved out.

The summer of 1982 brought protests from blacks and progressives over the lack of contracts and jobs for minorities at Chicagofest, the city’s lakefront extravaganza.

Jane Byrne was losing the backing of her core political constituency. But as 1983 drew near, Byrne made it clear she would run for re-election.

The race for mayor in 1983 pitted Byrne against then State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley and Congressman Harold Washington.

It was a contest that electrified and polarized Chicago.

The first woman mayor of Chicago gave way to the first African-American chief executive.

Initially gracious in defeat, Byrne briefly mounted and then discarded a write-in campaign.

She ran three more times, for Mayor in 1987 and 1991 and for Clerk of the Court in 1988.

But times had changed.  And Jane Byrne faded from public sight.

“One of my greatest difficulties personally”, she wrote in a 1992 memoir, “was how people perceived me. Some of the misperception was my fault, but not all of it. “

“It was a privilege to be Mayor of Chicago,” she added. 

In the town where for four unforgettable years, she had the time of her life.

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