Chicago Politicians Remember Former Mayor Jane Byrne

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

Jane Byrne, Chicago’s first and only female elected mayor, died Friday at the age of 81.

Byrne, who shocked the Chicago political establishment when she was elected mayor in 1979, was remembered as a trailblazer and a city icon.

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.

On Friday, politicians remembered Byrne and her legacy.

Here’s what they had to say:

Former Mayor Richard M. Daley

"Mayor Jane Byrne was a woman of strength, courage and commitment. She was a pioneer in public service whose impact on this city will remain for years to come. On behalf of the entire Daley family, I extend my deepest condolences to the Byrne family."

Mayor Rahm Emanuel

“With the passing of Mayor Jane Byrne, the City of Chicago has lost a great trailblazer. Mayor Byrne was a Chicago icon who lived a remarkable life of service to our city. 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.

“I was deeply honored that she attended my inauguration, and, in turn, it was my privilege to sign our City’s ordinance officially dedicating the plaza surrounding our iconic Water Tower in her honor. The thoughts and prayers of the people of Chicago are with her daughter Kathy and her many friends at this difficult time.”

Governor-Elect Bruce Rauner

"I'm saddened to learn of the death of Mayor Byrne. She was a pioneer and will be missed by all. The City of Chicago owes her a huge debt of gratitude. My thoughts and prayers are with her daughter, Kathy, and her family."

Senator Dick Durbin

“When Jane Byrne moved into Cabrini Green, she proved Chicago’s first woman mayor was unafraid to tackle the city’s toughest problems head on. My thoughts and prayers go out to her family and friends.”

Congresswoman Robin Kelly

"Tough and bold. That was Jane Byrne. She took on the Chicago political machine in 1979 to become the city’s first female mayor. The fact that there hasn’t been another female mayor in Chicago since speaks to her great courage and strength. Jane Byrne’s victory was an inspiration to young women everywhere. She leaves an honorable legacy of courage, strength and bold leadership. Jane Byrne loved Chicago, and her death is a great loss for the city, for Illinois and the nation. My thoughts and prayers are with her beloved daughter Kathy and her grandson."

City Treasurer Stephanie Neely

"I am deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Jane Byrne, Chicago’s first and only female mayor and an inspiration to any woman with political ambitions. My thoughts and prayers are with her daughter Kathy at this difficult time. What an amazing legacy Jane Byrne left us. In a city known for bareknuckle politics she beat the big boys at their own game. She studied at the feet of the first Mayor Daley, Richard J., and was swept into office by a snowstorm that buried her opponent Michael Bilandic. Female politicians in this city are hardly commonplace even at this late date, and I am delighted that she lived long enough to see a Michigan Avenue plaza and an expressway interchange named in her honor.

“Byrne’s time in office was short, from 1979 to 1983, but colorful. When she grew frustrated with the crime and violence at Cabrini Green she and her husband Jay McMullen moved into a 4th floor unit in the 1160 N. Sedgwick building for 3 weeks. Was it a stunt? Absolutely. But it was a stunt that took courage and made its point. This was the woman who first dreamed of a Museum Campus on one side of Lake Shore Drive, the same campus now being deliberated as the setting for the George Lucas museum. There is no doubt the woman was a visionary: Taste of Chicago was Jane Byrne’s brainchild. So was the Navy Pier renovation. It would be criminal to allow the memory of her historic role to die with her. The women who will surely follow in her footsteps celebrate her pioneering spirit and willingness to fight for what she believed in.”

City Clerk Susana Mendoza

“Chicago lost a civic treasure today with the passing of Mayor Jane Byrne. Mayor Byrne was a remarkable and unique leader. As the first woman elected Mayor, she blazed a trail in Chicago politics that so many of us have followed. She left an amazing legacy for the people of our City. On a personal level, Mayor Byrne’s very public and outspoken positions on major issues such as affordable housing, gun control and crime were an inspiration to me as a young girl. We are all saddened today and our thoughts and prayers go out to her daughter Kathy, her grandson, the Byrne family and her many friends."

Illinois Secretary of State Jessie White

“The city of Chicago lost a dedicated public servant today in Mayor Jane Byrne. As Chicago’s first and only female mayor, Jane Byrne was a trailblazer. Her love for the city of Chicago was immeasurable. My thoughts and prayers go out to her family and friends. Jane Byrne will be missed.”

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle

“As the first and only woman elected Mayor of Chicago, Jane Byrne was truly a pioneer and an inspiration to all women in public service. I’m a history teacher by profession, and I know that Jane will have a significant place in this history of our great City. My thoughts and prayers are with her family and friends during this difficult time.”

Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr.

“We supported Jane Byrne when she ran against Michael Bilandic. Her victory was the beginning of the end of machine politics as we knew it. Opening up doors for women, minorities, and non conventional politicians politicians. Her role as a consumer advocate was remarkable. As a nonconventional politician she rode the snow to victory with an unusual degree of skill. The role of Harold Washington and those who followed, minority senators, congresspersons; progressives and others were a part of the waves of change she produced.”

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