Goodbye ’70s, Hello ’80s
Chicago Politics in Jane Byrne’s Era
And the Day Jane Byrne Booted the Tribune Out of City Hall
An unusually prominent front page story appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Sunday, June 22,1980. It reported details of Mayor Jane Bryne’s transition team report and revealed me to be an author of part of the previously secret study, as well as the immediate source of its startling revelations.
In June 1980, as Jane Byrne was starting her second year as Chicago’s first woman mayor, a strange media brouhaha briefly transfixed the city. She had become enraged at a Chicago Tribune story and in a fit of anger had banned the paper’s City Hall reporter from occupying space in the building’s press room. The article that triggered her wrath disclosed the details of a transition report she herself had commissioned after beating the remnants of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley’s fabled political machine by securing the nomination of the Democratic Party for mayor in the February 1979 Democratic primary election. Byrne had received the transition report shortly after she had won the general election the following April, but she and her staff had subsequently kept a lid on it.
How the report came to light, and my part in it, was a combination of highly unlikely circumstances. However, for all the ensuing media Sturm und Drang over the course of the next week, any telling of this story will always seem to some akin to Shakespeare’s Macbeth: just a tale “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
In retrospect, perhaps the story’s only lasting effect was to reinforce the public perception of Jane Byrne as trouble prone, often due to her own devices.
I would never have ended up in the middle of this particular to-do without the earlier political and writing engagements I had in Chicago after I wrapped up my three years in the Army in 1971. My involvement in the media train wreck relating to release of Byrne’s transition report had evolved naturally from my work in the 1970s with two liberal, non-machine politicians on Chicago’s north side, Dick Simpson and Bill Singer.
Mayor Byrne’s 90-Day Report Card
Not long after Jane Byrne was elected mayor in the April 1979 general election, I wrote an article for the August 1979 issue of Chicagoland Magazine assessing her first three months in office. In the course of my review of her early performance in office, I first took a look at the broader context of the changing politics of Chicago from which she had emerged. For Richard J. Daley, the 1970s had been the most difficult period of his decades-long domination of the city’s politics and the grand patronage machine he had fine-tuned was substantially weakened by the time he died in 1976. Throughout the 1970s, the growth of independent opposition continued, as did disaffection in the Black electorate.
As my article below recalls, the very beginning of Jane Byrne’s mayoralty exposed the very seeds that would continue to grow in the succeeding years and help deny her reelection in 1983.
“It cuts, it chops, it whirls like a dervish. It spins, it dices, it reverses direction as fast as A. Robert Abboud. It makes mincemeat out of dips with a mere flick of the tongue. It likes to really mix it up. A revolutionary new food processor you ask. Not at all. It’s La Machine – By Byrne.
If Daley was the Machine’s Christopher Wren, Bilandic was its Cleveland Wrecking Company. Through the sheer force of his impersonality, he systematically and devastatingly eroded the public perception that somebody was in charge and in control of a very large, very rough and tumble city. And, in fact, he wasn’t in charge, having delegated the politics of the job to Daley’s unelected former patronage functionary, Tom Donovan. As Chicago Byrned, Bilandic fiddled: jogging, raising cab fares and cooking on Channel 11. Or so it seemed.
It was all too much for the neighborhoods, no matter what the precinct captains said, the one thing most folks out there realized was that if they didn’t take charge of the operation for once and put a tougher person in that office on the 5th Floor, they’d be snowed-under, potholed, garbaged up and maybe even thieved to death. Irony of ironies that the City of the Big Shoulders put a diminutive politician in high heels in charge of the store and relegated the male incumbent to the relative quietude of a law practice on LaSalle Street. The fabled “Man on Five” became transmogrified into the “Women on Five.” and in Chicago no less!
Clearly Byrne had one of the fastest mouths east of Cicero. But would her kind of instinctive, politically combative, hip shooting translate well once the substantive issues came along? A bit of evidence is now in and the answer to that question is something of a mixed bag. She hasn’t proved it yet, but at least it appears Chicago has a mayor again. Take three issues that emerged early on: appointments, condos and the Crosstown.”
Bill Bowe is Vice President for legal and corporate affairs at the Bradford Exchange and is Of Counsel to the Chicago law firm of Roan and Grossman. He served as an aide to Bill Singer in the 1975 mayoral campaign.
The transition report had been undertaken at Byrne’s request shortly after she defeated sitting Mayor Michael Bilandic in Democratic primary. A prominent member of her transition team was longtime independent City Council Alderman Dick Simpson. Simpson had graduated from the University of Texas in 1963 and then pursued a doctorate degree with research in Africa. He started a teaching career as a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1967, the same year I graduated from the University of Chicago’s Law School.
Off the teaching clock, Simpson became a cofounder of Chicago’s Independent Precinct Organization (IPO) and served as its executive director. The IPO was a body of lakefront liberals focused on good government. In its case, this almost always meant serving as a not very heavy counterweight to the dominant machine politics of Mayor Richard J. Daley, head of the Regular Democratic Organization in Chicago’s Cook County. I had gotten to know Dick Simpson from my political work in the early 1970s with Bill Singer.
I had first met Singer in the summer of 1966 after my second year of law school. I was serving then as a summer clerk at the Ross, Hardies, O’Keefe, Babcock, McDugald & Parsons law firm in Chicago. He was had already started there as a new associate lawyer after graduating from Columbia Law School. After my own law school graduation in June 1967, I passed the bar exam and joined Singer as a full-time associate attorney at the firm until I entered the Army immediately after Martin Luther King’s assassination in April 1968.
Then in late 1968, when Singer learned I was going to be stationed at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., he suggested I look up his wife Connie Arndt’s sister Judy, then working on one of the Congressional staffs.
I took him up on his suggestion. As fate would have it, a few years later Bill and I were briefly conjoined as brothers-in-law. This temporary state didn’t last long, as the two sisters divorced the two Bills and all of us headed off in different directions.
During my time in the Army from 1968 to 1971, Singer had started a successful political career while continuing his law practice. In 1969, just as I was settling into my Army work dealing with its newly created civil disturbance mission, Dick Simpson was managing Singer’s winning campaign to be elected an independent Democratic alderman of the 44th Ward in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood.
Later in the decade of the 1970s, the Regular Democratic Organization under Mayor Richard J. Daley had the ward maps redrawn in hopes of squelching Singer’s independent political movement. Nonetheless, Singer was elected in the newly redrawn 43rd Ward and Dick Simpson became the 44th Ward Alderman. Both men were constant and articulate critics of the Daley era’s centralized control over the politics of both the City and Cook County. They were up against powerful headwinds, as Daley’s successful patronage-based political organization wasn’t called the “machine” for nothing.
Before I left the Army in 1971, another Ross, Hardies associate, Jerry Kaplan, had called me from Chicago to say he was coming to Washington on business and would like to have lunch. I invited him to join me for a sandwich in the Pentagon’s central courtyard, then open to civilian visitors. During lunch, he told me that he, Singer and some other Ross, Hardies lawyers would shortly be leaving the firm to start a new smaller law firm. They wanted me to join them.
At the time, I was turning 28-years-old and was acutely conscious of the fact that my time in the Army had put be behind my law school contemporaries in pursuing my legal career. Almost all of them had been able to advance themselves in the practice of law without the three-year interruption for military service that I was finally finishing up. Also at the time, I remember having a hard time remembering what if anything I had actually learned in law school. I concluded that though it would be riskier to turn down my standing offer to rejoin the large firm of Ross, Hardies, joining a startup firm would likely give me more experience and responsibility sooner in the practice of law. I thought I might catch up with my peers sooner with that choice than if I were to go back to a larger, more structured law firm.
With the die cast, I left the Army in spring 1971 to practice at the newly established law firm of Roan, Grossman, Singer, Mauk & Kaplan, later Roan & Grossman. Not returning to Ross, Hardies turned out to be fortuitous for me as the firm shortly thereafter was forced to lay off most of its younger lawyers after its largest client, Peoples Gas Company, decided to fire the firm and create its own in-house law department.
Bill Singer, while 43rd Ward Alderman and a partner at the new Roan & Grossman law firm, had successfully joined with Jesse Jackson and other liberal anti-machine forces to successfully challenge the seating of Richard J. Daley’s delegation of regular Democrats at the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami.
This success, and attendant publicity led Singer to give serious thought to challenging Daley in the mayoral Democratic primary race to take place in February 1975. Singer announced his candidacy on October 15, 1973, leaving himself a full 18 months to raise funds and campaign throughout the city.
During this period, Singer asked me to become Secretary of his 43rd Ward organization, a job I continued for a period when his Martin Oberman succeeded him as alderman. Later, as Singer’s campaign picked up steam, I joined it full time. Being eager to take on the challenge of what I thought was a worthy battle, I took a leave of absence from Roan & Grossman and became General Counsel and Director of Research. As the campaign grew more frantic and Singer’s time got stretched thinner, I also began writing occasional speeches. campaign statements and press releases, as well as position papers on various issues of the day.
Daley was in a race for a sixth term in 1975. Fortunately for him, Singer was not the only candidate running against him. Helping split the anti- machine vote was the first African American ever on a Chicago mayoral ballot, State Senator Richard Newhouse. Also in the race was former State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan. Hanrahan was attempting a political comeback when he lost his reelection bid following the killing of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton by police under his control.
The Machine Weakens after Daley’s 1976 Death
With the anti-Daley vote thus split in February 1975, Daley was reelected in the Democratic primary election with 58% of the vote. Singer came in second with 29%, Newhouse with 8%, and Hanrahan 5%.
In a striking change to the usual playing field, Daley’s share of the vote was much smaller than in his earlier races for mayor. And this time, he also won less than half of the African American vote. This portended the fundamental shift that finally occurred when Harold Washington spoiled Jane Byrne’s shot at a second mayoral term and was elected Chicago’s first African American mayor in 1983.
Health had been a minor issue in Daley’s 1975 mayoral campaign and, the year after his reelection as mayor, the 74-year-old died suddenly on December 20, 1976.
My work on the Singer mayoral campaign had permitted me get to know Dick Simpson better and, just before Daley died, Simpson told me he was interested in promoting the idea of greater citizen involvement in ward zoning decisions. He explained how he envisioned community zoning boards might work and asked me to draft an ordinance that would detail their creation, structure, and operation. While I had written plenty of speeches and press releases by that time, I had never taken my hand at the task of drafting a piece of legislation of this complexity. It struck me as an interesting technical challenge and I told Simpson I’d give it a shot.
This was notwithstanding my own serious doubts about the wisdom of such a radical decentralization of land use regulation in the city. Then and now, the existing primacy of aldermanic prerogatives in zoning gave aldermen what amounted to a practical veto over many zoning decisions. This had the effect of engendering an environment ripe for widespread aldermanic corruption. However, it wasn’t clear to me that Simpson’s idea was likely to fix that problem. It might also possibly make things worse by encouraging more parochial NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) decisions that could short the best interests of the city as a whole. In any event, Simpson seemed pleased with my handiwork and introduced my draft of his ordinance for consideration by the full City Council in early 1977. As was usual with any initiative of one of the independent Democratic aldermen, it was never seriously considered.
Daley’s death was followed by a six-month interregnum during which a number of City Council aldermen jockeyed for supremacy, slighting Black Alderman Wilson Frost, Council president pro tem, in the process. The upshot was that Michael Bilandic, the 11th Ward Alderman of Daley’s home ward, was elected later in 1977 to fill out the remainder of Daley’s term of office.
Although Bilandic had inherited Jane Byrne from Daley as the city’s Commissioner of Consumer Affairs, she didn’t last long. When Bilandic supported an increase in taxi fares, Byrne not only refused to say it was a needed adjustment, she denounced it as a harmful “backroom deal” that Bilandic had “greased.” That was it for Jane Byrne, who was promptly fired from her job by Bilandic in November 1977. When Byrne announced four months later that she would run for mayor against Bilandic, almost no one took her as a serious threat to his upcoming reelection bid in the February 1979 Democratic primary.
During the Singer campaign in 1974-1975, I had met Don Rose, a longtime anti-machine and civil rights activist. Later, in 1979, I briefly sought his advice as I launched an unsuccessful effort to defeat the current machine Democratic Committeeman for the 43rd Ward. I don’t remember the advice Don Rose gave me, but it wouldn’t have mattered one way or the other. As it turned out, I was tossed off the ballot for having insufficient signatures on my nominating petitions. I successfully appealed this decision of the Cook County Board of Election Commissioners and the Illinois Appellate Court had ordered my name back on the ballot. When the dust finally settled, I could later tell people I’d lost the election by only seven votes. Unfortunately, these were the votes of the seven Illinois Supreme Court justices who had reversed the Appeals court. Thus was short-circuited my ill fated political career.
Though usually working behind the scenes, over the years Rose had a number of important roles in the city’s electoral contests and political spectacles. In 1966, Rose had served as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s press secretary when King moved into a Chicago slum to bring attention to poverty and racial injustice in the North as part of his Chicago Freedom Campaign. Apart from handling the local press in this effort, Rose served as a King speechwriter and one of his local strategists. He later looked back on this effort as probably the most important thing he ever did.
Two years later in fall 1968, Rose had a major role in the circus surrounding the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. My law school classmate Bernardine Dohrn, and her fellow radical and later husband Bill Ayres, were busy organizing the “Days of Rage” riots of the Weather Underground faction of the Students for a Democratic Society. The resultant street battles with police immediately preceded the opening of the Democratic National Convention. I was watching this chaos unfold with more than casual interest given my role at the Pentagon at the time in assessing whether civil disturbances might grow beyond the control of police and National Guard troops. At the time my brother Dick was literally in the middle of the Days of Rage riots in his work for the city’s Human Relations Commission.
Coincident with this SDS unpleasantness, the “Yippies” had also arrived in Chicago for the Convention with their political theater of martial arts practice and nominating a pig for president.
However, SDS and the Yippies were just the opening act. The bulk of the anti-war demonstrators had come to town by the thousands under the aegis of the coalition of groups known as the National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam; the MOBE for short.
And Don Rose, building on his recent successful effort for Dr. King, became the press spokesman for the MOBE, and is credited with creating the slogan of the anti-war demonstrations, “The Whole World is Watching.”
A committed man of the left all his life, Rose could manage to work for a Republican if the times called for it. He took particular pride in his management of the campaign of Republican Bernard Carey in 1972 against the sitting Cook County State’s Attorney, Edward Hanrahan.
Hanrahan had been vastly weakened with the public as a result of his deadly raid on Black Panther leader Fred Hampton’s house in late 1969. Most people thought the raid was a botched one at best and a murderous one at worst.
I personally felt so strongly about it that I and Ross, Hardies lawyer Phillip Ginsberg formally requested the Chicago Bar Association to initiate a breach of legal ethics investigation regarding Hanrahan’s conduct.
Notwithstanding the Hampton scandal, when he came up for reelection, he was still the machine candidate and widely presumed to be a winner. That’s when
Don Rose arrived and helped Carey win what would normally have been a losing matchup.
Chicago Tribune contributing Sunday editor Dennis L. Breo captured a profile of Rose in a 1987 portrait. He wrote:
“A flexible strategist who calls himself ”a promiscuous leftist,” Rose set himself apart from other social activists of the 1960s by using his media and writing skills to tie electoral politics to the search for an egalitarian society. “(Leon) Trotsky is a hero of mine because he was a great revolutionary and a great historian of the revolution, but he didn`t ring doorbells. I`ve tried to use electoral politics to achieve a cultural revolution,” he says.
”My real heroes are the giants who led cultural revolutions, who made people see things in a different way: Charlie Parker in jazz, Lenny Bruce in comedy, Ernest Hemingway in language. In a much smaller way, I`ve been trying to do this in local politics.” The revolution never happened, but Don Rose has left his impact on Chicago politics, notably the demise of the old Democratic Machine.
Basil Talbott Jr., political writer of the Sun- Times, says: ”Don`s contributions can be blown out of proportion, but there`s a lot to it, too. In 1972 he put together a coalition of blacks and liberals and conservative Republicans and helped Bernard Carey defeat Edward Hanrahan for Cook County state`s attorney. In 1979 he helped create the rebellion of black voters that elected Byrne and defeated the Machine. (Mayor Harold) Washington`s election in 1983 was just icing on the cake.”
The Tribune`s Mike Royko says: ”It`s hard to measure one person`s contribution to the demise of the Machine because it wore out on its own. Daley stifled those under him, and an entire generation of Machine politicians grew too old to govern effectively. But Don was one of the most consistent opponents of the old politics and one of the very few who never sold out his values one way or the other. He also was very effective, and one of the reasons for his effectiveness is that reporters trust him as a man of his word.”
Ron Dorfman, a freelance writer and
a 25- year friend of Rose`s, adds: ”The death of the Daley Machine had final causes and efficient causes, and Don was one of the efficient causes dating to the civil rights movement of the early 1960s. The Machine might have died off anyway, but he was an important part of the process. By taking the black vote out of the Daley camp, he set in motion the centrifugal forces that eventually
spun the Machine out of control. He helped change the mosaic of power in Chicago and empower the powerless without seeking any personal power other than in the funny ways creative people seek power. He was able to do it because he`s a walking encyclopedia of Chicago politics. Tell him what block you live on, and he`ll tell you exactly how that block will vote.”
Former alderman and mayoral candidate Bill Singer, who has been both in and out of favor with Rose, says, ”Don is a brilliant strategist, but he is such a true believer it`s easy not to be 100-percent pure in his eyes.”
With a long history of civil rights and anti-Daley, anti-machine credentials, Rose again was available for a battle against the machine in 1979 when Jane Byrne looked to all like a quixotic loser up against Daley’s successor Bilandic. In the 1975 Democratic primary election for mayor, the Chicago Tribune had taken a pass on the endorsement of any of the candidates, saying it was a question of, “whether to stay aboard the rudderless galleon with rotting timbers or to take to the raging seas in a 17-foot outboard.” By the time Don Rose joined Byrne to manage her campaign, the “rotting timbers” of the Democratic machine had more completely eroded.
And the former Commissioner of Consumer Affairs, Jane Byrne, not only had the temerity to run against the machine’s choice for mayor, she had a tough, down-to-earth, scrappy personality that sharply contrasted with her reserved and bland opponent.
The longtime liberal lakefront constituency in the city’s 5th Ward in the University of Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, and the more recently independent northside lakefront wards represented by Simpson and Singer solidly backed her. She also benefited from the growing opposition to the machine in the Black community, which had noticed Wilson Frost’s treatment after Daley’s death. But what really put her over the top was the 35 inches of snow that fell in the two weeks before the February 27, 1979 primary election. It had been met with a perceived collapse of the city’s usually more efficient snow removal efforts. The primary ended with Byrne garnering 51% of the vote and Bilandic 49%.
Mayor Jane Byrne’s Secret Transition Report
Because Byrne had run as a reform candidate, after the primary election she quickly sought advice from a panel of knowledgeable experts pulled together from a transition team headed by a Northwestern University professor, Louis Masotti. Masotti had taken a leave of absence from the University’s Center for Urban Affairs and in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, said that the team’s transition report for the new mayor was designed “to assist a fledgling administration to hit the floor running.” Masotti went on to say of his 26- member transition committee:
What we did was not budgeted; nobody got paid. We had no staff. These were citizens who at the request of the mayor volunteered to spend a hell of a lot of time and energy and put their reputations on the line to provide information to help guide the mayor. The fact that she chose to dismiss it, apparently without reading it or judging it on its merits, was not well received by anyone on the committee. Nor did anyone get any appreciation in any way, shape or form, including me.
The report’s principal author was Dick Simpson. It was 1,000 pages long, 700 of which were made available to the Tribune. Entitled New Programs and Department Evaluations, other transition team members besides Simpson included Bill Singer, Leon Despres from the 5th Ward in Hyde Park, and other well-known opponents of the Regular Democratic Organization
When the Chicago Tribune story on the transition report broke, it had a sidebar by George de Lama and Storer Rowley noting that I had written a section of the report. Years later I don’t recall what part it was, but it may well have dealt with the Chicago Public Schools. I had spent a good deal of my time on CPS matters in my Director of Research role in the Singer mayoral campaign. Singer had made improving the public schools the centerpiece of his mayoral campaign and I had ended up writing most of the lengthy policy study embodying his views that the campaign released with fanfare shortly before the 1975 election.
When Jane Byrne went on to win the general election for mayor in April 1979, she corralled 82% of the vote in defeating Republican Wallace Johnson. Shortly thereafter, she and her staff had received Masotti’s transition report. The decision was quickly made to keep it under wraps.
I had met journalist Rob Warden both through my law practice as General Counsel of The Bradford Exchange and because at the time we both had frequented Riccardo’s bar and restaurant after working hours.
Ricardo’s was in the lower-level shadow of the Wrigley Building and was a hangout not just for Warden and me, but for many of the reporters working in the nearby Tribune Tower and the Sun-Times buildings.
Warden was a former foreign correspondent in the Middle East for the Chicago Daily News and had become editor of the Chicago Lawyer after the Daily News folded in 1978. The magazine had been started by lawyers unhappy with th