Mayor Byrne’s 90-Day Report Card

Byrne 90-Day Report Card 1979

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, but she also 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 more recent 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.

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%.

Mike Royko’s Chicago Sun-Times column immediately declared that, amazingly enough, ordinary Chicagoans had decided to finally defeat the machine.  He thanked those who helped elect Byrne and said, “…today I feel prouder to be a Chicagoan than I ever have before in my life.”

Mike Royko feels proud to be a Chicagoan

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.

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 reminds me, the beginning of Jane Byrne’s mayoralty exposed the very seeds that would grow in the succeeding years and 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, 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.