Jane Byrne, who capitalized on Chicago’s slow reaction to a snowstorm to score one of the biggest election upsets in the city’s history and become its first female mayor, died Friday. She was 81.
Byrne, whose four-year term brought festivals and filmmakers to Chicago but was also filled with upheaval at City Hall, died at a hospice in Chicago, said her daughter, Kathy.
Byrne famously beat Mayor Michael Bilandic in 1979 after his administration failed to adequately clear streets fast enough after a blizzard. But during her term, she was branded with nicknames such as “Calamity Jane” as she speedily fired and hired people in such top jobs as police superintendent and press secretary.
“It was chaos,” Byrne herself acknowledged in a 2004 Chicago Tribune story, attributing many of the problems to her wresting power from the old boy Democratic machine that had ruled the city for decades. “Like the spaghetti in a pressure cooker, it was all over the ceiling.”
Byrne was also credited with changing the feel of the city. She started the popular Taste of Chicago festival and initiated open-air farmers’ markets.
“The formula was basic: The more attractions, the more people, the more life for the city,” she wrote in her 1994 book “My Chicago.” “I vowed to bring back the crowds, to make Chicago so lively that the people would return to the heart of the city and its abandoned parks.
It was Byrne who let John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd film “Blues Brothers” in Chicago. She even granted Belushi’s request to crash a car through a window at Daley Plaza, figuring loyalists of the late Richard J. Daley didn’t like her anyway.
She also helped draw national attention to the infamous Cabrini-Green public housing complex when she and her husband moved into an apartment there after a gang war killed 11 residents in three months in 1981. They stayed for three weeks.
“How could I put Cabrini on a bigger map?” she wrote in her book. “Suddenly I knew — I could move in there.”
By the end of her first year in the mayor’s office, Chicago had dealt with transit, fire and school strikes, with the mayor sometimes confronting striking workers on the picket lines.
“The city of Chicago has lost a great trailblazer,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel. “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.”
In 1983, Byrne lost her re-election bid to state Sen. Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor. Daley’s son, Richard M. Daley, was also on the ballot. Byrne never held elected office again.
But with everything that happened during her four years in office, it was her election that ended up becoming part of the city’s lore. Byrne, a political novice, launched her campaign after Bilandic fired her from her City Hall job. She was considered the longest of longshots — dismissed by both the press and the Bilandic campaign as she took on the candidate backed by Daley’s political machine.
“You cannot expect the media to ignore your opponent even if it is only Jane Byrne,” read an internal Bilandic campaign memo released in 2004.
It was Bilandic’s handling of a January blizzard that is credited with turning things around for Byrne. The city was covered in 20 inches of snow. Buses and trains couldn’t move. Streets were impassable, both for residents and those charged with providing basic services, such as picking up the garbage.
“From the airport to mass transit to simply walking down the street, Chicagoans were frustrated and buried in snow,” Byrne wrote in her book.
The next month, voters gave the Democratic nomination for mayor — and for all intents and purposes the job itself — to Byrne. She then easily won the general election against Republican Wallace Johnson in the overwhelmingly Democratic city.
Though Byrne took on Daley’s machine, she had actually once worked for his administration. She was a volunteer for John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign when she met Daley. Later that decade, he appointed her as city consumer sales commissioner — the only woman ever to be named to his Cabinet.
At the time, Byrne was a widow and single mother — her first husband, Marine Corps flier William Byrne, died in a plane crash in 1959 when their daughter, Kathy, was 17 months old. Byrne remarried in 1978.
Byrne’s second husband, Jay McMullen, a former newspaper reporter who became her press secretary, died in 1992. Besides her daughter Kathy, she is survived by a grandson.