Jane Byrne deserves to be remembered
By Ray Hanania
No one wanted to cover Byrne at the small community newspaper where I worked. I was the newspaper’s City Hall reporter – also a job no other reporter wanted because the mayor, at the time, Michael A. Bilandic, was considered “boring.”
I wasn’t bored. I wanted the assignment. I chased Byrne around the city from stop-to-stop.
No one believed Byrne could win. Ald. Ed Burke, accused of being a member of a “Cabal of Evil Men,” predicted before the Feb. 27, 1979, Democratic Primary that Byrne would lose because “no one wanted their aunt” to be the mayor.
Other members of the Cabal included Ed Vrdolyak, whose slippery days ended with his corruption confession and jail sentence. Another was Fred Roti, the kind and gentle alderman of the notorious Mob dominated 1st Ward.
Although Bilandic should have won, Mother Nature had other plans delivering a crippling snow storm just before the primary that exposed how poorly the city was being run. I attended a precinct captains meeting at the Bismarck Hotel where Bilandic compared himself to Jesus Christ and the precinct captains to the Disciples. He said he was being persecuted by the anti-Christ who was, back then, columnist Mike Royko.
But Jane Byrne did win, 35 years ago next month. I remember it like it was yesterday, Jane Byrne coming to City Hall and creating news stories at an unprecedented pace, often five stories every day.
I remember chasing County Board President and Party Chairman George W. Dunne through the Bismarck Hotel in a herd of 45 reporters and camera crews knocking down coat racks, tables, and bruising knees and ankles trying to get a quote from him, just to get his reaction.
I still have my reporter’s notebooks and a collection of audio cassette tapes of her press conferences while she was mayor. Byrne shocked the world when she easily defeated Bilandic and the Chicago Democratic Machine.
Everyone expected Byrne to change the city. She started to change, but with a vindictive flare that was truly vindictive and not simply said because she was a woman.
By late 1979, Byrne abandoned reform for power, fearing her rival Richie Daley, the former mayor’s son. She joined the Cabal, which put her on the road to defeat four years later, opening the door to the city’s first African-American mayor, Harold Washington. Her rivalry with Daley was unprecedented. But Daley proved to be more vindictive than Byrne ever was, refusing to honor her as Chicago’s first woman mayor during his 22-year dictatorship. It’s one reason why now, 35 years since her important election, that she is not remembered by many of today’s young generation.
Despite Daley’s pettiness, Byrne should be remembered. Despite much controversy, she did much good, reviving the neighborhoods and giving Chicago a flare for excitement.
I think Byrne deserves an important honor and I wonder if Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel can set aside Machine arrogance and finally do what’s right to give Jane Byrne the commemoration that has been too long denied to her but that she has earned.
(For more, visit my website at www.TheMediaOasis.com to read the 20-year memorial of Jane Byrne’s relations with the news media.) — City & Suburban News-Herald Hanania is also the managing editor of the Arab Daily News online.