Jane Byrne

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Jane Byrne

b. May 24, 1933 - d. November 14, 2014

Chicago Mayor (1979-1983)
Co-Chair, Cook County Democratic Party (1975-1976)

Chicago's first and only woman mayor, Jane Byrne's one-term administration was buffeted by national political changes as well as the crumbling of late Mayor Richard J. Daley's political machine when she first ran, and while she was in office.

Originally from Northwest Side Sauganash, Byrne was a protege of "old man" Mayor Richard J. Daley, who appointed her Commissioner of Consumer Affairs in 1968, which was then considered a revolutionary act, appointing a woman to such an important position. As Commissioner of Consumer Affairs, Byrne oversaw most of the city's regulations, giving her a close look at the operations and political machinery of the city and endearing her to Daley, who valued city leaders who kept a close eye on their operations.

Then, in 1974, Daley made another revolutionary move, appointing Byrne Co-Chair of the Cook County Democratic Central Committee, alongside him. It was an innocuous decision, as long as Daley stayed at the head of the table to make the "real" decisions. But then, in 1976 old man Daley died of a heart attack in his doctor's office, leaving Byrne as the sole party chair. Surprising the ward and township Committeemen, Byrne did not step down, creating chaos and kicking off a decade-long internecine war in the Cook County Democrats. Ultimately she was removed from her chair spot in 1976 by Committeemen, but not before exploiting an increasingly divided party organization.

Meanwhile, she endured similar pressure from the Acting Mayor, Michael Bilandic, who became her new boss in city government. Bilandic lacked the clout to fire her right away, but finally managed to do so in 1977.

With the city Democratic Party organization divided for the first time in 40 years, Byrne launched a rough-and-tumble campaign for mayor like Chicago had never seen before against Bilandic, meanwhile fingering those in the County Democratic Organization that had most stridently opposed her, Ald. Edward Burke (14), Ed Vrdolyak (10) and Fred Roti (1), as the "Evil Cabal". At first her campaign seemed doomed, but an awakening African American electorate was dissatisfied with the Bilandic Administration's effort to provide equal city services to their communities gave Byrne an opening. Then, the Blizzard of 1979, dumping 18.8 inches of snow in two days paralyzed the city (part of a record 89.7 inches that winter), while Mayor Bilandic vacationed in the Caribbean. City government was unprepared for the storm, leaving citizens stuck in their homes and schools shut for days. With only weeks left before the election, voters grumbled all the way to the polls, giving Byrne a razor-thin 51-49% margin in the 1979 Democratic primary (city elections were partisan until 1991) and an 82% majority in the general election.

As mayor, Byrne presided over a rollocking City Council, now managed by the very "Evil Cabal" she had campaigned against. She struggled with fire, teacher and transportation worker strikes, attempted to quell violence in city housing projects by living in the former Cabrini Green Projects for a period of time, and created city tourism by creating the Taste of Chicago (originally ChicagoFest) and approving the first big-budget Hollywood movie to be shot in the city, The Blues Brothers.

But Byrne's efforts would eventually be caught up in the tides of history, as Chicago's African American political awakening continued, leading to Harold Washington's 1983 campaign, which she ultimately lost due to a massive black voter turnout and continued disarray among Democratic party regulars.

She attempted a political comeback, running for mayor again in 1987, but was overshadowed by her old mentor's son, Richard M. Daley, who's unsuccessful mayor campaign attracted press and party machinery attention. The next year she ran against the Democratic Party organization a third time, for Cook County Circuit Court Clerk against Aurelia Pucinski. But her attempts to carry the reformer mantle wore thin, and she lost. Finally, in 1991 she ran for mayor a third time, coming in a distant third behind now-incumbent Mayor Richard M. Daley and Danny Davis.


  • Saint Scholastica High School
  • 1965, Barat College, B.S. Chemistry and Biology
  • University of Illinois-Chicago, M.A.

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