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Jane Margaret Byrne (born May 24, 1934) was the first and only female Mayor of Chicagomarker. She served from April 16, 1979, to April 29, 1983. Chicago is the largest city in the United States to have had a female mayor as of 2009.

Early political career

Byrne first entered politics to help John F. Kennedy get elected President in 1960. It was during that campaign that she first met Mayor Richard J. Daley. In 1968, Daley appointed her head of consumer affairs in Chicagomarker. Byrne held that post until fired by mayor Michael Bilandic in 1977. After her firing, Byrne launched a campaign to unseat Bilandic in the 1979 mayoral primary. At first, political observers believed she had little chance of winning. However, a series of major snowstorms in January paralyzed the city and caused Bilandic to be seen as ineffective at running the city. This helped give Byrne the edge she needed to win.

Term as Mayor

Although she was a product of the Daley political machine, Byrne positioned herself as a reformer in her first campaign. She won support from "lakefront liberals" and African-Americans in addition to many more conservative whites on the city's north side. Byrne made some progressive moves as mayor, such as hiring the first black school superintendent, and she was the first Mayor to recognize the gay community. She moved into Cabrini-Greenmarker, a particularly notorious public housing development for a time to bring attention and resources to the high crime rate there. She also effectively banned handgun possession for guns unregistered or purchased after the enactment of an ordinance. This two year re-registration program effectively banned handgun possession without upsetting Chicago's handgun owners at that time.

However, she was ultimately a disappointment to many of these reform-oriented constituencies. At the same time she never won over many old-guard "Daley Democrats" with whom she contended for control of the fading Cook County Democratic Party organization. As a result her coalition was an unstable mix of largely incompatible elements and she was ultimately unable to consolidate her position.

Byrne's political tactics as mayor ranged from modern media politics to largely unsuccessful attempts to play boss. She used special events, such as ChicagoFest, to revitalize Navy Pier and Downtown Chicago Theatre. She endorsed Senator Edward Kennedy for President in 1980, but could not stop President Jimmy Carter from winning the Illinois Democratic Primary. She was able to replace Chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, County Board President George Dunne, a Daley loyalist, with her ally Alderman Edward Vrdolyak. However, her attempt to block the election of Richard M. Daley, the son of her late mentor, to the prominent position of Cook County States' Attorney (chief local prosecutor) in 1980 failed.

On Veteran's Day, November 11, 1981, Dan Goodwin, who had successfully climbed the Sears Towermarker on Memorial Day was battling for his life on the side of the John Hancock Centermarker. William Blair, Chicago's then fire commissioner, had ordered the Chicago Fire Department to stop Goodwin by directing a full power fire hose at him and by using fire axes to break window glass in Goodwin's path. Mayor Jane Byrne rushed to the scene and ordered the fire department to stand down. Then, through a smashed out 38th floor window, she told Goodwin, who was hanging from the building's side a floor below, that though she did not agree with his climbing of the John Hancock Center she certainly opposed the fire department knocking him to the ground below. Mayor Byrne then allowed Goodwin to continue to top as thousands of people on the street below gave her an ovation then screamed, "Go! Go! Go!"

Later career

Byrne was narrowly defeated in the 1983 Democratic primary for Mayor by Harold Washington. The younger Daley ran a close third, splitting the white vote with Byrne and allowing Washington to win the Democratic primary with just 36% of the vote. Washington went on to win the general election in a racially-polarized contest. Byrne ran against Washington again in the 1987 primary, but was defeated. She subsequently endorsed Washington for the general election, in which he faced three white opponents.

Byrne ran one more major campaign, a failed bid in the 1988 Democratic Primary for Cook County Circuit Court Clerk. Byrne sought Washington's support, yet shortly before his sudden death in late 1987 the Mayor endorsed Aurelia Pucinski, daughter of longtime Alderman Roman Pucinski,as part of a bid to reconcile with white machine politicians. Pucinski went on to defeat Byrne in the primary and Vrdolyak—by then a Republican—in the general election.

Byrne also ran against the younger Mayor Daley in 1991, but by this time she was very much a marginal figure. Daley's chief rival in that race was Alderman Danny K. Davis, a black politician from the West Side who himself did not pose an especially forceful challenge.

Byrne now lives in the same apartment building she lived in since the 1970s with her second husband, Jay McMullen, a former writer for newspapers who died of lung cancer in 1992. (Her first husband died in the Korean War). Byrne has one grandchild, Willie. Her daughter, Kathy, is a lawyer with a Chicago firm. Her book, My Chicago (ISBN 0-8101-2087-9), was published in 1992, and treats on the subject of her life prior to, and including, her political career.

References


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