I was fortunate my first assignment to cover Chicago City Hall in 1978 occurred at the same time that Jane M. Byrne, the former Chicago commissioner of Consumer Services announced her candidacy for mayor against Mayor Mike Bilandic and the Chicago machine.
Byrne, who died Friday, looked to be a longshot. I have written much about her career online (www.TheMediaOasis.com). But Jane Byrne was a dynamo earning the nickname “Fighting Jane.”
Byrne was motivated to run for mayor because of revenge against the “Cabal of Evil Men” whom she identified as Ald. Ed Vrdolyak (a convicted felon), the surviving and brilliant Ed Burke, and the late representative of the Chicago mob, Ald. Fred Roti.
Vrdolyak, Burke and Roti, Byrne alleged, had corrupted Bilandic, who became mayor after the death of Richard J. Daley.
No one believed Byrne could win. Burke blew her off saying she was like is aunt. Vrdolyak scoffed. Roti just took orders. And Bilandic fumbled through one of the worst-run campaigns for election I have ever seen in 40 years of covering Chicago politics.
Bilandic’s stumbles were driven by his failure to deal with a record snowfall that hammered Chicagoland at the end of 1978 and early 1979. Instead of removing snow, Bilandic gave a sweetheart deal contract to his former deputy mayor, Ken Sain, who produced a 90-page report ($1,000 a page) that basically said when it snows, shovel it.
Bilandic continued his tumble, ordering the CTA trains to skip past black inner city stops to get white voters back to their homes. Most were suburbanites. Black commuters simmered as they watched train after trains speed past while they froze in the bitter January arctic chill.
Then, Bilandic promised to remove snow from the white neighborhoods, announcing a plan to shovel neighborhood streets urging homeowners to park their cars in local parking lots so the plows could race through. But the snowplows dumped the snow in the same parking lots, burying the parked cars.
Next, as the snow crippled O’Hare Airport and brought it to an unprecedented standstill, Bilandic and his socialite wife, Heather Morgan, stood at O’Hare Airport and accepted an award claiming that O’Hare was one of the best run airports in the country. Behind the Bilandics, as they posed for pictures, were mounds of luggage and stranded commuters who were stuck at the airport for days.
Byrne got the support of Mike Royko, whose columns gave her the 30,000 votes that helped put her over the top in the election.
After winning, the humiliated aldermen bowed, fearing the new mayor would strip them of privilege, clout and perquisites.
Byrne tapped Aldermen Bill Lipinski, Marty Oberman and John Aiello to run her administration. But the trio stumbled so badly, Byrne cut a deal with Vrdolyak to take their place.
All the reforms Byrne promised went out the window. Byrne allied herself with the same cabal that ran Bilandic’s failed administration, including the controversial housing kingpin, Charlie Swibel.
Byrne took her rage against the media focusing on me because I was from the Southwest side, “Daley Territory,” believing I was his ally. Her attacks against me were unprecedented and relentless.
The pinnacle was when her husband, Jay McMullen, threatened to punch me in the nose, pushing my career into the media stratosphere, which I loved.
Yet, I have to say with sincerity, we miss you Jane Byrne. You deserved far more respect than you received.