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Jane Byrne's legacy: She was a good mayor

Jane Byrne's legacy: She was a good mayor
Chicago Tribune photo.

Former Chicago Mayor, Jane Byrne passed away Friday morning. She may not have been the best mayor Chicago ever had. Chicago was not the best city for politics when she was elected.

The death of Richard J. Daley should have liberated the Chicago City Council from being a rubber stamp to a functioning body. There was a weak mayor, Bilandic, who did not really have the power to reign over the alderman.

Unfortunately, the city council was in turmoil. By the time they figured out what to do, Bilandic was gone and Byrne was mayor.

Jane Byrne was a confidante of Richard J. Daley. Like others, she probably knew who had skeletons in their closets and where political bodies were buried.

She rode a blizzard into office and created firestorms during her tenure. A supposed reformer, upon election, she made nice with the powers that be in the City Council. She also made alliances with the powers in commerce and industry who have great sway in what goes in in Chicago.

Her abrasiveness, short temper, and impatience may have done her in. Into her third year, when she should have been sailing toward a second term, she manged to alienate whole blocs of voters, especially the African American community, which voted in greater numbers at the time. She also neglected the emerging Hispanic voting bloc.

Mayor Byrne was a product of the Democratic Machine. She knew how the game was played. What she did not know or failed to realize is that to stay in office, one must keep counting votes and building voting blocs. Elections are about arithmetic.

Some claim Byrne was overwhelmed by the office. In reality, she was overwhelmed by the reality of electoral politics. She failed to build an electorate around her. In some cases she burned bridges.

There is no doubt Jane Byrne tried her best to do what is right for Chicago. There should be no doubt that she loved this city. Jane Byrne did fail to do what is politically right for Jane Byrne, positioning herself to get reelected.

During her campaign against former mayor, Michael Bilandic, she connected with the voters. She focused on the bread and butter issues that they really cared about. Once elected, whether it was her personality or the reality of the political atmosphere, she was spending time mending fences or putting put fires.

Back in the 1980s there were several factions which had to be appeased and satisfied. each had their own requirements and needs. Each had their own hooks in the Chicago City Council or other areas of strong interest. There was the Democratic Party, the business, commercial, and industrial interests, big real estate interests, unions, and the Chicago Outfit.

Organized crime in Chicago wielded great power in City Hall and the County Building. There was a story making the rounds that Mayor Byrne could not get a hold of 1st Ward Alderman Fred Roti to discuss some important issue. He was not taking her calls. Rumor has it she or someone close to her called an elderly gentleman in Palm Springs by the name of Accardo. Supposedly Roti called within minutes apologizing all over the place.

During her term, the city was managed well. Basic services were provided. Garbage was picked up, street lights worked, cops, firemen, and paramedics responded in time. Public transportation was good. The city worked for most people.

There were also problems. Budget shortfalls, pension balloons about to bust in the near future, lagging revenues, poor performing schools, crumbling public housing, and high crime with periods on unremitting violence. The police Department was short of manpower too.

Public employee unions were deeply dissatisfied. Teachers, firemen, and others went on strike.

If Jane Byrne had a fault, it was surrounding herself with the wrong people or not taking advice and trying to go it alone. She gave the impression she trusted no one, not even her closest confidants.

Jane Byrne left the city a better place when she left office. That is her grand accomplishment. Something forgotten in all the eulogies and platitudes. She was a trailblazer, a shrewd politician, and projected a strong willed personality.

Like all politicians, she made allies and enemies.

It is a pity after decades in public life, she chose or was thrown into obscurity. It took over 30 years to publicly recognize her accomplishments.

It is hoped over the next week or so, Chicago can celebrate the life of a great woman and a good mayor. Jane Byrne deserves that much.

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