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Friday Flashback: Mayor Jane M. Byrne

By Prescott Carlson in Miscellaneous on Apr 3, 2009 9:50PM

Believe it or not, there was a time in the 70s and 80s when a Daley wasn't running the city of Chicago. We broke some barriers during that time period, too, when we saw the first African American mayor, Harold Washington, elected as well as his predecessor, Jane Byrne, who was the first and only woman to serve as Mayor of Chicago and was elected on this day, April 3, in 1979. Byrne was no stranger to Chicago politics when she ran for office -- while working to help get John F. Kennedy elected in 1960, she met Mayor Richard J. Daley and in 1968 Daley made Byrne the head of Chicago consumer affairs. She kept that job until Mayor Bilandic -- who took over after Daley's death in 1976 -- fired her. Byrne apparently took the firing personally, and started campaigning to beat Bilandic in the mayoral primary. With the help of Bilandic majorly botching the city's handling of the Blizzard of '79, Byrne defeated him and went on to win the general election.

Some of the more notable moments of Byrne's term in office included her trying to cancel ChicagoFest, a food and music festival at Navy Pier started a year earlier by her predecessor. After reversing her decision due to public outcry, ChicagoFest carried on and morphed into the big, hot, mess that is Taste of Chicago. Byrne also conducted a publicity stunt in 1981, where she moved from the Gold Coast into the crime-riddled Cabrini Green housing project. U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, who was an alderman at the time, called it an "absolutely, unequivocally" political move, and that it's an "insult as though blacks are totally ignorant." On the plus side, Byrne is seen as the first Chicago mayor to recognize the city's gay community, and in 1981 she made "Gay Pride Parade Day" official.

Byrne's reign only lasted one term, and she was defeated by Washington in the 1983 primary. Byrne ran again in 1987, and for Cook County Clerk in 1988, but lost both elections. Byrne has been lying low ever since, living in the same building she's occupied since the '70s. She did, however, turn up in a Chevy commercial in 1995: