The Campaign To Memorialize Jane Byrne May Bear Fruit

By Chuck Sudo in News on Jun 5, 2014 9:00PM

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Jane Byrne

Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed has dedicated several columns over the past week in an attempt to get the city to memorialize Jane Byrne, Chicago's first and to date only female mayor.

Sneed, who worked for a spell as Byrne's press secretary, began her crusade last week after Byrne's 81st birthday, calling her "the forgotten mayor" and citing a litany of slights from her successors in the subsequent decades.

There have been nine formal mayoral inaugurals since Byrne left office in 1983, and she was asked to attend only three, according to Byrne’s daughter, Kathy.

Although Mayors Harold Washington and Rahm Emanuel graciously invited her to attend their inaugurations, no Chicago mayor since her term in office has made an effort to honor the city’s most famous female footnote in any sort of tribute.

Sneed received a boost in her campaign from Byrne's daughter Kathy who said her mother, now frail, was so overjoyed by Rahm Emanuel's invitation to participate in his inauguration "nothing on earth was going to stop her from being on that stage."

Byrne was not only the first woman to be elected Chicago's mayor. She was also the first non-machine Democrat to be elected Mayor since 1927. She was elected with 72 percent of the vote and won overwhelming support from so-called "lakefront liberals," African-Americans and conservative voters unhappy with incumbent Michael Bilandic, who was facing a hard road to be elected before the city's response to the Blizzard of 1979 sealed his fate.

These days Byrne is probably best remembered for her month-long stay in the Cabrini-Green housing projects as a response to criticism of Chicago Housing Authority's handling of the housing development—a move that was widely decried by Cabrini-Green residents and political opponents as a political stunt. But she also is credited for creating Taste of Chicago on the heels of the old ChicagoFest. Sneed credits Byrne for using ChicagoFest to revitalize Navy Pier into the tourist attraction it is today but failed to mention Byrne only decided to continue the festival after attempting to cancel it. She was the first mayor to recognize Chicago's LGBTQ community and made "Gay Pride Parade Day" official in 1981.

Byrne also inherited a city with a serious financial mess, proving the more things change, the more they stay the same. She attemtped to cut back on cost-of-living increases for city employees early in her mayoralty, which resulted in CTA employees, firefighters and teachers striking in quick succession. She also made political enemies. She successfully ran Ald. Ed Vrdolyak against Cook County Board President George Dunne for control of the County Democratic Party. She backed Ald. Ed Burke against Richard M. Daley in the 1980 race for Cook County State's Attorney and lost.

By the time of the 1983 mayoral election, both Daley and Harold Washington sensed Byrne was vulnerable. Washington made history by being elected Chicago's first black mayor, riding the support of the same lakefront liberals and African-Americans who helped Byrne get elected four years earlier to office while Byrne and Daley split the white vote. Byrne would run failed campaigns for the Democratic nomination for Cook County Circuit Court Clerk in 1987 and for mayor against Daley in 1991 before retiring from the public eye.

Sneed's campaign to have Byrne's legacy recognized carries an air of immediacy. A stroke has left her in failing health and Sneed, even in this uncertain age for newspapers, carries considerable heft among Chicago politicians, who are now coming around to memorialize her, possibly while she's still alive.

Gov. Pat Quinn said he already began the process of naming the Circle Interchange, currently under reconstruction, after Byrne. Burke, the dean of City Council, said to expect several proposals to memorialize Byrne at the next Council meeting June 25.

“Perhaps the international terminal at O’Hare field, which she championed during her mayoralty, could be a fitting structure named in her honor. Besides, Jane’s first husband, William Byrne, was a U.S. Marine aviator killed in a plane crash in 1959.”

Some may find Sneed's campaign to have Byrne honored as a stunt but she does raise several points. We live in a city where the achievements of Mayors Richard J. and Richard M. Daley rarely go unnoticed, with several buildings and plazas named after the family; even Maggie Daley—who never held public office—is having a park named after her. The city's central library isdedicated to Harold Washington and tributes to other mayors abound across Chicago.

Byrne should be remembered by the city. Maybe not as the "trailblazer" Sneed and Kathy Byrne believe her to be, but her election did set a historic precedent that has yet to be matched. In a city where lesser accomplishments are trapped in amber, it's the least our leaders can do.