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Former Mayor Jane Byrne Dies At 81

By Chuck Sudo in News on Nov 14, 2014 6:05PM

Jane Byrne

Former Mayor Jane Byrne has died, reports Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed. Chicago’s first and to date only female mayor was 81, had been in failing health for years and, according to Sneed, was in hospice care for about a week.

Ms. Byrne was elected mayor in 1979 on a wave of voters discontented with the performance of her predecessor Michael Bilandic, especially his response to keeping streets clear during the Blizzard of 1979. The first non-Machine Democrat elected since 1927, she served a single tempestuous term before losing the 1983 Democratic primary to Harold Washington. Ms. Byrne’s mayoralty saw her deal with strikes by CTA employee, teachers and firefighter strikes in succession in her first year. She tried to scale back cost-of-living increases for city employees, and backed unsuccessful attempts by Ed Vrdolyak for Cook County Democratic Party chairman and Ed Burke for Cook County State’s Attorney.

But Ms. Byrne is also credited for laying the foundation for Navy Pier’s transformation into one of Illinois’ largest tourist destinations by staging ChicagoFest there, as well as launching Taste of Chicago. She made national headlines when she moved into the Cabrini-Green housing projects for a month in 1981 in response to criticism of Chicago Housing Authority’s handling of the development. Ms. Byrne mulled an independent run for mayor after losing the primary, ran Cook County Circuit Court Clerk in 1987 and ran for mayor in 1991 before retiring from the public eye.

Ms. Byrne’s daughter Kathy and Sneed (who once served as Ms. Byrne’s press secretary) waged a campaign earlier this year for the former mayor to be memorialized. The City Council approved renaming the plaza around the Water Tower after Ms. Byrne, while Gov. Pat Quinn announced in September the Circle Interchange would be renamed the Mayor Jane Byrne Interchange.

We recommend reading Neil Steinberg's obituary on Ms. Byrne for a more detailed account of her life and legacy.