Jane Byrne

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Jane Margaret Byrne
50th Mayor of Chicago
In office
April 16, 1979 – April 29, 1983
Preceded by Michael A. Bilandic
Succeeded by Harold Washington
Personal details
Born (1934-05-24) May 24, 1934 (age 84)
Chicago, Illinois, United States
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) William Byrne (1956-1959) (his death)
Jay McMullen (1978-1992) (his death)
Children Kathy
Residence Chicago, Illinois

Jane Margaret Byrne (born May 24, 1934) was the first and to date only female Mayor of Chicago. She served from April 16, 1979 to April 29, 1983. Chicago is the largest city in the United States to have had a female mayor as of 2011.

Early political career

Byrne first entered politics to help John F. Kennedy get elected President in 1960. It was during that campaign that she first met Mayor Richard J. Daley. In 1968, Daley appointed her head of consumer affairs in Chicago. Byrne held that post until fired by mayor Michael Bilandic in 1977. After her firing, Byrne launched a campaign to unseat Bilandic in the 1979 Democratic mayoral primary, the real contest in this heavily Democratic city. At first, political observers believed she had little chance of winning. However, a series of major snowstorms in January paralyzed the city and caused Bilandic to be seen as an ineffective leader. This helped give Byrne the edge she needed to win.[1] She then won the general election with 72 percent of the vote--at the time, the largest margin ever recorded in a mayoral election.

Term as Mayor

Although she was a product of the Daley political machine, Byrne positioned herself as a reformer in her first campaign. She won support from "lakefront liberals" and African-Americans in addition to many more conservative whites on the city's north side. Byrne made some progressive moves as mayor, such as hiring the first black school superintendent, and she was the first Mayor to recognize the gay community. She temporarily moved into Cabrini–Green, a particularly notorious public housing development, for a time to bring attention and resources to the high crime rate there. She also effectively banned handgun possession for guns unregistered or purchased after the enactment of an ordinance. This two-year re-registration program effectively banned handgun possession.

Ultimately though, she was a disappointment to many of these reform-oriented constituencies.[2] At the same time she never won over many old-guard "Daley Democrats" with whom she contended for control of the fading Cook County Democratic Party organization. As a result her coalition was an unstable mix of largely incompatible elements and she was ultimately unable to consolidate her position.

Byrne's political tactics as mayor ranged from modern media politics to largely unsuccessful attempts to play boss. She used special events, such as ChicagoFest, to revitalize Navy Pier and Downtown Chicago Theatre. She endorsed Senator Edward Kennedy for President in 1980, but could not stop President Jimmy Carter from winning the Illinois Democratic Primary. She was able to replace Chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, County Board President George Dunne, a Daley loyalist, with her ally Alderman Edward Vrdolyak. However, her attempt to block the election of Richard M. Daley, the son of her late mentor, to the prominent position of Cook County States' Attorney (chief local prosecutor) in 1980 failed as Daley defeated Byrne's candidate, 14th Ward Alderman Ed Burke in the Democratic Primary and GOP incumbent Bernard Carey in the general election.

On Veteran's Day, November 11, 1981, Dan Goodwin, who had successfully climbed the Sears Tower on Memorial Day, battled for his life on the side of the John Hancock Center. William Blair, Chicago's then fire commissioner, had ordered the Chicago Fire Department to stop Goodwin by directing a full power fire hose at him and by using fire axes to break window glass in Goodwin's path. Mayor Jane Byrne rushed to the scene and ordered the fire department to stand down. Then, through a smashed out 38th floor window, she told Goodwin, who was hanging from the building's side a floor below, that though she did not agree with his climbing of the John Hancock Center she certainly opposed the fire department knocking him to the ground below. Mayor Byrne then allowed Goodwin to continue to the top as thousands of people on the street below gave him an ovation and screamed, "Go! Go! Go!"

Later career

Byrne was narrowly defeated in the 1983 Democratic primary for Mayor by Harold Washington. The younger Daley ran a close third, splitting the white vote with Byrne and allowing Washington to win the Democratic primary with just 36% of the vote. Washington went on to win the general election in a racially polarized contest. Byrne ran against Washington again in the 1987 primary but was defeated. She subsequently endorsed Washington for the general election, in which he faced three white opponents.

Byrne ran one more major campaign, a failed bid in the 1988 Democratic Primary for Cook County Circuit Court Clerk. Byrne sought Washington's support, yet shortly before his sudden death in late 1987 the Mayor endorsed Aurelia Pucinski, daughter of longtime Alderman Roman Pucinski, as part of a bid to reconcile with white machine politicians. Pucinski went on to defeat Byrne in the primary and Vrdolyak—by then a Republican—in the general election.

Byrne also ran against the younger Mayor Daley in 1991, but by this time she was very much a marginal figure. Daley's chief rival in that race was Alderman Danny K. Davis, a black politician from the West Side who himself did not pose an especially forceful challenge.

Byrne now lives in the same apartment building she has lived in since the 1970s. Her second husband, journalist Jay McMullen, died of lung cancer in 1992. Her first husband, a Navy pilot, died when his plane crashed while landing at Glenview Naval Air Station. Byrne has one grandchild, Willie. Her daughter, Kathy, is a lawyer with a Chicago firm. Her book, My Chicago (ISBN 0-8101-2087-9), was published in 1992, and covers her life through her political career.

On May 16, 2011 Byrne attended the inauguration of Rahm Emanuel as Mayor of Chicago in a rare public appearance due to health problems she has experienced in recent years. Byrne, David Orr and Richard M. Daley are currently the only living former Mayors of Chicago.

Personal life

Byrne was born Jane Margaret Burke on May 24, 1934. In 1956, she married William P. Byrne, a marine. The couple had a daughter, Kathy. On May 31, 1959, while flying from Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point to Naval Air Station Glenview in a Skyraider, Lt. Byrne attempted to land in a dense fog. After being waved off for landing twice, his plane's wing struck the porch of a nearby house and the plane crashed into Sunset Memorial Park, killing Lt. Byrne.[3]

Byrne married Jay McMullen in 1978 and they remained married until his death in 1992.


  1. ^ Chicago Tribune
  2. ^ Ryan Lizza (2008-07-21). "Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama". New Yorker. Retrieved 2009-04-19. 
  3. ^ "Plane Crashes in Cemetery, Pilot Killed", Chicago Tribune, pp. B1, 1959-06-01 
Political offices
Preceded by
Michael A. Bilandic
Mayor of Chicago
Succeeded by
Harold Washington


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