News & Politics » Ben Joravsky on Politics

The lessons of Jane Byrne

Even in Chicago, an unknown on a kamikaze mission can end up winning the mayor's office.



For many reasons, I've been thinking about former mayor Jane Byrne a lot lately.

Part of it is a general feeling of nostalgia brought on by Roger Ebert's death. When I moved to Chicago 30-some years ago, Ebert was at the top of his game and Byrne was our mayor.

Another part of it has to do with the video clip, now circulating online, of Mayor Byrne singing during an Easter celebration at Cabrini-Green in 1981 and being heckled by a group of protesters. I'll say this about Byrne: I can't in a million years imagine either Rahm Emanuel or Rich Daley being so, oh, uninhibited. For better and for worse, she was one of a kind.

Finally, Jane Byrne has been on my mind because of a piece last week by my man Mick Dumke, who surveyed the political scene to see if someone—anyone—is willing to run against Mayor Emanuel in 2015.

As you can imagine, the pickings are slim because so many politicians are afraid of Emanuel and his money. As one operative put it: "If you put your dick on the table, they'll cut it off."

Nothing like a dose of Rahm to break the reverie of nostalgia.

Another elected official—who also wanted to remain anonymous, since no one wants Rahm to know they're analyzing his political viability, though they all are—told Mick that only a politician on a "kamikaze" mission would dare challenge the mayor.

I, for one, maintain that Cook County board president Toni Preckwinkle could mop the floor with Mayor Emanuel should she choose to run against him. But she says she's focused on reelection and isn't out to be mayor. So we'll have to take her word for it.

Please, Toni, please . . .

Anyway, what we have here is Chicago's version of a political catch-22. Any politician with the name and standing to take on a powerful mayor knows it's crazy to take on a powerful mayor. And since no voter wants to vote for a crazy person, they vote for mayors whose policies they don't like—which is even nuttier than voting for a crazy person.

That brings me back to Jane Byrne, because there are a few parallels between the Chicago of today and the one that existed in 1978 when she announced her bid for mayor.

Now, as then, we're in the aftermath of a regime of a mayor-king named Daley. In this case it's Richard M., son of the first, who opted not to run again. Apparently, he ran out of assets to sell off.

Back then, of course, the Daley was Richard J., who died in office in 1976. Afterward the City Council selected 11th Ward alderman Michael Bilandic to replace him. That was despite the fact that under the city's rules of succession, an open mayor's seat should be filled by the City Council's president pro tempore—in that case, Alderman Wilson Frost.

But Frost was black, and the white aldermen felt Chicago wasn't ready for a black mayor, so they talked Frost into becoming chairman of the council's finance committee in exchange for supporting Bilandic.

Black activists and politicians assailed Frost as a Judas who sold out his people. "We come out of a heritage of slavery," said Congressman Ralph Metcalfe. "We come out of a heritage of servitude. It isn't going to be easy working that heritage out of our blood."

In the current era, former mayor Rich Daley and his brother William teamed with President Obama to engineer Mayor Emanuel's election.

I'm not going to say Mayor Emanuel is much like Mayor Bilandic, who was an ineffectual politician. But they have this in common: an arrogant indifference to protests in the black community.

And yet, despite opposition to Bilandic's policies, only Byrne was willing to make the kamikaze run against him in 1979.

On the surface, they don't get any flakier than Byrne. She'd never held any elected office. She'd served as commissioner of the city's consumer sales department until Bilandic fired her. Lots of politicos wrote her off as a woman scorned.

"Over at the Hall, they were amused and contemptuous of Jane Byrne's lonely race against the power of the Machine," Bill and Lori Granger wrote in their book Fighting Jane. "Alderman Eddie Burke told his captains that Jane reminded him of his Aunt Bessie, always fussing. . . . When they met together with their shiny suits and big cigars, they made jokes about the 'menopausal bitch' who was going through her change of life in public."

She showed them. Bilandic's inability to clear the snow during the blizzard of 1979 obviously worked against him. But I contend that the roots of his defeat went deeper, especially in the black wards that went overwhelmingly for Byrne. Apparently, lots of voters never got over things like the humiliation of Wilson Frost.

And Byrne proved it's possible for a relatively unknown politician on a why-not mission to beat an incumbent mayor. At least it happened once.

At the moment, it doesn't look it will happen again anytime soon. At least not with Mayor Emanuel ensconced at City Hall. He looks so unbeatable that his black City Council allies remain in the fold, even as he closes dozens of schools in their communities. Just last week Alderman Anthony Beale—one of Emanuel's most loyal backers—helped the mayor pull a move so slick it would have impressed the Daleys.

He did it during a meeting of the council's education committee, after Stacy Davis Gates, the political activities director for the Chicago Teachers Union, testified that the closings would hit hardest at poor, black communities. Beale asked her what concessions the union might offer to free up the money to save a few schools.

As she paused to think, Alderman Beale, clearly enjoying himself, hummed the tune played on Jeopardy while everyone's waiting for questions to be answered.

The next day the union packed a bunch of reporters on a bus and took them to the south and west sides so they could see firsthand how far children would have to walk to get to their new schools. When the reporters went to ask Mayor Emanuel about the new routes—past vacant lots, drug dealers, and junkies—he was ready to pounce.

"What I won't accept is when people are asked, 'What's your alternative? What's your idea?,' and there's silence," the mayor said.

The papers were filled with accounts of Mayor Emanuel's witty comeback. And not much was written about the long walks those kids will have to make.

Brilliant move, Mr. Mayor. Set them up like a bowling pin. I'm sure you won't forget Alderman Beale for making it all possible.

One last thing about Mayor Byrne. Near the end of her first and only term, she made two controversial school board appointments that helped ignite the movement that led to her defeat by Harold Washington.

Interestingly enough, many black aldermen still endorsed Byrne over Washington on the grounds that there was no way—absolutely no way—a powerful incumbent could lose again. Those aldermen were swept out of office along with Mayor Byrne.

It's one more bit of history today's politicians might want to remember as Mayor Emanuel moves on with his plans to close all those schools.

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