Jane Byrne

Forty-Second Mayor of the City of Chicago (1979-83)

Beating out the incumbent Bilandic for the Democratic nod in February 1979, Jane Byrne stunned more than a few people. She would face Republican Wallace Johnson in the general election, winning with some 82% - the largest majority in Chicago history.1

Byrne had campaigned endlessly against machine politics, promoting her “transition report,” which contained a four year plan for Chicago reform.2 Once she actually got into office, however, she became extremely inactive. Due to this, high hopes for reform would peter out around September of 1979.

The City had fallen into a fairly dire financial crisis, and Byrne ended up turning to the machine men she had berated in the campaign. Through their influence, these men appointed committees and chairmen, and were able to restore stability.3 Alongside that debacle, Byrne began having problems with organized labor, especially the transit and teacher’s unions.

With the city running a deficit of $107 million, Byrne investigates the bookkeeping, and discovers the influence of many interests. Among the City finances, she finds specially marked funds being used for ordinary expenses, hidden deficits, and other shady practices.4 After bringing these revelations to light, she followed through with a balanced budget in 1980, ‘81, and ‘82, finishing ‘83 with a small deficit.

Despite these successes, the negatives in her administration always seemed to overshadow them, with some describing it as a “3 ring circus atmosphere.”5 While most Chicago mayors had risen through the ranks, Byrne was different. She was from a wealthy family, and had little trouble doing whatever it was she desired. She had received an administrative appointment by Daley and co-chairmanship of the Cook County Democratic Committee. Many people just did not know what to do with her. In the end, she simply did not fit the mold of a Chicago mayor. Byrne broke through by becoming the first female mayor, but she was not able to survive more than one term.6

  1. Holli, Melvin G. “Jane M. Byrne: To Think the Unthinkable and do the Undoable.” The Mayors - The Chicago Political Tradition. 3rd ed. Ed. Paul M. Green, Melvin G. Holli. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005. Pg. 168
  2. Holli, 169
  3. Holli, 170
  4. Holli, 174
  5. Holli, 176
  6. Holli, 177
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