Paralyzing blizzards set up Mayor Michael Bilandic for defeat, but it was bright sunshine on Feb. 27 that did him in. The fair weather on the day of the mayoral primary election brought out the voters, and the memory of the city's inept handling of record January storms drove them to overturn the Democratic machine. Maverick candidate Jane Byrne won the Democratic nomination.
Byrne's campaign, launched after she was fired from a City Hall job by Bilandic, was dismissed at first as a bid for retribution. But events buried Bilandic.Two huge snowstorms dumped more than 35 inches of snow on Chicago in little more than two weeks, and the city's handling of the blizzards was a disaster. Streets were not plowed, garbage was not collected and mass transit was staggered. Chicago was the city that could not get to work. By Election Day, many voters who had been faithful to the machine were ready to dump Bilandic. Byrne easily defeated a Republican opponent in the general election.
Almost immediately, she spurned the independents who helped her and cut a deal with Democratic insiders, the first about-face in her four-year reign. In just the first year, she battled strikes by transit workers, schoolteachers, and firefighters. Byrne is probably best remembered for moving in the Cabrini-Green housing project in an attempt to quell violence there, but she was also praised for steering the schools through a financial crisis and for appointing a majority of blacks and Hispanics to the school board. She was criticized, however, for another reversal when she replaced two black board members with whites who opposed school busing. Top administrators were hired and fired, seemingly at whim. In the end, Byrne's chaotic governing style overwhelmed the achievements of her administration, but her election showed that the days of automatic victories by the Democratic organization were over.