Her mark on Chicago is here. Just not in writing. Yet.
Her mark is visible most conspicuously on snowy days when city officials stand before television cameras with sweaty brows answering questions about crews and salt and overtime. It is visible up and down Chicago boulevards as residents wait impatiently for the snowplow. It is visible, in white, during the perennial event that awakens City Hall like no other: It's snowing!
Yes, snow and Chicago will forever be linked to Jane Byrne. The city's first and only female mayor is best known for turning an incumbent's default into her victory, clinching the 1979 mayoral primary in one of the city's greatest political upsets. She beat machine-backed Mayor Michael Bilandic because he couldn't get the streets cleared fast enough during snowstorms leading up to Election Day.
That touchstone of Chicago history forever changed this city's expectations and especially its mayors' responses to snowstorms. Vast resources are dedicated each year to salting and plowing in a way that has spoiled Chicagoans. The demand now is quick service or else. A slow response incites swift and relentless criticism. Indeed, Mayor Rahm Emanuel tested his own fate in January when he left town for a vacation while the snow piled up and school got canceled. He returned with a suntan.
Ouch. Risky move. Emanuel and every mayor after Byrne has known — always will know — that snow can turn an election.
Byrne's mark on Chicago is felt in other ways. She was the feisty outsider who didn't get along with her boss, Bilandic. He fired her from her post as commissioner of consumer affairs for speaking out against corruption. Then she got mad and ran against him.
"I'm not going to sit back here and take this," she said to a college student who interviewed her before the 1979 election.
A protege of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley, she ran the city for the next four years with ... imprecision. Teacher, firefighter and transit worker strikes paralyzed city government. Chicago was divided by race. Violence was increasing. And the City Council was headed for its own polarizing Council Wars.
With all the unrest, Byrne lost the next election to Harold Washington. She ran for Circuit Court clerk in 1988 and again for mayor in 1991 against then-incumbent Mayor Richard M. Daley. She lost both contests but remains a fixture of Chicago politics — and legend — to this day.
So now, 31 years after she served as mayor, she will make one more mark on Chicago. This one will be in writing. Chicago Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed, Byrne's former press secretary, had started this year's civic conversation about honoring the former mayor.
The City Council agreed Wednesday to name the park surrounding Chicago's historic Water Tower the Jane M. Byrne Plaza.
It's only fitting: Cook County renamed a Chicago court building and an adjacent plaza for Mayor Richard J. Daley shortly after his death in 1976. The James R. Thompson Center was dedicated in 1993. The General Assembly renamed a state building for Bilandic in 2003. Washington has a library. George Dunne has a golf course. Even the late Maggie Daley is getting a park.
It's time to add Chicago's one and only woman female to the list of honorees.
Her daughter, Kathy, said her mother, now 80, is battling health conditions but very much appreciates the tribute alongside the famous Water Tower.
"It goes back many, many generations that my family was in that area," her daughter said. "My great-great-grandfather, who was the first of my forebears to come to Chicago, lived in that area during the time of the Chicago Fire (of 1871). And the Water Tower is a survivor, and my mother is a survivor and Chicago is a survivor."
Keep the plaza plowed for her, City Hall, and it will serve as a double honor.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun