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Former Mayor Jane Byrne Dies

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Former Mayor Jane Byrne, the first and only woman to serve as mayor of Chicago, has died.

Byrne's daughter, Kathy Byrne, has told family friends her mother died at 10 a.m., resting comfortably at her North Side home.

Jane Byrne was 81 years old.

CBS 2 Chief Correspondent reports the trailblazing Byrne -- who served as mayor from 1979 to 1983 -- was never dull or uninteresting, and fought right up until her death. She was not only the first female mayor of Chicago, but the first woman elected mayor of any major U.S. city.

Byrne had entered hospice care this week, and died of complications from a stroke she suffered in January 2013.

Her declining health kept her out of the public eye for the past couple years, except when the Circle Interchange was renamed the Jane Byrne Interchange. The City Council also recently voted to rename the plaza outside the Old Chicago Water Tower after Byrne, but a formal renaming ceremony was not held before her death.

Purple bunting was hung outside City Hall on Friday in tribute to Byrne.

Jane Byrne at a campaign event during the Democratic mayoral primary race.
Jane Byrne at a campaign event during the Democratic mayoral primary race, Chicago, February 1983. (Credit: Chicago History Museum)

Mayor Rahm Emanuel called Byrne "a Chicago icon who lived a remarkable life of service to our city." Emanuel paid tribute to Byrne as he was dedicating a plaque to the late Mayor Harold Washington -- the man who defeated Byrne in her bid for reelection in 1983 -- at the downtown library named in Washington's honor.

"She didn't just blaze a new trail for women in politics, she blazed a new trail forward for a better future for the entire city of Chicago," Emanuel said. "We remember her, we honor her, we thank her, and we put her entire family in our prayers as a city."

Gov. Pat Quinn called Byrne "a barrier breaker and a role model for countless women."

"Jane Byrne leaves a legacy of tireless service to Chicago that will never be forgotten," he said in a written statement. "Her work on behalf of the city's children and underserved communities has meant thousands of Chicago citizens are better off today because of Jane's heartfelt dedication."

Former Mayor Richard M. Daley, a frequent political rival of Byrne's, called her "a woman of strength, courage and commitment."

"She was a pioneer in public service whose impact on this city will remain for years to come. On behalf of the entire Daley family, I extend my deepest condolences to the Byrne family," Daley said.

Ald. Edward Burke (14th), the dean of the City Council, described Byrne as smart, accomplished and tough.

He led the effort to have the city honor Byrne earlier this year by renaming the park at the Water Tower after her. Burke said Byre brought a new international sensibility to the city of broad shoulders.

"Expansion of the International Terminal at O'Hare rally began under Jane. That economic engine that O'Hare represents was nurtured by Jane Byrne," he said. "The attitude of making the civic part of our metropolitan area a fun experience, with Chicago Fest, and the other festivals, I think did a lot to change the attitude of the municipality."


To elect the first woman mayor of Chicago took an act of God, when a 1979 blizzard brought Chicago to a standstill in the middle of the race for mayor.

"I think it's time to get Chicago working again, for you," she said in a campaign ad that proved the turning point in the election. Byrne easily defeated incumbent Mayor Michael Bilandic, who denied the extent of the problem, claiming city streets were clear when cars were buried in snow.

"You could see it on the faces of everybody she passed. 'Oh, you're Jane Byrne. … I'm going to vote for you," said political consultant Don Rose, who helped Byrne defeat Bilandic in 1979.

Byrne, a product of the Democratic Machine under former Mayor Richard J. Daley, buried the same Democratic Machine when Bilandic mishandled the city's response to a 19-inch snowstorm that crippled the city.

She took office riding a wave of goodwill, and enjoying a wave of citywide support and admiration.

However, the battles she fought and the company she kept – including aldermen she once called the "evil cabal," and a husband who was the proverbial loose cannon – led to a tumultuous first term.

"She could be mayor today, if she had followed a different path," Rose said.

"She was incredibly far-sighted. I mean, she had so many ideas. Some were good, some were bad. She was one of the most original thinkers we've ever had as mayor," said Roosevelt University political science professor Paul Green.

Jane Byrne
Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne at the University of Chicago campus for the dedication of the Storm Sewer Project, February 1982. (Credit: Chicago History Museum)

Byrne started the Taste of Chicago in 1980, and initiated open-air farmers markets; envisioned the redevelopment of the Museum Campus, and a major renovation of Navy Pier as a tourist destination; and was the first to talk about expanding O'Hare International Airport.

"She dreamed great dreams," Green said.

Byrne also temporarily moved into the Cabrini Green housing complex while she was mayor, to focus attention on crime-infested public housing, but her controversial appointments of whites to the Chicago Board of Education and the Chicago Housing Authority negated much of the goodwill she gained, and helped energize Harold Washington's successful bid to defeat her in 1983. The appointments were seen as attempts to win over white voters, but lost her the support of many black voters who had helped put her in office.

She was also damaged by images of firefighters walking picket lines for 23 days, during the city's first and only firefighter strike. Firefighters were furious with Byrne for going back on a campaign promise to give them their first written contract, after they had previously agreed only to handshake deals.

The strike left the city with minimal fire protection and ambulance service for more than three weeks.

Alderman Burke, who already had been on the City Council 10 years when Byrne took office, said if it weren't for the political damage from the strike, he believes Byrne would have had a shot at becoming Vice President.

Byrne lost the 1983 mayoral election, when she and Richard M. Daley split the white vote, and Harold Washington rode a wave of overwhelming black support to take the race with only 37 percent of the vote.

Washington won again in a head-to-head battle in 1987, and four years later, she lost to Daley in the Democratic primary, thus ending her political career.

"Her antagonism and fear of Rich Daley is what ultimately undid her, and I think poisoned the well for any future political activity," Rose said.

Jane Byrne
Portrait of Jane Byrne. (Credit: Chicago History Museum)

Byrne virtually disappeared from public view after leaving office, only occasionally surfacing at events like Emanuel's 2011 inauguration.

It wasn't until 35 years after her own inauguration that the city publicly honored her by renaming the Water Tower plaza after her. Shortly thereafter, Gov. Pat Quinn renamed the Circle Interchange after Byrne.

"I never thought of it, but I sure am not giving it back. My grandson will be able to point up and say, 'That's my grandmother,'" Byrne said after receiving those honors.

To the very end, despite her failing health, she showed off her trademark spunk. As she was walking down the street a few weeks ago, someone walked up to her and said "Mayor Byrne! Mayor Byrne!" and Byrne wondered "How did I ever lose?"

Funeral arrangements have been announced: Services will be at St. Vincent de Paul, 1010 W. Webster, with visitation at 9 a.m. followed by a Mass at 11 a.m. Monday.

Byrne will be buried at Interment Calvary Cemetery.

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