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Chicago After Daley Tue Dec 10 2013
The believed reason as to why Jane Byrne won the 1979 mayoral primary is almost the stuff of Chicago legend. Not too long before the primary, a large blizzard occurred in Chicago and the city did a terrible job of responding to the blizzard, largely in the form of not plowing the streets. The next month, Byrne won the primary with 51 percent of the vote, defeating then-Mayor Michael Bilandic and then won the mayoral election in April 1979 with 82 percent of the vote, becoming the city's first and only female mayor.
Why Byrne won is actually rooted in reasons much deeper than Bilandic's administration doing a horrible job responding to the blizzard. Bilandic was the first post-Richard J. Daley mayor and as a result, the Chicago government was in shambles.
Byrne positioned herself as a candidate outside of the machine, although she was actually very much from the machine. Byrne became the commissioner of Consumer Sales, Weights and Measures under Daley and, according to the book Fighting Jane by Bill and Lori Granger, he called her "Janie." But Byrne was able to position herself as being outside of the machine and since Bilandic fired her from her position, it was a little bit easier for her to position herself as an outsider.
The reality is at the end of the 1970s the Democratic machine was largely in shambles because of Daley's death. The blizzard probably helped her win because it showed the city how ineffective of a leader Bilandic was. In essence, the city that works stopped working under Mayor Bilandic.
The fact that Chicago has stopped working while Rahm Emanuel has been mayor could hurt him in the 2015 election.
The first example of Chicago not working would be the Chicago Teachers Union strike. There are plenty of people in Chicago who will and have placed the blame on Emanuel and Jean-Claude Brizard, who left the position of Chicago Public Schools CEO right after that strike, for the strike occurring. Quite a few people look at what happened with that strike and feel it is entirely Emanuel's fault the strike happened, resulting in cancelled classes for CPS students.
However there are also people who will argue the strike was the fault of the CTU instead of the CPS. Even when you think no one argues a certain point, it's always safe to assume there's at least one person arguing the point opposite to yours.
There were also the school closures, which wasn't so much an example of Chicago not working as something that cannot be spun positively no matter how hard you try.
And then there's Ventra. There certainly are plenty of people to blame for Ventra, but the colossal mess still occurred while Emanuel was mayor. People might blame Forrest Claypool, the head of the Chicago Transit Authority, for the Ventra problems, but Claypool is an Emanuel appointee.
Ventra problems are also inescapable for most Chicagoans and have snarled the commutes of many. At the end of the day, plenty of Chicagoans will argue the school closings or murders didn't affect them. Those issues affected the Chicagoans who live in areas too many people forget about.
As a result of the problems the city has faced, a good challenger to Emanuel in 2015 could defeat him if they use the problems against him. This was something brought up by the Reader's Ben Joravsky in the immediate aftermath of the school closures. As he pointed out, Byrne was the ultimate underdog, someone completely dismissed by City Hall, but she ended up triumphant.
The problem is there has to be a good candidate against Emanuel. There were people who ran against former Mayor Richard M. Daley, but he served as mayor of the city for 22 years and everyone knows he did quite a few infamous acts as mayor.
The key difference is although Emanuel has had some poor timing with ski trips, he's ultimately very media savvy, something Bilandic was not after the blizzard. This is a man who was the subject of a rather positive cover story in TIME right after the CPS closed a record number of schools. When asked about Ventra, he responded that Cubic would not receive a penny until Ventra worked properly. As Joravsky mentioned, the mayor gave a comeback people viewed as clever when asked about the routes students had to take to get to class.
When the public confronted Bilandic with outrage over the poor response to the blizzard, he compared himself to Jesus about to be crucified, according to Fighting Jane. Emanuel isn't prone to sticking his foot in his mouth like previous mayors, which is why it would be very difficult to defeat him.
It's also worth remembering Byrne was only mayor for one term. Her career as mayor was essentially made up of well-intentioned ideas that didn't work well. This is a mayor who decided to draw attention to problems at Cabrini-Green by moving into Cabrini-Green. As you can imagine, it didn't do much in the long run. It's entirely possible Byrne was lucky when Bilandic tripped over himself in the wake of the blizzard, or it might have been the unexamined possibility of her getting quite a bit of help from her husband, journalist Jay McMullen.
At the end of the day, there is quite a bit that could hurt Emanuel's image. He is, however, an established politician who is very good at fundraising and maneuvering through the media, particularly on a national level. It would take an unbelievably good candidate to make things that seem like blips really damage him.