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News Mon Nov 17 2014

Jane Byrne, the Bold Mayor

Jane Byrne in the 1985 Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade. Photo by Alan Light.

Jane Byrne was a fighter.

She was sacked by Mayor Michael Bilandic from her position as the commissioner of consumer sales, weights and measures and then ran against him and went on to defeat The Machine and become Chicago's first and only female mayor.

After she was defeated in the mayoral primary in 1983 she ran for mayor two more times, losing the primaries both times.

Byrne, who died on Friday morning at the age of 81, was a woman who loved her city and strove to improve it.

Ultimately everything she did was part of a grand idea to make Chicago great again. Under Byrne, filming of movies and TV shows resumed, beginning with The Blues Brothers. There are now numerous shows and films shot in the city and Blues Brothers has become one of the films most often associated with the city.

Byrne also started Chicagofest, which eventually became what we know today as Taste of Chicago. She also launched Jazz Fest, which still occurs in Chicago. She oversaw the efforts to breathe new life in to Navy Pier, which has turned it into the attraction it is today.

Most notably, she moved into Cabrini-Green with her husband Jay McMullen to draw attention to the violence plaguing the public housing buildings in the city. Although it is still debated as to if it was a PR stunt, what Byrne did was show that she cared about an area of the city some Chicagoans tended to only discuss in whispers as an place synonymous with terror.

Byrne was, like all leaders, flawed. She inherited a city that was in shambles, a budget in the red. She tried to cut cost-of-living raises for city employees, who then went on strike. While she was mayor she handled three strikes from teachers, firefighters and Chicago Transit Authority employees.

Furthermore, Byrne, who prided herself on beating "the whole goddamned Machine single-handed," eventually ended up making deals with the Machine as her term as mayor went on.

Byrne proved that a woman could be elected mayor of a major United States city in the 1970s and that an underdog could win. Even though she was mentored by former mayor Richard J. Daley, she was the underdog in the 1979 election. As the city's first female mayor she faced scrutiny and attacks a male mayor might not have faced. Due to the problems that occurred while she was mayor, she earned the nickname "Calamity Jane," which was not even the harshest nickname.

Regardless of how Chicagoans feel about her, Byrne changed Chicago and left a lasting imprint on the city some may not realize. Although it wasn't until recently that she received some form of a tribute from the city and state -- the plaza around the Water Tower is named after her and the Circle Interchange is now the Jane Byrne Interchange, among other tributes -- the daring ideas she had to reinvent Chicago into a world-class city still stand. Richard M. Daley will be remembered as the mayor who elevated Chicago to that level, but Byrne was a bold mayor who dared to revitalize a city she loved.

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