As the independent Democratic captain of the 56th precinct, 43rd ward, I spent a good deal of Chicago's incredible arctic winter of 1979 banging on doors for Jane Byrne. Byrne was going to do the impossible, beat the Daley Machine and the cozy corruption of City Hall. We were inspired to great acts in her service.
After reading "Fighting Jane," by Bill and Lori Granger, I wish I had stayed inside with a hot toddy. In this remarkable exercise of analytical reporting, the Grangers, both veteran Chicago journalists, explain how the Byrne "rebellion" left things much worse off than when she started. More important, the Grangers detail how suckers like me could have guessed that in advance if only we'd looked at Byrne's record, instead of listened to her promises.
Many have reported that Byrne campaigned as the true successor to Richard Daley, painting lackluster Machine incumbent Michael Bilandic as a pretender. But nowhere before "Fighting Jane" has her actual relationship with the Daley Machine been detailed.
In this political biography, the Grangers explain that, true to her claim, Byrne was a Daley favorite. Her office directly adjoined his, although her official title was insignificant, and she frequently enjoyed his confidences. She was a fierce Machine loyalist. During the 1968 Democratic Convention riots, when berserk policemen clubbed bystanders and accidentally gassed Hubert Humphrey, she vigorously defended Daley's orders. Byrne worked at every turn to deflate feminist and liberal challenges to the "regular organization," as the Machine refers to itself.
Byrne, the Grangers show, was a friend and admirer of alderman Tom Keane, a Machine regular who was resourceful enough to run his ward from a federal penitiary while serving time for illegal real-estate deals.
But when Daley died in 1976, the Machine froze Byrne out. She vowed to get even. If that meant pretending to be a reformer, so be it. In April 1978 she announced that she would run against Bilandic in the February 1979 primary.
The Grangers falter in presenting Byrne's victory as largely the result of her dogged fighting spirit. The weather, not Byrne, beat Bilandic -- before the snow, she didn't stand a snowball's chance.
It is impossible for an outsider to appreciate the severity of the conditions created by the 40-inch snowfall, subzero temperatures, and City Hall bungling. For the two months preceding the primary, snow was everywhere -- unplowed, unshoveled, shellacking the streets into motionlessness. Not two days -- two months. Road-graders and end-loaders to remove the snow were available, but they sat idle in marshaling yards (their owners getting $75 an hour) while ward bosses argued over who should be rescued first. When subway cars began to fail, transit officials shut down stations in black areas, to maintain service to whites. Poor blacks -- the Machine's most reliable source of votes through the years -- trudged to work in numbing cold while carloads of toasty-warm whites roared over their heads.
Things got worse and worse. Bilandic paid a crony $90,000 to develop a "snow emergency plan," whose primary recommendation was to plow major streets first. Even the rank-and-file was furious.
Despite all this, Byrne won only 51 percent of the vote. She didn't unseat the king, she merely happened to be standing in the throne room when he abdicated. (Byrne later won the general election in the traditional Democratic rout.)
The Grangers go on to document how, since taking over City Hall, Byrne has perpetuated the chaos her opponent began. "Chicago became a shambles during the Bilandic administration," they write. "Now, it was becoming a circus."
Her comical vacillations between Carter and Kennedy (Byrne ultimately losing for Kennedy the state Daley delivered to his brother) are the least of Byrne's problems. She hired and fired three police chiefs in one year, striving to discredit the very people she had appointed. By the end of her first year she had fired almost all of her inner circle, replacing the idealists who had sustained the campaign through its darkest days with Machine flunkies. Chicago's bond rating fell from AAA for the first time in memory. Firemen went on a murderous 23-day strike. Transit workers followed. The City That Works, as Chicago likes to call itself, became the City That Walks.
Byrne has failed, the Grangers conclude, because she is a gutsy and able fighter, but fights for no goal or principle beyond her own vanity. Her husband is now her chief advisor and press secretary, joining her daughter (and her daughter's college roommate) on the payroll. Isolated and beseiged by reformers and the Machine alike, "she will be alone, but she will keep fighting," the authors predict.
Maybe -- but not for long. Daley's boy Richie is now the rallying point of Byrne opponents. When Daley lived, he wisely exiled his son to the state legislature in downstate Springfield, so that he would embarrass the Machine as little as possible. But now Richie, the amiable lightweight, has been recalled to bring his father's name to bear against Byrne. He won the Chicago state's attorney post Tuesday, helped, no doubt, by the fact that Byrne oppenly campaigned for his Republican opponent. He will likely run against her in the next primary, with victory all but certain. Chicago will once again be in Daley hands. The authors note the irony: Transforming Richie into a new Boss will be, in the long run, Fighting Jane's most lasting impact on Chicago.