After several decades of tough political control by the last big-city machine, people here aren't used to the kind of thrills, laughs and suspense that Mayor Jane Byrne is dishing out in City Hall.
Her 10-month-old administration is frantically shoveling its way through a storm of crises of the sort that have plagued other cities, many inherited but still special dynamite in the "city that works."
This is, of course, exactly what many political buffs predicted for the nervy little blonde who thought she could throw open the doors of the roughest, toughest, hairiest-chested smoke-filled rooms in the country and get away with it.
"Chicago is kind of nutty. People say, 'Oooh, she's in political trouble.' Well, that is what happens when you open up a political system," said Mike Royko, Chicago Sun-Times columnist who got famous by taking hard swings at Mayor Richard Daley over the years.
Over the weekend, Byrne staked her shrinking political fortunes on ending a two-week strike by teachers who were upset over missed paychecks and job cutbacks by the debt-ridden school board. She staged a marathon negotiating session and the teachers agreed to return.
The city's firefighters were still threatening to go out, and the city's credit rating had been lowered by both New York rating services: one dropped it Friday for the second time in five months.(Standard and Poor's dropped it from AA to A+ to A-, and Moody's from AA to A.)
Byrne faces still more financial hurdles, labor strife and a threat, through court action, to her continued control of the city's patronage jobs, political analysts here say.
In the glare of these crises, and given Byrne's own acid-and-arrows personal style, her image as the star of a hopeful "reform" campaign has been melting away like the snows of the great blizzard that swept her to an upset victory last year. (The incumbent then, Daley's heir Michael M. Bilandic, had failed to clear the streets.)
Still, Byrne has defiantly taken the heat and held on to the spotlight in a civic drama that has more twists and traumas than a TV soap.
Here are a few recent highlights from the sags of "Chicago":
Polls in January and last week showed the mayor's popularity plummeting and some critics were talking about a recall. But last week's polls also showed that over half the citizens contacted blame either Daley or Bilandic for the city's financial ills.
Indeed, in a remarkable turnaround recently, a former Daley stalwart, Alderman Edward (Fast Eddie) Vrdolyak proclaimed to the city council that, "The city that works was for 20 years the city that juggled its books."
The mayor and the local press were having a bitter feud. Reporters and editorial writers accused her of changing her mind too often, of talking too much and then denying what she'd said, of being vindictive and of hiring incompetent aides. "As amazing a collection of political connivers, wheeler-deelers, misfits, incompetents, and deadbeats as I've ever seen," Royko wrote.
Byrne, in turn, described the press as a pack of male chauvinists in a macho metropolis that "has never accepted a woman as a leader."
A few weeks ago Byrne hired as her third press secretary her second husband, Jay McMullen, a brash, graying reporter on leave from the Sun-Times, who jokes about his past exploits with women. Byrne also had earlier put her daughter into a city job.
It was McMullen who said of his very first press release that the mayor must have been pleased with it "because I wrote it lying right next to her, and if she didn't like it she could have changed it."
McMullen as first told the Sun-Times that his new job would be "a civic assignment for $1 a year," but the Chicago Tribune revealed that Byrne will pay him a full, undisclosed salary as political adviser out of a Democratic party fund that President Carter helped her raise in a visit to Chicago last October. That Carter trip occurred just before Byrne divided local Democrats with what seemed to be a sudden switch of loyalties, when she jumped onto the then-shiny presidential bandwagon of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
Byrne was feuding with several former allies, including black leader Jesse Jackson. Disappointed that she had not appointed a black police superintendent, Jackson called her policies "racist." McMullen countered that Jackson no longer "speaks for a large segment of the black population" and that Byrne had, in fact, appointed several blacks.
Byrne has allied herself with former archenemies from what she once called the "cabal of evil men" who ran the city -- Alderman Vrdolyak and Aldermen Edward (Flashy Eddie) Burke, who is Byrne's candidate for Cook County state's attorney. Burke is running against Byrne's current archfoe, Richard Daley, an ambitious state senator and son of her former mentor, the late mayor. Local Carterites are supporting the young Daley.
The March 18 primary here will be a barometer of Byrne's clout, political specialists point out. If Kennedy loses Chicago, If Daley defeats Byrne's candidate for state's attorney, and if a Byrne aide loses his race for ward committeeman, it will, as one put it, "reflect on her ability to deliver."
The Tribune accused her of operating a "revolving door" for city officials and noted that since she took over, Chicago has had four police superindentents, three commissioners of the Department of Streets and Sanitation, two top assistants, and three press secretaries.
Byrne last month outraged virtually everybody with the way she fired her most respected (some said her only respected) aide, her budget director, for making a $29 million error that raised property taxes by 6.7 percent instead of the intended 4.4 percent. The aide claimed she hadn't fired him, he'd quit, and he said someone else made the error, anyway.
In any case, two weeks ago Byrne abruptly announced that on the advice of her new budget director, she had decided to keep the $29 million because the city needs the money.
"Government by mistake," one irate columnist called it. "Government by hot flash," one old machine politician quipped to reporters.
During an interview in her City Hall office, a portrait of John Kennedy on the wall behind her and a new, smaller desk replacing Daley's massive one, Byrne defended her policies and offered no apologies for her controversial actions.
She blamed past administrations, the political "hate and distortion" generated by various contests to be resolved in the March primary, and the press for most of her difficulties.
She gestured toward the door beyond which local and national reporters laid seige to her office.
"That roomful of press -- they're chauvinistic. If Daley were here, it would be the Boss" -- she slammed her hands together with a loud swack -- "taking action. If a woman does it, it's vindictive."
She said the "octopus" of the schools' financial problems, though not technically the mayor's problem has distracted her from the various programs she promised during her campaign. But she said she has made some strides.
She defended her endorsement of Kennedy over the president with another stinging litany of what she considers Carter's failures and charged that if he is renominated, a Republican can beat him.
She dismissed young Daley as "no threat." He is angry because she took from his ward the patronage jobs that enabled him and his friends to accumulate money and power, she said.
One of her problems is that many of the people who run the city, and especially the city council, don't really want to be free of the rubber-stamp syndrome imposed by the late Mayor Daley's iron hand, she said.
"That's because it was pounded into their heads, you know -- march, march, march."
She emphasized that, contrary to newspaper headlines, she never ran against the machine but only against the "abuses" of Bilandic. Having worked for 10 years under Daley, she said, "I'm not having difficulty working with the organization at all."
Byrne said she is trying to build her own organization, although she seemed hard put to define it. She mentioned community organizations.
"People don't understand the change," she said, referring to the 3,000 city employes she had laid off and the new order. "It's gonna be straight. It's gonna be honest. And it's gonna make a lot of enemies. But if I don't do it, the city will fail."
Anyone would be a fool, or an out-of-towner, to write Byrne's political obituary yet, according to seasoned City Hall watchers. Many say they still prefer "Clamity Jane" to "Bland Bilandic."
The city is basically healthy enough to weather it's financial problems, they add, if Byrne and other leaders can get their act together.
Byrne has three years before she faces reelection, and she still controls the city council, which in Chicago means everything. "She has the absolutely unwavering loyalty of at least 30 of the 50 aldermen," said Alderman Roman Pucinski, Democratic committeeman and former U.S. congressman, "because she control patronage."
The recall effort? Cosmetic," and going nowhere, according to political analysts.
Still, the certainties of the old machine order have gone with the wind of Lake Michigan. And allies and foes alike complain that Byrne has failed to replace it with something of her own.
Daley had collected the garbage and made the trains run on time, they said, but Byrne had raised everyone's expectations by seeming to open up a minefield of long-neglected social issues.
Yet many speculated that her victory had taken her as much by surprise as it had everyone else and that she had no real program or people in mind to back it up.
Byrne not only threw out Daley's knowledgeable aides, but she also disrupted the informal network of collaboration among bankers, businessmen, bureaucrats, the press and others, according to Milton Rakove, a University of Chicago's Democratic organization.
"Nobody knows who to shake hands with anymore," he said.
Now, she finds herself turning to the old pols like Vrdolyak who can make things work, he said.
Don Rose, a key adviser to Byrne during her campaign last year and a longtime reformer and enemy of the Daley machine, said of Byrne: "Her most serious mistake has been this process of thinking out loud, of giving offhand opinions which were subject to change but which are, predictably, taken as gospel."
She has been too insensitive to how things looked, such as the hiring of her husband, Rose added, so that she has sometimes made herself "look foolish."
Her harshest critics go further. They say privately that she is a compulsive liar, even about trivial things, and that she reacts in a peculiarly personal and impolitic way to impersonal or policy disputes, thus making enemies gratuitously.
"She is very bright," said Alderman Martin Oberman, leader of a small independent bloc, who once supported Byrne. "But I think there's an underlying personality disorder there."
Among the trees Byrne has shaken is the one full of Chicago's television and newspaper reporters.
No longer can the City Hall regulars get their scoops by phone from their insider connections. Either the insiders have been booted out, reporters say, or they are in cut don't know what is in her Honor's head.
So the new rituals include what the press calls "the gang bang," in which they herd around, staking out the mayor's office, elevator, limousine or her high-rise apartment on the Loop. They croud around her, bristling with lights, cameras and journalistic venom, challenging her to explain her latest policy reversal.
Accoring to some journalists and the mayor, their taunts and gibes are in part the result of new-found courage that wasn't displayed against the intimidating Daley.
Also under Byrne, the lines between City Hall and the City Desk have become stangely blurred because so many reporters have been on and off the city payroll.
Columnist Royko said, 'Yeah, for a while my attitudes were being influenced by the fact that I was a friend of Jay's [the mayor's husband] for years. And I liked Janey. It's tough to go carve somebody up and then chat with her husband over by the soft drink machine."
Besides, he added, unlike the Daley days, "There are so many other people carping at her. I don't like to run with the pack.
As the drama continued to unfold at City Hall, it seemed the mayor plans to give the pack plenty to chew on.