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An open letter to Jane Byrne

Mayor Jane Byrne her husbJay McMullen share breakfast Cabrini-Green housing project April 3 1981. They moved for four weeks quell

Mayor Jane Byrne and her husband, Jay McMullen, share breakfast at the Cabrini-Green housing project on April 3, 1981. They moved in for four weeks to quell a gang riot. The former mayor turns 80 on May 24. | KEVIN HORAN PHOTO

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Updated: June 24, 2014 6:09AM

Dear Mayor Byrne:

Happy birthday! Early, I know — you don’t turn 80 until Saturday. But I want to deliver my best wishes ahead of the pack.

Since we live in a cynical age, I must swear, off the bat, I’m sincere. This is no Brutus-is-an-honorable-man take-down disguised as praise. Everybody deserves nice words on her birthday, and you more than most. You’ve already taken your blows. You came from the outside, defeated a sitting mayor who had fired you for criticizing his administration. Yes, there was that timely blizzard, which made your victory seem divinely ordained. But it was also your spunk. Or as you so eloquently put it at the time, you “beat the whole g-ddamn machine single-handedly.”

That you did, that you did. After winning the Democratic primary in February 1979 — the first time since 1927 that the slated machine candidate did not become mayor of Chicago — you crushed your Republican opponent, Wallace Johnson, winning 82 percent of the vote. I haven’t checked all history, but if there is a more lopsided victory here, I’m not aware of it.

Winning the only electoral office you ever held escorted you into a spinning buzz saw. If Rahm feels cocky for surviving one major strike — the teachers — you endured three, one after another, in your first three months in office. You inherited a city awash in debt — jeez, does nothing change? — and so tried to cut back on cost-of-living increases, sparking the ire of city employees, who struck three consecutive months, boom boom boom. The CTA union in December 1979, the firefighters in January 1980 and, in February, the teachers.

Madam Mayor — I can’t call you “Jane,” it feels too familiar and perhaps insulting, and I think you’ve been insulted enough. “Calamity Jane” and “Attila the Hen” and worse in a sexist era, slurs I’d be reluctant to reprint now, but your enemies did not hesitate to say then.

And you made an A-list of bitter enemies.

“An erratic and stormy person, she kept the city quaking during her first administration,” wrote Nobelist Saul Bellow. “Appointees hired and fired without rhyme or reason whirled in and out of the revolving doors.”

That might have been true, but still, anybody Saul Bellow disliked is OK in my book.

What do Chicagoans recall? You began the festival that got Taste of Chicago going. Millions have happy memories of standing in the middle of the street, licking barbecue sauce off our fingers, because of you. That’s something. You started the revival of Navy Pier.

You moved into the Cabrini-Green public housing project. It was a stunt, sure, but not a stunt we’d ever see today. Cabrini-Green is gone, and the poor people who used to live there . . . they’ve sort of vanished, haven’t they? I mean, they must exist, scattered in other places, but as soon as those high-rise projects came down, the city forgot their occupants. You, on the other hand, saw this intractable problem and tried to do something about it. You made it your problem. That took courage.

That it couldn’t be fixed, well, to me that is part of the Jane Byrne Lesson — the point of the story. We love outsiders. We root for David, not Goliath. So outsiders can and do win. But once they get their hands on the levers of power, well, somehow the darn things just don’t work for them — you didn’t invent that. Another outsider who took office a couple years before you did, Jimmy Carter, learned the same lesson, one taught over and over.

I have your phone number and really wanted to call. But you haven’t been in the press at all, for years, and I was reluctant to bother you. I last saw you, three years ago, at Rahm Emanuel’s inauguration, slowly crossing the stage. I did phone your daughter to see if you’d welcome intrusion. She never got back. I get it.

So even though you may have washed your hands of us — and who could blame you? — that didn’t strike me as a reason we should ignore you. You were a pioneer — the first woman elected mayor in Chicago and even now, no larger city in America has elected another. You fought hard and had a quality I admire: you kept fighting. “I will be conquered,” Samuel Johnson said. “I will not capitulate.”

You may think that you’ve been forgotten, erased from history. I know you were unhappy when Mayor Daley tore out your fountain. Maybe he did it to spite you — he’s the type — or maybe a big fountain didn’t belong in the middle of Wacker Drive. But it was there for a while, and Chicagoans still remember it.

I sure do. The night I proposed to my future wife, we were crossing Wacker and stopped at the fountain — dedicated to children, remember? — and did a little impromptu ritual, anointing each other in the water, a kind of baptism of expectant parenting. It worked; the boys are 16 and 18 now. Thanks.

Happy Birthday. Chicago has not forgotten.

Your pal, Neil Steinberg


Twitter: @NeilSteinberg

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