Jane Byrne dies at 81; Chicago’s first female mayor

Jane Byrne obituary
Jane Byrne won election in 1979 and served as mayor of Chicago for one term.
(Carl Hugare / MCT)

Jane Byrne, whose blizzard-stoked victory in Chicago’s 1979 mayoral election made her the city’s first female mayor and who broke the grip of former Mayor Richard J. Daley’s Democratic patronage machine, has died. She was 81.

Byrne died Friday at a hospice in Chicago, her daughter, Kathy Byrne, told the Associated Press. No cause was given.

A career civil servant and political operative, Byrne had never run for office.




Nov. 14, 12:52 p.m.: An earlier version of this post said that Byrne was 80 and born in 1934. According to public records, she was born May 24, 1933, and was 81.


Her administration was marked by sudden policy changes and acerbic rhetoric. Byrne’s decision-making style led the Chicago Tribune’s City Hall reporter to write that she governed with “a whim of iron.”


Byrne’s most famous exploit, which garnered national attention, involved living in the Cabrini-Green Homes, city-owned low-income housing plagued by crime, for three weeks.

Byrne held office for a single four-year term, losing narrowly in 1983 to Harold Washington in a three-way race that included Daley’s son, Richard M. Daley.

The elder Daley, who dominated Chicago politics and patronage for more than two decades, was Byrne’s political mentor. In the 1960s, he appointed her to lead Chicago’s Head Start program, then made her director of the city’s consumer-affairs department.

In that role, Byrne developed a reputation as a scrappy fighter for stricter labeling of meat and other products sold in supermarkets. She put a spotlight on grocery stores that she claimed were gouging customers in the city’s poorer neighborhoods.

In 1979, Byrne mounted a long-shot challenge to Mayor Michael Bilandic, who was elected in a special election after Richard J. Daley died while in office, in 1976.

The months before the Democratic primary in February were marked by heavy snowfalls that crippled the city, toppling the Democratic machine’s long-held reputation for competence delivering basic municipal services. Bilandic’s poll numbers plunged as the snow piled up and Byrne won the primary.

As was customary in heavily Democratic Chicago, the party’s primary is paramount. The general election against a Republican challenger wasn’t close: Byrne received 82% of the vote.

“I didn’t win the election,” she told the New Republic in 1979. “Bilandic lost it.”


Jane Margaret Burke was born May 24, 1933, in Chicago, the daughter of William Burke and the former Katherine Nolan. Her father was an executive at Inland Steel Co. who later owned a warehousing company, Gordon-Burke Steel Inc.

She attended Barat College of the Sacred Heart in Lake Forest, Ill., where she studied chemistry and considered attending medical school, according to a 1975 Chicago Tribune story. In 1956, she married William Byrne, a Marine flier who died three years later when his Douglas A-1 Skyraider crashed while landing in heavy fog at a naval air station in Glenview, near Chicago. The couple had an 18-month-old daughter, Katherine, at the time.

Byrne said she got involved in grass-roots politics as a volunteer for John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign after she heard the candidate make a speech about servicemen who died while training. Mayor Richard J. Daley noticed Byrne and became her political sponsor.

In 1975, Daley made Byrne co-chairman of the Cook County Democratic Central Committee of which he was chairman. She clashed with Daley’s successor, Bilandic, over a rise in taxi fares and in 1977 he fired her from her post at the consumer-affairs department. She accused Bilandic and a “cabal of evil men” of hijacking the Daley legacy and began her long-shot campaign.

After being defeated for re-election in 1983, Byrne lost comeback bids in 1987 and 1991.

Though no longer a political force thereafter, she stayed feisty. In a 2010 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Byrne recalled a time when she was mayor and the comedian John Belushi asked permission to film part of the 1980 movie “The Blues Brothers” in the city. Belushi presented her with a long list of particulars.

“He said, ‘Wait. We also want to drive a car through the lobby of Daley Plaza. Right through the window,’” Byrne recalled. The site houses municipal offices.

“I remember what was in my mind as he said it,” Byrne said. “I had the whole 11th Ward against me anyway, and most of Daley’s people against me. They owned this city for years, so when Belushi asked me to drive a car through Daley Plaza, the only thing I could say was, ‘Be my guest!’”


In 2014, the City Council named the plaza surrounding Chicago’s Water Tower for her.

Byrne was married to Jay McMullen, a former City Hall reporter at the Chicago Daily News, in 1978. He died in 1992.

Miller writes for Bloomberg News.

Get our Today's Headlines newsletter