Two one-term female mayors, wrestling with the same problems 40 years apart. One mayor recognized for important contributions such as a condominium ordinance that protected consumers from a condo-conversion stampede. The other, likely to be remembered as uncompromising.
20-Mar-23 – Let’s look back on how this writer remembers Jane Byrne, Chicago’s first female mayor, who was elected in 1979. When Byrne challenged then-Mayor Michael Bilandic in the Democratic primary, experts said she would have little chance of winning, even after she hired famed Chicago journalist and political consultant Don Rose as her campaign manager.
A Bilandic campaign memorandum described Byrne as “a shrill, charging, vindictive person – and nothing makes a woman look worse.”
However, an act of God – the Chicago blizzard of 1979 – paralyzed the city and caused Bilandic to be seen as an ineffective snow-removal leader.
Then, Jesse Jackson endorsed Byrne, boosting the Black vote, and thousands of snowed-in North and Northwest Side Republican voters cast ballots in the Democratic primary to beat Bilandic with a victory tally of 51 percent (412,909 votes) to 49 percent (396,194 votes).
That’s much better than Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s weak 17 percent primary total in 2023 against Paul Vallas (34 percent) and Brandon Johnson (20 percent), who are headed for a runoff on April 4.
In 1979, Byrne won the general election with a whopping 700,874 votes (82.1 percent), the largest margin ever tallied in a mayoral election. Like Lightfoot, Byrne only served one four-year term. However, “Calamity Jane” did much good for Chicago.
Because there were rampant and unregulated consumer abuses by real estate developers and condo converters, one of Mayor Byrne’s most important contributions was enactment of a tough condominium ordinance in March 1979. Some 50,000 rental units had been converted to condo ownership over the previous four years during the “Mondo Condo Era.”
Byrne introduced two wide-ranging ordinances designed to provide new consumer protection and restrain the condo-conversion stampede. As an award-winning real estate editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, this writer was asked by Mayor Byrne to contribute ideas to the proposed ordinances.
“The changes in the condominium ordinance that I am proposing today have been drafted to protect all Chicagoans from being cheated out of having a voice in where they wish to live,” Mayor Byrne said in 1979. Byrne, a political disciple of Mayor Richard J. Daley, was the city’s former Commissioner of Consumer Sales from 1969 to 1977.
Escaping Condo Jail, a 600-page book authored by Realtor Sara Benson and this writer in 2014, reported that the mayor’s strengthened Chicago Condominium Ordinance requires the following:
• Tenants are given the right of first refusal and the opportunity to buy a building slated for conversion by matching the purchase price of a condo developer.
• The developer must provide prospective buyers detailed reports of any planned improvements to be made by the developer by the time tenants are notified of an impending conversion.
• Tenants must receive a six-month notice – increased from four months – before they are forced to buy or move out. The grace period for senior citizens and handicapped people was extended from six months to seven months.
• Developers must provide warranties for repair or rehabilitation work on common areas of a building for the first two years after a conversion, and for the first year on individual units.
Experts say the key part of the toughened ordinance was the requirement that developers provide an engineering report detailing the mechanical condition of the property and a list of proposed repairs. The consumer protection outlined in the statute continues to rank Chicago’s ordinance as one of the best condo laws in the nation.
In 1981, Byrne and her husband, Jay McMullen, the City Hall reporter for Chicago Daily News until 1978, moved into the crime-ridden Cabrini-Green public housing project on the Near North Side after 37 shootings and 11 murders occurred there during a three-month period. Byrne ordered the Chicago Housing Authority to evict 800 tenants who were harboring gang members in their apartments.
Byrne also made inclusive moves as mayor. She hired Ruth B. Love, the city’s first Black and first female school superintendent. She hired Samuel Nolan, also Black, as head of the Chicago Police Department.
Byrne was the first mayor to recognize the gay community and declared the city’s first official Gay Pride Parade Day. Byrne also was the queen of festivals. She created Chicago Fest and Taste of Chicago. She encouraged filmmaking in Chicago, inviting John Landis to shoot The Blues Brothers in the Windy City.
However, Byrne was edged out of office in the 1983 Democratic primary by Harold Washington, who grabbed 36 percent of the vote. Byrne got 33 percent, and rising star Richard M. Daley posted 29 percent. Byrne was beaten again by Washington in the 1987 primary, when he received 53 percent of the vote to her 46 percent.
Byrne passed away on November 14, 2014. Her contributions to Chicago were recognized in 2014 by the naming of the Jane M. Byrne Interchange at the junction of the Kennedy and Eisenhower Expressways, and the naming of the Jane M. Byrne Plaza surrounding the historic Chicago Water Tower on North Michigan Avenue.
Now, let’s review Mayor Lightfoot’s dismal track record, which got worse in her last year in office. The “Invest South/West” plan to rebuild neighborhood retail corridors likely will be her legacy.
But what about failing to deal with under-funded police and firefighter pensions, rampant crime, street riots, carjacking, and hundreds of gang murders across the entire city? Ironically, Byrne wrestled with many of the same problems 40 years earlier. Here are two of Lightfoot’s biggest mistakes, in the opinion of this veteran writer and other critics:
• The wrong casino site. Despite approval of Bally’s $1.7 billion River West casino proposal by the Chicago City Council, there is continued skepticism about the deal. Questions still linger about the largely secretive selection process, lack of review, and quick passage of the deal, with Bally’s paying a $40 million deal-closing fee.
42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly said Lightfoot’s attempt to rush the casino deal through the City Council raised the specter of former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s infamous parking meter deal, which also was rammed through with little transparency and even less debate.
A much better choice for the casino site would have been at “The 78,” a swath of vacant land on Roosevelt Road at the Chicago River.
• The NASCAR Plan. Giving the green light to the NASCAR racing event that kicked “Chicago’s Game” – 16-inch softball – out of Grant Park is a disaster felt by thousands of Chicagoans who value access to the Windy City’s green front yard. This faulty idea likely will shut down Museum Campus during key summer weeks, and totally juggle dates for the Taste of Chicago and the city’s blues and jazz festivals.
If Paul Vallas wins the election as expected, kicking NASCAR out of Chicago should be at the top of his action list, following crime control and schools.
So, where do we go from here? Anyone with half a brain realizes we need a new, visionary mayor to lead Chicago into the future. Mayor Lightfoot was not the answer because she failed to compromise and get along with her adversaries to move the city forward.
Whoever is elected the next mayor of Chicago must work to compromise with all the various interest groups and find a common ground to dig the city out of its monumental problems of race division and gruesome gang crime.