Monday, November 17, 2014

Byrne gains glory after she’s gone

If ever there was a case of somebody having to wait until after death to gain praise for what they achieved during life, it is that of former Mayor Jane Byrne.

The first, and thus far only, woman to get elected as chief executive of Chicago city government died Friday at age 81 – some 31 years after she lost her re-election bid to Harold Washington.

MUCH HAS BEEN made about the fact that any kind of official recognition for Byrne didn’t come until this year, when the Circle Interchange was officially renamed in her honor. I found it amusing to read in the newspapers this weekend that Byrne’s daughter, Kathy, said Jane used to get a kick out of listening to radio traffic reports telling of rush-hour traffic “backed up at the Byrne,” so to speak.

But let’s be honest. She could easily have passed with relative anonymity, and her funeral service to be held Monday could have wound up a low-key affair that nobody paid attention to.

Is it really the desire of the Daley family to downplay anything involving city government that they can’t take credit for? Or are we Chicagoans just so short-memoried when it comes to our public personas?

Of course, Byrne used to get so much criticism from all factions in Chicago while she was mayor that it probably has taken the passage of so much time before people could think pleasant thoughts about her.

SOMETHING TO KEEP in mind when one keeps hearing over and over about the low approval ratings for President Barack Obama or soon-to-be former Gov. Pat Quinn.

But back to Byrne, who included amongst her achievements during her four years as mayor a stint living in the now-demolished Cabrini-Green public housing complex.

Her time living there stretched anywhere from one to three weeks – and was a response to a rising level of gang-related violence at the complex. It gained attention because the complex was so close to the Gold Coast neighborhood and Near North Side that Chicago likes to think of as being amongst its jewels.

Byrne herself said she was amazed she could look out her Cabrini apartment window and see her high-rise condo and Holy Name Cathedral, yet feel so isolated at the same time.

BYRNE CLAIMED SHE wanted to offer Cabrini-Green residents hope and a sense that the outside world cared about their predicament.

But I also have known many black people who viewed Byrne’s stint as a stunt and they say that she and husband Jay McMullen never really “lived” there – even though in her book “My Chicago,” she recounts a tale of her husband frightening security when he tried to cook dinner in a Cabrini kitchen; only to trigger the fire alarms.

Personally, I’m shocked to learn the complex’ fire alarms worked. But that’s another tale.

Many of the obituaries I have read recall how she “beat” the Machine – only to make deals with the “Evil Cabal” of aldermen including the Eddies; Burke of the 14th Ward and former 10th Ward boss Vrdolyak.

ANYBODY WHO THOUGHT she was friendly with either doesn’t understand the nature of political people – who tend to be envious of each other when the cameras aren’t running.

I recall a moment from my City News Bureau days when, on primary Election Day in 1988, I had to go see Vrdolyak vote. He was already past what turned out to be his glory days, but had hopes he could stage a political comeback by being the Republican candidate for Cook County court clerk.

It was a possibility that Vrdolyak could wind up running against Byrne herself, and “Fast Eddie” arrogantly said he wanted to run against her instead of Aurelia Pucinski because he thought Jane would do something self-destructive. “It’ll be more fun that way,” he said of the former mayor.

Not exactly the feelings of a friend.

ALTHOUGH I ALSO recall a moment talking to a Chicago cop who didn’t think much of the mayor. But when he tried to come up with the line that summarized her, he said, “she’s ugly, but she’s tough.”

Somehow, I suspect Byrne herself would have taken that line as the ultimate compliment.


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