Monday, December 08, 2008

Jane Byrne and the Cabal of Evil Men

I first met Jane Byrne before Thanksgiving in 1978 at a meeting of the “Bogan Broads” — that was their name and they were proud of it — at a hotel in Burbank across the city’s Southwest Side border.

The former Commissioner of Consumer Sales and favored cabinet member of her mentor, the late Mayor Richard J. Daley, Byrne wore a long, tattered overcoat and wig.

She spoke of “reform” and making Chicago schools “more accountable” to parents in addressing the all-white coalition of women who fought busing and were often castigated, unfairly, as being racist.

No one wanted to cover Byrne at the small community newspaper where I worked. I was the newspaper’s City Hall reporter — also a job no other reporter wanted because the mayor, at the time, Michael Bilandic, was considered “boring.”

I wasn’t bored. I wanted the assignment. I chased Byrne around the city from stop-to-stop.

No one believed Byrne could win. Ald. Ed Burke, accused of being a member of a “Cabal of Evil Men,” predicted before the Feb. 27, 1979 Democratic Primary that Byrne would lose because “no one wanted their aunt” to be the mayor.

Other members of the Cabal included Ed Vrdolyak, whose slippery days ended recently with his felony corruption confession. Vrdolyak is headed towards jail, where he will be forgotten. Another was Fred Roti, the kind and gentle alderman of the notorious 1st Ward, then under the grips of the Chicago Outfit.

I remember Byrne coming to City Hall and the reporters yawning. But I ran downstairs and wrote down her quotes and turned in a story.

I still have my reporter’s notebooks with notes and a collection of audio cassette tapes of her press conferences covering the first three years that she eventually served as mayor. Byrne shocked the world and defeated Bilandic and the Chicago Democratic Machine.

Although Bilandic should have won, Mother Nature had other plans, delivering a crippling snowstorm just before the primary that exposed how poorly the city was being run. I attended a precinct captains meeting at the Bismarck Hotel, where Bilandic compared himself to Jesus Christ and the precinct captains to the Disciples. He said he was being persecuted by the anti-Christ who was, back then, columnist Mike Royko.

I remember chasing County Board President and Party Chairman George Dunne through the Bismarck with a herd of 45 reporters and camera crews knocking down coat racks and tables, and bruising knees and ankles trying to get a quote from him.

Everyone expected Byrne to change the city. She started to change, but with a vindictive flare that was truly vindictive and not simply thrown her way because she was a woman.

Byrne was mad at Morgan Finley, who had planned to hire her former reporter and current husband, Jay McMullen, but was forced to renege on the deal under pressure from Bilandic and his chief aide, Tom Donovan. I wrote that story, and McMullen threatened to punch me in the nose. I see Donovan driving around these days in a big car with his wife shopping in Orland Park, where I now live.

By late 1979, Byrne abandoned reform for power, fearing her rival Richie Daley, the late mayor’s son. She joined the Cabal, which led her on the road to defeat four years later, opening the door to the city’s first African-American mayor, Harold Washington.

Byrne should be remembered. Despite much controversy, she did some good. (Visit RadioChicagoland.com to read online the 20-year profile I wrote about Byrne for the Chicago Reader.)

Thanks to Ray Hanania

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