A post-mortem would be premature, as Lightfoot’s still got a year to go. Maybe she’ll manage to pull the ripcord before hitting the canyon floor. I’m rooting for her.
Yet it’s safe to say that, despite the singular role race plays in Lightfoot’s rhetoric, as a 1,001-uses solvent to be sprayed in all directions, trying to squeeze out of whatever jam she finds herself in, few critics compare Chicago’s third Black mayor (not to forget Eugene Sawyer, though many people, myself included do) to the first, the ebullient Harold Washington, who faced fierce opposition with very few Lightfootian cries of “poor me.”
The mayor who seems most relevant to Lightfoot, alas, is Jane Byrne. Like Lightfoot, Byrne was female. Like Lightfoot, being mayor of Chicago is the only elective office Byrne ever held. And as to whether Lightfoot will also serve a single term and be shown the door in favor of someone who can actually do the job, time will tell.
Until then, WTTW is debuting an hour documentary Friday, “Jane Byrne,” kicking off the new season of its “Chicago Stories” series. It’s a solid introduction to Byrne for those who might be unfamiliar. Even those well-schooled in her story — I read her fine autobiography, “My Chicago,” and wrote her obituary for the Sun-Times — will find new nuggets they hadn’t known before.
In 1960, Byrne was a young military widow. Her husband, a Marine pilot, had crashed approaching what was then the Glenview Naval Air Station. Plunging into campaign work for fellow Catholic John F. Kennedy, Byrne came to the attention of Mayor Richard J. Daley, who found her a role in his administration.
Her presence was supposed to be a sign of mid-1960s progressivism. The trouble with Janie Byrnes — as Daley called her — was that she didn’t resign herself to being window dressing, proudly displayed in her sinecure as the commissioner of sales, weights and measures.
Instead, Byrne took her job seriously.
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