The latest in the series of crises facing Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne's administration could prove the most serious yet. In her one year in office, the resilient mayor, who seems to thrive on the almost steady atmosphere of confrontation that has marked her administration, has survived a transit workers' strike, a teachers' strike, the city's first firemen's strike, and a major fiscal crisis. Some have likened the pattern to that in New York during the first year of Mayor John Lindsay's administration.
But now, for the first time, the reform mayor who once vowed to rid City Hall of corruption finds her office accused of having ties to organized crime. She insists she is "clean as a whistle" and that her accusers are practicing McCarthyist "guilt by association" tactics.
The charge against the mayor is leveled by three of the city's top policemen, who were demoted in a major departmental shakeup last week. They say two of the major's top political aides, who have since resigned, tried to stop a police crackdown on the mob. They charge that mob influence on City Hall from the first ward, the city's key downtown political territory and one with a long history of crime syndicate connections, led directly to their demotions.
Police superintendent Richard Brzeczek insists that the personnel changes were entirely his own decision and that he has kept a daily log to prove it. The mayor agrees that she made no attempt to influence him.
Everyone who has spoken up so far is on record as willing to testify in Cook County grand jury proceedings expected to get under way later this week.
If the charges of obstruction of justice should prove true -- and some of those in a position to know say the amount of evidence suggesting a link between the mob and City Hall is "staggering" -- they could seriously jeopardize the mayor's prospects for re-election three years from now.
In their joint resignation late April 21, the mayor's top political aides said that former acting police superintendent Joseph DiLeonardi, one of the demoted officers, told them he could "blow the lid off" by revealing the things he had been asked to do by the mayor. Also, some local political observers count it significant that the mayor has not specifically denied that her husband and press secretary, Jay McMullen, a former Chicago real estate reporter, had anything to do with the charges.
This looks like a classic example of the influence of organized crime over an appointed public official," says Ryan Emerson, publisher of the Organized Crime Review. He suggests that one small hint of the link may lie in the fact that the mayor and her husband on their recent vacation to Palm Springs, Calif., chose to dine at, "of all the restaurants in town, Sorrentino's -- a well-identified watering hole for Sicilian Mafia who live in and near Palm Springs."
Even if the evidence does not bear out the charges, however, the latest mayoral scandal suggests one more step in the direction of politicizing city jobs and a continuing problem for the police department. That department already has been reorganized three times at the hands of four different superintendents since Mayor Byrne took office last April.
"I think the politicizing of city government was her big mistake," says Milt Racove, a University of Illinois analyst of Chicago political affairs. "She's completely brought down the bureaucracy of professional administrators that Mayor [Richard J.] Daley created. They would have worked for her. . . . People don't mind patronage if you're talking about [workers] on the back of garbage trucks or cleaning streets. But she's politicized both the fire and police departments, the two most important divisions in the government dealing with public safety."
Dr. Racove says he is convinced that Mayor Byrne, whom he has known for years , is personally honest: "If she's involved at all in this thing, it's politics . . . and it could cause her big political trouble."
"This latest event is just another example of an egregious violation of people's expectations for this administration," comments Louis Masotti, director of Northwestern University's Center for Urban Affairs. "Everyone knew it would be feisty and different from the Daley years, but people expected things to be different positive -- not worse in terms of tawdry events."