CHICAGO MAYOR JANE BYRNE'S TRIAL BY FIRE
Chicago — By everyone's measure, including her own, the first year of Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne's administration has been one filled with crises. There have been three major strikes by city workers. The city and the school board faced severe cash shortages stemming from questionable accounting practices that forced budget cuts and new borrowing. The US Justice Department is contemplating court action to desegregate the city's schools. And a rapid series of personnel changes at City Hall, including most recently the mayor's dismissal of the city fire commissioner and the planning chief (just as the latter was about to take office), have led to charges that she puts political loyalty above quality. Critics say she is running a "revolving door" administration.
Indeed, many Chicagoans, used to the relatively quiet times of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley, confess they have found this year's chain of events somewhat exhausting.
Jane Byrne is not among these. In an interview in her spacious office on the fifth floor of Chicago's massive City Hall, the mayor said she does not like the term "exhausting."
"This year had a lot of surprises that took a lot out of me," she says. Most of them were financial. Mayor Byrne says she suspected during her mayoral campaign that the city had income difficulties because it was selling property to meet payroll needs. But she says she had no idea of the depth of the problem.
Shortly after her inauguration last spring, she says she had to borrow money for the city to meet a midsummer employee payroll. She then trimmed the work force by 1,500 and drew up an "austere" budget for 1980, including a tax boost plan to pay off the accumulated deficit over the next five years.
That shock, or "fiasco No. 1" as she calls it, was further compounded in November when past mismanagement of school board funds also came to light, and she was asked to help rescue the schools from the brink of bankruptcy.
"It was like being handed a hot bomb," she recalls. "The school board is the product of the state and not my responsibility. But in this town if something goes wrong, everybody says, 'Why doesn't the mayor fix it?'"
A rescue package involving Chicago bankers and city and state governments was devised. And Mayor Byrne says she thinks the disclosure of the problems and development of a plan of action to meet them will stand as her administration's strongest asset when the record is examined.
Noting that financial experts from Chicago's business community have been hired by the city to help out and that an internal monitoring system to warn of any future difficulties now is in place, she feels that Chicago is well on the road to restoring its reputation as a soundly run, financially strong city.
In the mayor's view, many of her troubles were inherited from past administrations. And most Chicagoans, according to a poll taken a few months ago by the Chicago Sun-Times and WMAQ-TV, agree with that view.
She says a city official warned her, even before her election, that a transit strike was virtually inevitable because there was not enough money to supply the cost-of-living hikes called for in the workers' contract. She argues that the compromise outcome, settled by binding arbitration, was worth the inconvenience of the strike.
Chicagoans were similarly well served in the end, she says, by the outcome of the firefighters strike. Though many union leaders have been sharply critical of what they see as a frequent "break labor" stance on her part, she insists that she is a "pro labor" liberal but that Chicagoans have a right to a "pro citizen" mayor.
Of the string of personnel changes in her administration, she says only that it is customary with any new chief executive to bring his or her own team aboard -- "the new broom sweeps clean." Chicagoans, she says, are simply not used to administrative change after 21 years under Mayor Daley.
Chicago's black community, which played a major role in electing Mayor Byrne, has criticized her for not appointing more blacks to top city positions and for not paying more attention to the special needs of minorities.
The mayor counters that she has launched the Department of Neighborhoods promised during her campaign and has appointed a number of blacks to key positions, including leadership of the Chicago Transit Authority, health services agency, and police board. She charges that the media has not covered or featured some of her strongest contributions in this area. She has pledged to try to recruit a black superintendent of schools for the city.
From outside critics the mayor's first year in office draws mixed reviews:
* Martin Oberman, an independent alderman who initially was optimistic about Mayor Byrne's prospects, gives her a "very poor" rating on her handling of labor disputes and argues she is reaping undeserved credit for laying city financial difficulties bare. "I think there's been just as much book-juggling now as in past administrations," he says. In his view the mayor's greatest strength was winning the election, showing Chicagoans that it is possible to defeat the machine "if you care enough."
* University of Illinois urbanologist Pierre DeVise is critical of the mayor's "revolving door" policy on personnel -- "It becomes irrelevant as to whether the appointments are good or not." However, he applauds in particular Mayor Byrne's handling of city labor disputes.
"Time will tell if [Mayor Byrne's approach] is going to be effective," he says, "but she at least made a strong stand for holding the line not just against demands for wage increases but also with respect to the work ethic in city government."
* Louis Masotti, director of the Northwestern University Center for Urban Affairs who headed Mayor Byrne's transition team, says that her handling of fiscal crises over the last year is probably her greatest success. But Dr. Masotti sees a great need for a stronger focus on goals and long-range planning for Chicago.
"The real question is, where are you taking us, Mrs. Byrne? I don't think she has an answer," he says. And he sees the need for leadership to inspire public confidence and "pull the pieces together -- this city has had enough conflict."
Mayor Byrne, who lives in a high-rise downtown condominium near Chicago's posh Water Tower Place with her husband, Jay McMullen, a newspaper reporter currently on leave to serve as her press secretary, has been variously described as tough, fiesty, and flamboyant. She insists that none of those adjectives accurately describe her -- "I'm a very quiet worker -- really I am."
She contends that the media invents and repeats the terms in the search for more dramatic stories.
"They used to be able to write about Daley being in a violent mood or pounding on the table," she says. "They're trying to create a new Daley with me , and I'm not a Daley. . . . If they want to build a new image, that's fine but it's not me."
She credits the late Mayor Daley as being her political mentor, although she first became active in politics during John F. Kennedy's 1960 presidential bid.
Mayor Byrne had originally planned to become a medical doctor. But she says a line in a Kennedy speech inspired her to work for his campaign.
She had been married only a year or so when her husband, a Marine Corps officer, died in a plane crash. John Kennedy observed in an address that those in the armed services who die in peacetime serve their country just as surely as those who lose their lives in a war.
Mayor Daley first really noticed her, she says, when she and her then infant daughter, Kathy, were sitting in the presidential box at the Air Force-Army football game in the fall of 1963.
"The box had the Seal of the President, the White House waiters, -- the whole bit," she says."The mayor, who was sitting about 100 rows up, was friendly, tipped his hat, and did his normal political 'How are you?' As I knew him later, he was a very nosy, curious individual, and I'm sure he wondered 'What the devil are that girl and her baby doing in that box with all those important Chicagoans?'"
She says she had met Mayor Daley before and that he had always been cordial. But sometime after the game when they met at a church function, he asked why he kept seeing her in so many places and suggested, after hearing her assets praised by a church leader, that she stop by his office. She dismissed it as "talk." But when his office called to firm up an appointment, she decided he had meant what he said.
After her talk with Mayor Daley, she began serving in rank-and-file positions , eventually accepting posts as the city's consumer affairs commissioner and co-chairman with Daley of the Cook County Democratic Party.
It was only after she was fired from the consumer job by Daley's successor, Mayor Michael Bilandic, in a dispute over a hike in taxi fares, however, that she decided she would enter the mayoral primary.
Mayor Bilandic was the Democratic organization's choice for the job. But as mayor he had disappointed many Chicagoans by not keeping city streets clear of heavy snows. Mayor Byrne, who was convinced that she had much more going for her than the well-publicized failing of her opponent, recalls that from the day she decided to run, "I never thought I'd lose."
Her husband and daughter, she says, were not nearly so sure and occasionally were "patronizing" about her efforts because they were sensitive to criticism from the Democratic Party organization. At one point she offered to withdraw "only because I knew how badly it was affecting them," but both promptly vetoed the idea.
Although Chicago Democrats traditionally have gone to national party conventions uncommitted, Mayor Byrne broke the pattern by endorsing Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts last fall.
Only two weeks earlier she had announced at a fund-raising dinner staged on her behalf that she would "without hesitancy" support President Carter's renomination if the election were held at that time.
She insists now she was a "Kennedy person" from the start and that President Carter should have been under no illusions that she was ready to endorse him. She had sharply criticized his policies or the lack of them on federal aid to older US cities at the US Conference of Mayors last spring in Pittsburgh. But by midsummer the President had made several Cabinet changes and in effect promised to do better as a national leader.
Since his popularity was at a low ebb, Mayor Byrne says she called Jack Watson, now President Carter's chief of staff but then the assistant for intergovernmental affairs, offering to help, if it would, by inviting the President to appear as guest speaker at her October fund raiser.
"I told him -- it's an awful statement to make, but I'm saying it with humility -- that I don't need to have him come for this dinner, but if I can help him now that he seems to be trying to change, I will try. I will rev it up for him and put on a big show and we will see where it goes.I made it very clear in advance that this was a promo."
She says that the President called her back within two minutes to say that he would gratefully come. No effort was spared at the event to pump up enthusiasm for him.
"I spent $85,000 to decorate, which I didn't need to do. I'd have had my 10, 000 people without it -- and we even had a foghorn on the Delta Queen we built that we could blow to try to get the crowd revved up. But [she snaps her fingers] nothing. The man was cheered lightly and that was it."
When contacted by The Christian Science Monitor, Mr. Watson replied, "We did not solicit the invitation and were pleased when the mayor extended it. It was a large and successful political event. . . . And I think it is fair to infer that it was to be beneficial both to the President and to the mayor."
The mayor insists her decision to support Senator Kennedy was further confirmed during a visit she had with the President during that trip. In addition to a wistful "if I had my way" comment she says he made a about the direction of Justice Department activities, he at one point asked her advice about a problem, saying, "What can we do about this, Jane?"
"I wasn't being smart," she recalls. "It slipped out of my mouth to say, 'Well, it sounds like a question of leadership. . .' And then I thought, now look at what I've said. I mean I forgot. He was the leader."
She says now in retrospect that even though Senator Kennedy lost in the March Illinois primary she is not at all sorry she supported him. Indeed she insists that if the election were held today in Illinois, she thinks the results would be "like New York" with a much stronger Kennedy showing.
As for her failure to deliver the expected Democratic Cook County support for Kennedy and for the Democratic organization's state's attorney candidate Edmund Burke (who was running against Mayor Daley's son Richard for the party nomination), she says that she thinks the party machine's existence since Mayor Daley's illness in 1976 has been more myth than fact.
"If I had believed it [the vote-delivering strength of the city's party organization] I would never have run against it in the first place. I think this idea that the machine is up there is a myth that people perhaps for security want to believe. But it's kind of like 'the emperor's new clothes.' It isn't there. I haven't got it, and I don't think anybody has. We lost the whole ticket the year Mayor Daley died. We didn't deliver for Carter [in 1976] or for Mayor Daley's best friends."
Will she run again? Most definitely. "I'm going to stay until I make it truly the city that works."
If Mayor Bilandic is remembered for what he did not do about Chicago's blizzard, Mayor Byrne clearly appears determined that she will be remembered for what she did do to expose and amply water Chicago's cash drought in the winter of 1979 and 1980.
She expects the city's reduced bond rating to recover over the next three years even as more orderly bookkeeping practices and auditing safeguards are being built in.
As to the future, Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne is taking aim at traditional descriptions of Chicago as an oversized Midwestern town, US railway hub, and the hog butcher of the world.
"They're not good enough," insists the mayor of the nation's second largest city. "Look at it realistically. The stockyards have been gone seven or eight years. We can't keep clinging to Carl Sandburg. We have to look for a new image for the '80s."
Pointing to Chicago's cultural assets, from museums to the widely respected symphony, and its lakefront view, the mayor suggests that there is every reason, with proper promotion, for the city to become a major tourist center. Currently the Windy City enjoys a reputation as a convention center and a good place to work, she says, rather than a great place to visit.
"I'm not knocking those images, but they're not putting us up as a star anywhere," she says.
The mayor also admits she is eager to see Chicago develop more of a reputation as an international trade and business center. One major step in that direction, she says, is the planned building of a new international terminal at O'Hare International Airport. And the city is quite ready in her view for a stepped-up international role.
"No matter what people say about the financial difficulties Chicago faced this year, we're no New York," she says. "And we'll be in good shape by the end of the year."