NEW: Jesse Jackson Sr.: Jane Byrne "broke the mold" of "male-dominated 'machine' "
Byrne was Chicago's mayor for one term, from 1979 to 1983
She was known for signing gun control legislation, serving during city strikes
"She was never dull; an indelible part of Chicago history," David Axelrod says
Former Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne – the first and only woman to lead the city – has died, the city’s current mayor said Friday.
She was 81.
Byrne ousted Michael Bilandic, the man who succeeded legendary Mayor Richard J. Daley, in the Democratic primary in 1979. She went on to win Chicago’s top job until being defeated in the 1983 primary by her successor, Harold Washington.
“The city of Chicago has lost a great trailblazer,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement. “Mayor Byrne was a Chicago icon who lived a remarkable life of service to our city.”
Byrne grew up in the Windy City aspiring to be a doctor until John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign turned her toward a career in politics, according to a bio on the website of the Cook County, Illinois, clerk’s office.
Byrne headed Chicago’s Department of Consumer Affairs during parts of Daley’s administration but fell out of favor among some Democratic powerbrokers in the mid-1970s.
Still, her upstart campaign managed to defeat Bilandic, whose popularity had sunk over complaints about the city’s handling of a crippling 1979 snowstorm.
Highlights of her lone term in office include signing the first ordinance to get handguns off city streets, creating the Taste of Chicago food festival and increasing transparency on budgetary matters, Emanuel noted. But there were rocky times as well, including strikes by transit workers, schoolteachers and firefighters in her first year.
Wherever she went, Byrne left an impression.
Chicago-based civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. remembered her as a “tough and tender” woman and “consumer advocate who ‘broke the mold’ of the male-dominated ‘machine.’ “
And David Axelrod, who went onto become a top adviser to President Barack Obama, recalled how he “often parried with Mayor Jane Byrne” back when he was a reporter on the City Hall beat.
“She was never dull,” Axelrod tweeted. “An indelible part of Chicago history. RIP.”